A new America gives Obama hope

US voters are more socially liberal and increasingly concerned with "fairness", rather than simply "freedom".

Think America is all about guns, cultural conservatism and brittle religion? Think again. Think America is split 50/50 between this stereotyped old America and more socially liberal new America? Think again. American values are shifting and shifting fast. In the new America the split is much closer to a 60/40.Old America is being left behind.

In any recent election, a Democrat who proclaimed his social liberalism and had to defend an equivocal economic record would have been routed. Yet, today Obama is competitive in a close race. Clinton was elected as a different kind of Democrat who would be tough on welfare. When he flirted with social liberalism he soon realised he was walking towards an electoral precipice and tacked back to the then centre –"no more something for nothing".

Obama may have many personal qualities but the reason he is not toast in this presidential election is simple: there are not only many more socially liberal Americans than even a few years ago but many Americans have let go of the notion that the only thing that matters is economic success. New America is asking what old Europe has asked for generations: how can we make our society fairer? Americans remain sceptical of the state and fiercely independent minded. They are therefore unlikely to reach for the solutions beloved of old Europe, but increasingly Americans want a better society not a bigger porch.

How do we know this? In 1977, Ronald Inglehart wrote The Silent Revolution. In it he described the generational transformation in American values, as a new post materialist generation was supplanting its predecessor. The use of social psychology to understand core beliefs has since become common place. This year, Cultural Dynamics, who produce the British Values Survey, conducted an American Values Survey. A similar survey was also conducted in 2004.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Cultural Dynamics segmentation at its most reductive, any population can be divided in three based on dominant motivations. Settlers are psychologically conservative and focus more on security, tradition and culture. Prospectors are more aspirant and tend to care most about status and being successful, they can be psychologically conservative or liberal. Pioneers are more likely to be post-materialists, and to think in terms fairness and justice. They are typically more socially liberal.

In the 2004 survey the US remained an outlier among developed nations – its population was more aspirant and focused on wealth creation than any other major industrial nation. Over half were prospectors. Today the picture looks very different. Indeed, less than a third now class as prospectors.  Instead, it is the more socially liberal pioneer that dominates. In the 2012 survey half of Americans class as pioneers.

How did this happen? Undoubtedly, demographic change provides part of the answer, as the ranks of college graduates have swelled and immigration patterns have changed. Younger Americans, Latinos and  most black voters are more likely to be socially liberal than older white voters.  But demographics alone cannot account for this. It seems as though after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Americans suffered from a collective bout of existential angst. The conclusion for many was that the American dream could no longer just be about the riches at the end of the freeway. It had to be about the richness of lives shared while on the freeway.

What does this mean for American Politics? The Cultural Dynamics survey finds that 31.4% of Americans identify as Democrats, 27% as Republican and 30.8% as independents. Of course, Republican identifiers tend to be older and are more likely to be white than Democrats. They are also much more likely to say they are religious.

Overall, independents are very evenly spread across the values groups, the only value that defines them collectively is ‘self directed,’ and this is very much a core American cultural value. Republicans do well amongst the socially conservative settler and less well among pioneers and Democrats do least well amongst settlers but better among prospectors and pioneers.

Both those who identify as right-leaning and moderate Republicans have similar values, they embrace values like "security", "conformity", "propriety" and "tradition", right-leaning Republicans more strongly so. We can also see that the Republicans do pick up a certain kind of socially liberal supporter – libertarians who "don’t do government".

Democrats who identify as right-leaning look very different from those who identify as left leaning. Right-leaning Democrats are more likely to be Prospectors and pick up values like "power" and "visible success", plenty are still socially conservative. But left-leaning Democrats are much more likely to pick up one value above all else – "universalism" – an overarching belief in fairness. Indeed, 42% of left leaning Democrats are drawn from one particular subgroup that might best be described as ultra Pioneers (the most post materialistic and focused on fairness). This group of ultra Pioneers now accounts for a staggering one quarter of the US population and Republicans barely get a look in, gaining just half the support of Democrats from this group.

When Clinton was standing for election, he had to pay far more attention to right-leaning or potential right-leaning Democrats to keep his election chances alive but Obama can "play to his base" because his base is now vast. In fact, Obama’s biggest challenge is to motivate disillusioned left leaning Democrats to vote. If he fails to do this defeat beckons.

Today’s America is more receptive than ever to the social liberalism first proffered by Kennedy and the Good Society programmes of Lyndon B Johnson. "Freedom", always core to the American lexicon, now has to share the stage with "fairness". Old Europe can no longer erroneously content itself with the belief that whilst America owns "prosperity" it owns "fairness". And old Republicans can no longer console themselves with the belief that they represent the silent majority, the real America, because the new America looks very different from the old one.

Nick Pecorelli is Associate Director of Demos. For more on the American Values Survey, follow this link.

Barack Obama waves after speaking during a campaign rally at the BankUnited Center at the University of Miami. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Pecorelli is Associate Director of The Campaign Company

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change