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Is the U.S. turning left?

April 6, 2007 | Page 2

THE RIGHT wing is in crisis--and prevailing political views are trending left.

That's the conclusion of an authoritative survey by the Pew Research Center that shows George Bush's cratering approval ratings are matched by a growing rejection of the Republican Party and many of the central points on the conservative agenda.

These findings are further evidence of a new political climate ushered in by last November's election, which has emboldened opposition to the right-wing orthodoxy that previously reigned undisputed in Washington--and opened up new possibilities for left-wing political debate, organizing and struggle.

The midterm election that broke the Republicans' majority grip on both houses of Congress was an unambiguous rejection of the Bush administration. As New York Times columnist David Brooks correctly predicted several weeks before, "It's clear that this election will mark the end of conservative dominance. This election is a period, not a comma in political history."

Majority opposition to the disastrous U.S. war on Iraq played the leading role in the election, but discontent came to the surface on other fronts, including social issues that Republicans once thought were their bread and butter.

Now, the Pew survey confirms that these ingredients in the Republican election defeat weren't a flash in the pan.

According to the poll, more and more people are identifying as Democrats over Republicans. Just five years ago, the number of people who said they leaned toward one party or the other was evenly split. By this year, the Democrats had opened up a 50 percent-to-35 percent advantage.

This is more a rejection of the Republicans than an endorsement of the Democrats. The Pew survey found that the number of people who had a positive view of the Democrats had declined since Bush took office--but public regard for the Republicans fell three times faster.

But the new political atmosphere is also the consequence of longer-term shifts in public consciousness.

The right's outrage about, for example, equal rights for gays and lesbians isn't shared by the rest of the population, where opinion surveys show a marked liberalization of social attitudes over just the last decade or so. The survey also showed that 59 percent of people favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S.--despite the incessant attacks on immigrants by politicians, law enforcement and employers.

The relentless class war against working people during the Bush years is surely central in a pronounced change in attitudes toward the role of government. As of 2004, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, people told the American National Election Studies that they wanted government to provide more services, even if this means higher spending.

"The conservatives who run today's Republican Party are devoted, above all, to the proposition that government is always the problem, never the solution," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in an article aptly titled "Emerging Republican Minority." "For a while, the American people seemed to agree; but lately they've concluded that sometimes government is the solution, after all, and they'd like to see more of it."

This sentiment is strongest on the issue of health care. According to a Gallup poll, three-quarters of people in the U.S. believe "it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage."

This is a big shift from 2004, when even left-wing commentators commonly concluded from Bush's re-election that we were living in "red-state America."

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ONE CONSEQUENCE of the new political climate is that the 2008 presidential election is likely to be very different from 2004.

In 2004, few Democrats could work up much excitement about John Kerry. He was "Anybody But Bush," even to people who worked hard to get him elected. This time around will be different--millions of people will look to the Democrats with a genuine sense of hope for change.

Most obviously, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign is stirring an outpouring of enthusiasm months before the first primary contest, thanks to his liberal proposals--and the fact that he's the first African American to run for president who has a good shot at winning.

Obama is also emphasizing his antiwar credentials. Likewise, Sen. John Edwards is promoting a national health care plan. Only Sen. Hillary Clinton--the favored candidate of the Democratic Party honchos--seems determined to fill the GOP-Lite mold that the Democrats have used to such pathetic effect.

It's important to look beyond the public image the campaigns are promoting. In reality, Obama and Clinton agree on much more than they disagree, including the Iraq war. While Obama supports setting a withdrawal date, his proposal contains conditions that would allow the U.S. to keep large parts of its present troop strength in Iraq.

The same is true of the war-spending bill that recently passed the Democratic House and Senate. It would allow a large garrison of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq--and it sanctions the new Iraqi oil law written in Washington that would guarantee super-profits to Western oil companies for decades to come, if it's ever implemented.

So while millions of people were thrilled that Congress finally presented an alternative to Bush's Iraq policy, leading antiwar activists, including Gold Star Families for Peace cofounder Cindy Sheehan, denounced the Democrats for funding the war.

"A year ago," she wrote, "72 percent of the troops in Iraq said all troops should come home in 2006, but politicians did not heed their message. How much better we would be if our support included listening to them. Not another drop of blood should be spilled to protect cowardice by both political parties."

Sheehan's comments highlight a willingness of some liberal figures to hold the Democrats to account. This is another facet of the transformed political environment--and it is certain to result in more protest, to judge from the number of antiwar sit-ins and occupations taking place at politicians' offices, Democrats as well as Republicans.

All of these factors--divisions in the political establishment, the Democrats' more confrontational attitude, the impatience of liberal organizations--reflect the changed mood.

Millions of people who felt isolated in their opposition to the Bush agenda up until just before the November election now feel vindicated. They have greater contempt for those who defend the status quo--be they Republicans or conservative Democrats--and a greater confidence that something should be done about it.

This ideological shift opens the way for a discussion of genuine political alternatives and increased activism.

This may express itself mostly in small struggles that may remain little known outside their locality. But it represents the potential for taking new strides in building a grassroots opposition to all the elements of the right-wing agenda that has dominated in Bush's America.

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