Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Evidence for the Shifting (Progressive) Moral Consensus in American Political and Cultural Life

In a posting yesterday (and in previous postings), I note that many Americans seem to be moving towards a tipping point that represents a new moral consensus re: human rights issues and how those issues interface with political considerations.

A number of recent articles make a similar point, citing polls that provide strong empirical evidence that such a tipping point is now occurring in American culture—though it is not being reflected in our political sphere or in the mainstream media’s assessment of political issues. In a recent Huffington Post in article about how left is the new center, Nancy L. Cohen cites results of a new Pew survey on American political values. This study shows a majority of Americans to the left of what has previously been considered the center on a wide range of issues, including abortion and gay rights.

Cohen notes that the Pew survey data contradict the conclusion of some political thinkers and much of the mainstream media that Americans are fleeing the GOP because of its economic stances. The Pew data suggest, instead, that Americans are repudiating the extreme positions the GOP currently takes on social issues.

Despite these findings, even Pew itself is reluctant to conclude that its survey represents a turn to the left. As Cohen notes, Pew reports that the survey indicates Americans’ political and cultural centrism—without noting that “centrism” is an “empty political category” whose substance changes, and that “at this moment, Left is the new Center.”

Cohen concludes that the future of the Democratic party lies in its ability to listen to its constituents on the left: these constituents represent the solid center of the Democratic party now, and demographic indicators indicate that this center is not likely to move right, but left, in the foreseeable future.

Joshua Holland seconds Cohen’s analysis in a recent Alternet article citing a report recently released by the Campaign for America’s future and the media watchdog group MediaMatters.

Holland notes that this report shows that a “sea-change is happening in America's political culture”:

On issue after substantive issue, significant majorities of Americans favor progressive solutions to the nation's problems and reject the right's worldview. That's true whether the issue at hand is taxes, war and peace, the role of government in the economy, health care, and on and on.

Despite these findings, various political groups and the mainstream media persist in speaking of the United States as a “center-right” nation. As Holland notes, the persistence of this mythic narrative about where our political center lies, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, “has very real consequences on our political discourse.” It assures that our discourse is constantly skewed to the right, and provides right-wing thinkers who do not represent the center with gate-keeping and veto power in our political deliberations.

As does Cohen, Holland sees the trajectory of the future tracking left:

What's more, the country's changing demographics suggest that America will continue to be a center-left country in the coming decades. The most progressive (or at least solidly Democratic-leaning) constituencies in the country -- single women, African Americans and other minority groups, young people -- are growing as a share of the electorate, while the "Reagan Democrats" -- older, working-class whites -- who were the backbone of the conservative movement are declining as a share of the population.

One among many indicators (to me) in recent days confirming Cohen’s and Holland’s analysis is what happened Sunday night in New York: at the Times Center, General Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of coalition forces in Iraq, called for a truth commission to investigate the torture that happened there.

As Jack Hidary notes in a Huffington Post article about this event, in the panel discussion following General Sanchez’s statement, journalist Ron Suskind “made an impassioned plea for the restoration of ‘American's moral energy’,” and in an interview with Hidary after this, Rachel Maddow stated, “We have to rescue our institutions and restore faith in them. With every passing day we are hemorrhaging moral energy.”

Hidary notes that this is the first time a senior military officer from the Iraqi theater has called for a truth commission. And in my view, when a general from the Iraqi theater calls for a truth commission to investigate our legacy of torture (while the current administration continues to resist that proposal), something momentous is happening in our nation—a shift in the moral consensus underlying our political and cultural life is clearly underway. And it is tragic that a new administration which came to power with promises of change based on precisely that moral consensus is behind the curve of the people who brought it to power with such strong hopes for progressive change.

In the area of gay rights, that tragedy grows more apparent with each passing day. As Andrew Sullivan noted this weekend in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper,

The truth is that this is a civil rights movement and the president is not living up to his promises. He is ducking the most core civil rights challenge of his times.

And, I would add, he is rejecting the growing moral consensus, based on presuppositions about human rights, of those who elected him to office—and in that respect, he is radically undermining his own platform of progressive change.