2013 has not exactly been an inspiring year on the economic front so far: Between the news of banks too big to prosecute, consumer protection stalled, financial reform thwarted, corporate taxes dodged, privatization pushed, and Social Security attacked, it has been hard to find something to smile about. But then, suddenly, out comes a little ray of sunshine from behind the clouds.
A new Gallup survey  shows significant changes in the way we Americans see ourselves. The big news? We don’t like to call ourselves economic conservatives as much as we used to; in fact, that number is at a five-year low. On top of that, more of us say we’re social liberals.
What’s going on? How did something good happen when everything feels so bad?
After the shattering experience of WWI, Freud wrote about the pervasive discontent and unease with society, and he examined how humans tend to react to these feelings. In facing misery, would we throw in the towel? Would we become more aggressive? Or could we embrace the opportunity to improve our reality and transform our thinking? Freud, it must be said, was not overly optimistic about the answers to these questions.
Today, there’s a widespread feeling of skepticism about the form of capitalism we’re saddled with, which works well for a few and causes the rest of us various kinds of misery. Many Americans are beyond sick and tired of bankers, financiers and political hucksters. We see that crony capitalism is destroying our communities, our democracy, our economic well-being, and the natural world.
But will anything ever change it? I have been writing about economic matters since the Great Recession hit, trying to foster different ways of thinking. Honestly, most days it seemed like what I was trying to say was falling on deaf ears – that smart regulation was vital, that jobs must be our primary focus, that austerity was a foolish and deadly policy, and that, at a fundamental level, we need an economy that will serve society rather than the other way around.
Meanwhile, monopolies flourished, financial fraud ran rampant, deficit hawks commanded the scene in Washington, economic quacks were treated as oracles in the mainstream media, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.
Republicans won big-time in the 2010 midterm election, seizing control of the House and many state legislatures, including my home state of North Carolina, where they are bent on turning one of the most progressive states in the South into Mid-Atlantic Mississippi. Polls in 2010 showed that the number of Americans labeling themselves conservative, especially on the economy, jumped. Things looked pretty bleak.
Relinquishing old ways of thinking is a painful process, and more often not, a slow journey fraught with setbacks and reversals. It’s not easy to examine old assumptions about how we work, view money and allocate power. Older generations were also challenged to change the way they thought about the economy. The Great Depression etched itself deeply into America’s collective memory: The idea that the government had to step in with jobs programs, education, housing, transportation, and research investments in order to save the economy from Wall Street-driven ruin impressed itself on our grandparents. That view held sway until Ronald Reagan came along and convinced everyone that government was the problem, not the solution, and recommended that the wild horses of capitalism be set free.
America became more “economically conservative.” The idea that economic conservatism equals prudence is an old association, dating all the way back to 18th-century thinker Edmund Burke, and it’s one that proponents of reckless free-market fundamentalism took full advantage of. They vigorously repeated the lie that markets can regulate themselves, that they are resistant to fraud, and that things would be fine if the government would just let the capitalists alone. They claimed, ad nauseum, that liberals were financially naive and irresponsible spendthrifts. They more or less got away with this package of deceit until the financial crash, which happened on the watch of a free-marketeer, and one who, by the way, had the worst record on job creation in modern history . That was a serious blow to their mythology.
Gradually it become harder to argue that government should be shrunk to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub because it grew obvious that government intervention and things like unemployment benefits (what economists call “automatic stabilizers”) kept us from plunging into a Great Depression. Slowly, painfully, Americans have begun to see that focusing on austerity and debt reduction is a road to nowhere, and that the economists whose work is frequently cited by proponents of this view doesn’t hold up to scrutiny . We’re gradually getting the message that economic prudence means government making long-term commitments to investing in the kind of robust education, research and infrastructure that our future well-being depends on.
The new Gallup poll reveals that only 41 percent of Americans now characterize their economic views as “conservative,” or “very conservative,” the lowest since President Barack Obama was elected, and substantially lower than the 50 percent who labeled themselves that way in 2010. Thirty-seven percent of Americans now call themselves “economically moderate,” up from 32 percent last year. The percentage identifying themselves as economic liberals has stayed put since 2001, when Gallup started its annual Values and Beliefs poll. But part of this may be semantics – the association of the word “conservative” with “prudence” or “care” in economic matters is hard to shake. Yet the polls suggest that a shift may finally be happening. “Moderate,” at least, is a start. We may see a new notion of fiscal responsibility emerge that doesn’t involve casting people into unemployment and allowing our schools and roads to crumble.
Even conservatives are beginning to rethink what it means to be an economic conservative. They have begun to focus on breaking up the big banks, and a few, as Ryan Cooper reports in the Washington Monthly , are going even further and bringing out their closeted inner Keynesians. It remains to be seen whether or not they can get anywhere with their recalcitrant party, but there is dissent in the ranks.
The link between self-identification and voting is tricky. If you think about it, the fact that the number of Americans calling themselves economically conservative in 2010 increased in the polls might not have been so much a sincere expression of ideology as an expression of discontent with the political and economic status quo, whatever it happened to be. After the election, political scientist Thomas Ferguson noted  in an interview that in periods of turmoil, the prevailing sentiment is usually “throw the bums out.”
“What the election really shows,” Ferguson said, “is not that the parties can’t agree — Democrats and most of the GOP leadership finally agreed on the bank bailouts, for example — but that the American people will not accept the policies that leaders in both parties prefer.”
The Gallup poll also shows that the percentage of Americans describing their social views as “liberal” or “very liberal” has reached an all-time high: 30 percent. That’s considerably higher than the 22 percent who identified that way in 2010. (Thirty-five percent of Americans say they are conservative or very conservative on social issues, while 32 percent call themselves socially moderate.)
Maybe, just maybe, more people will realize that being socially liberal and economically liberal are really the same thing. That wanting gay people to have the right to marry and women to have the right to decide what to do with their bodies are intimately connected with economic equality and the influence of money in politics.
Until then, the idea that Americans are at least trying out new political identifications is a promising trend. It’s up to us on the left to make sure that “economically liberal” has a clear, positive meaning that a wider swath of people can get behind.
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