‘Liberal’ unpopular, but newer ‘progressive’ label gets high marks in poll

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The Democrats’ newest ideological label — “progressive” — has a 67 percent approval among Americans, far higher than the recognized and rejected “socialist” and “liberal” labels, says a new poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

However, the conservative label wins a 62 percent approval from the 1,521 people polled by the Pew, despite Democrats’ prevalence in the education, culture and media sectors, and despite the sympathetic media coverage given during the fall to the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

The progressive label gets a 67 percent approval rating largely because it is still rated positively by 55 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents, said the poll.

The progressive label dates back to the late 1800s, but was subsequently sidelined by Democrats who described themselves as socialists and liberals.

But socialism was discredited during the Cold War, and so there is only one admitted socialist in the U.S. Senate, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. In the Pew poll, socialism gets a positive rating of only 31 percent, and a negative rating of 60 percent.

The liberal label was deeply damaged by the social-policy failures of the 1960s and 1970s. “Liberal” now gets a positive rating of only 39 percent, and a negative rating of 50 percent.

This repudiation prompted many Democrats — including Obama — to subsequently label themselves as progressives. In the House of Representatives, for example, 83 Democratic legislators have joined the progressive caucus. There is no “liberal caucus” group in the House.

However, the still-popular “progressive” term is little recognized by people who are not political activists.

For example, independents gave progressivism a 68 percent positive rating, while also giving “liberal” a 54 percent positive rating, and “conservative” a 60 percent positive rating.

Currently, “progressive” is used by political commentators and academics to describe people who promote expert management of the economy and culture.

Progressives are not opposed to free enterprise or to religion, provided they’re managed by progressive experts. That’s why Obama’s health-sector law doesn’t require government ownership of hospitals or direct federal payment of medical bills, as socialists demanded.

Approval of “progressive” fell one percent from an April 2010 approval rate of 68 percent, according to the poll. That’s too small a movement to suggest a trend. In fact, disapproval of “progressive” also fell a point, from 23 percent to 22 percent.

During the same 20-month period, the positive rating for “socialism” rose 2 percent to 31 percent, “capitalism” fell 2 percent to 50 percent and “libertarian” stayed steady at 38 percent approval, and 37 percent disapproval.

The poll shows a non-ideological public that gave capitalism a 50 percent approval rate, and a 40 percent disapproval rate.

Tea party sympathizers, although labelled by Democratic-affiliated advocates as extremists and radicals, offered a split 71 percent positive and 26 percent negative reaction to capitalism.

The poll also showed the continuing shift toward bloc politics, away from class politics.

For example, college grads had a 53 percent positive view of “conservative” and a 52 percent positive view of “liberal.” But that one percent advantage for the GOP was dwarfed among Americans with only “some college” or just high school credentials, who gave 64 percent and 65 percent positive ratings to “conservative.”

Their ratings for “conservative” were far above the ratings they gave to “liberal,” which was only 54 percent among people with some college experience, and 47 percent among high school grads.

The ratings, however, were reversed among Hispanics who gave higher ratings to “liberal.” For example, Hispanics gave a 67 positive rating to liberal, and only 56 positive rating for “conservative.”

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