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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses