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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.