Why We’re Liberals: The Polls Speak

If Americans overwhelmingly support progressive policies, why are so many of them afraid to call themselves "liberal"? Eric Alterman has an answer.

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It’s hardly surprising that the label “liberal” remains relatively radioactive for many voters given the literally billions of dollars that conservatives have invested in its denigration.

The November 2004 National Election Study—which tries to eliminate the “moderate” option—found that 35 percent of those questioned call themselves liberal, compared to 55 percent who identify as conservative. A Pew poll at roughly the same time found 19 percent liberal and 39 percent conservative, with the balance preferring “moderate.” Then a Democracy Corps poll in January 2006 found 19 percent calling themselves liberal versus 36 percent conservative.

These numbers are practically indistinguishable from the average for the past 30 years (20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative, 47 percent moderate). And yet when “moderates” were questioned by pollsters for Louis Harris and Associates in 2005, they turned out to share pretty much the same beliefs as self-described liberals—they just couldn’t bring themselves to embrace the hated label.

In fact, due primarily to the hijacking of the Republican Party by a coterie of extremist conservatives on issue after issue, a powerful supermajority of more than 60 percent of Americans questioned in these surveys almost always espouse the “liberal” alternatives. And most Americans’ answers, believe it or not, frequently fall to the left of those espoused by many liberal politicians.

These numbers are quite impressive, given all the associations that liberalism has been saddled with of late. As the psychologist Drew Westen aptly observes, the word liberal for most Americans implies “elite, tax and spend, out of touch,” and “Massachusetts.” And yet the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington, D.C., in conducting an extensive set of opinion polls over the past few decades, has demonstrated a decided trend toward increasingly “liberal” positions, by almost any definition.

To offer just a few examples of this liberal-in-all-but-name attitude regarding economic and welfare policy, according to the 2006 survey released in March 2007, roughly 70 percent of respondents believe that the government has a responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves”—up from 61 percent in 2002. The number saying that the government should guarantee “every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep” has increased by a similar margin over the past five years (from 63 percent to 69 percent).

Two-thirds of the public (66 percent)—including a majority of those who say they would prefer a smaller government (57 percent)—favor government-funded health insurance for all citizens. Most people also believe that the nation’s corporations are too powerful and fail to strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest. In addition, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) say corporate profits are too high, about the same number who say that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person” (68 percent).

When it comes to the environment, a large majority (83 percent) support stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment, while 69 percent agree that “we should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies,” and fully 60 percent of people questioned say they would “be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment.”

Regarding so-called social issues, only 28 percent of respondents agree that school boards should have the right to fire teachers who are known to be homosexual, while 66 percent disagree. A 56 percent majority opposes making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while 35 percent favor this position.

These findings reinforce previous polls like that in 2004 by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, which asked voters whether “the federal government should fund sex education programs that have ‘abstaining from sexual activity’ as their only purpose” or if “the money should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives.” The condom/contraceptive option won the day by a margin of 67 percent to 30 percent. Unsurprisingly, a similar number (65 percent) said they worried that refusing to provide teens with good information about contraception might lead to unsafe sex, while only 28 percent were more concerned that such information might encourage teens to have sex.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans even tend to side with liberals rather than conservatives in their attitudes toward religion. According to a 2006 study sponsored by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative of the Center for American Progress and conducted by the firm Financial Dynamism, 67 percent of voters believe that religious freedom is a “critical” part of their image of America, compared to less than three in 10 who believe the Judeo-Christian faith specifically is critical to this image. Only 20 percent of American voters approve of leaders using the political system to turn religious beliefs into action.

In terms of the role that religious and moral teachings should play in public debate about key issues, American voters do not focus on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, and the kind of topics that so exercise conservative Christian leaders. They would prefer to see their churches lead on issues such as alleviating “poverty and hunger” (75 percent), “homelessness” (61 percent), “government corruption” (58 percent), “terrorism” (56 percent), “the environment” (54 percent), and “health care” (52 percent).

Americans specifically reject the conservative Christian desire to suppress science in the service of religious dogma. Eighty percent of those questioned agree that “faith and science can and should coexist. We can respect our belief in God and our commitment to the dignity of every human life by using our scientific knowledge to help those who are sick or vulnerable.” The same overwhelming number endorses the view that “stem cell research can be a force for moral good rather than a moral failing.”

The Bush administration’s mishandling of almost every aspect of its foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq, has led to equally impressive majorities rejecting the fundamental tenets of conservative foreign policy beliefs on behalf of their more liberal alternatives. Despite the historic advantage the president enjoys in defining foreign policy questions, particularly in times of war and high patriotism, coupled with the fact that this is a nation that has “lost” only one war in its 230-year history, massive majorities of Americans sided with congressional Democrats in their 2007 showdown with Bush over ending the Iraq war without victory.

In January 2007, for instance, Bush faced what Bloomberg News termed “record disapproval” of more than 60 percent for his policy of continuing the war as well as “the broader war on international terrorist networks.” Just about the only support for Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy could be found within the confines of the Republican base, which continues to constitute approximately 28 to 33 percent of Americans questioned. While most Americans continue to understand that war—sometimes even the threat of preemptive war—can be necessary under certain circumstances, barely four in 10, according to the Pew poll, were willing to trust the conservatives in the Bush administration to make the right decision on whether to begin one.

Each one of the positions espoused above—and many, many more that I lack the space to enumerate—fall firmly into that part of the political playing field of positions claimed by people routinely denigrated in one way or another as “liberals.” Why, then, are less than a third of these people willing to own up to the label?

Well, there’s an answer, but it’s long and complicated and it just so happens there’s a new book that contains it and much, much more, including a really cool Tom Tomorrow cover illustration and tons and tons of data designed to help liberals win any argument imaginable. The bad news is you’re going to have to going to have to read it if you want the answer to the question above. The good news is, you can get it just by clicking here.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, has just been released by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

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