Restoring Public Trust

Why are liberals so unpopular? Daniel Yankelovich, a leading analyst of public opinion, believes that liberals can once again play a vital political role–if they take public rejection of their policies more seriously.

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In the aftermath of the midterm election of 1994, the Republicans are repeating the same mistake the Democrats made after the 1992 election. Then, the Clinton administration misinterpreted its narrow win over George Bush as a mandate to create the kinds of programs liberal Democrats historically support. It wasn’t until the stunning defeat of the Clinton health care bill, followed by the 1994 election, that the administration realized its error.

The Republicans are busy making the same kind of mistake. They, too, have misread their electoral victory as a blanket endorsement of conservative Republican values and now find themselves entering the 1996 presidential campaign far to the right of the electorate, giving Bill Clinton a real shot at re-election–an unlikely prospect just a few months ago.

More importantly, liberals have a second–desperately needed–chance to repair some of the damage done to their moral authority. For many voters, the “L-word” has become a term of contempt. And, if current trends continue, liberalism as we know it could self-destruct.

A liberalism in total disarray is not good for the nation: A weak left makes for an irresponsible right. Liberal values, which a majority of the electorate continues to embrace (as distinct from specific liberal policies), grow endangered.

In the past, liberalism has made irreplaceable contributions to the nation: helping to create the American middle class, lifting millions out of poverty, and developing humane social policies. There is no inherent reason why a redeemed liberalism cannot make equally valuable contributions in the future.

By “liberalism” I simply mean the values, views, and policies that people who consider themselves liberals or progressives generally support. From Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, liberalism has meant greater concern for the problems of poor people and workers than with the interests of rich people and employers. Since the 1960s, liberalism has also emphasized environmental protection, expanding individual rights based on need, and advancing the interests of women and minorities.

Liberalism’s greatest strengths are its three core values:

*Inclusiveness. Liberals extend their world beyond their own family, community, and ethnic group to include a wide range of “others”–have-nots, minorities, the homeless, people with disabilities, people from other nations, and even the earth itself.

*Social justice. Liberals believe a civilized and humane society ensures its weaker and poorer members are treated fairly.

*A positive role for government. By and large, liberals see a strong government as a counterbalance to special interests and as a restraint assuring that an economy based on maximizing profits does not trample fundamental human needs.

Over the years, liberals have attempted to translate these values into legislation through an array of policies: entitlement programs that guarantee benefits to all who qualify; regulations covering everything from clean air and water to protecting the rights of people with disabilities; and affirmative action programs designed to give an edge to women and minorities to compensate for existing prejudices and past wrongs.

These policies trouble an ever-increasing number of Americans. But the reason is not that they reject liberalism’s underlying values. Almost two-thirds of the public continues to believe the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves (New York Times/CBS, February 1995). It is the values of liberalism, in contrast to specific policies, that gave liberalism its moral authority with the electorate and enabled it to exercise a powerful political hegemony for so many years.

But liberalism’s moral authority has now waned, and liberals seem unclear on how to regain it. Policy-wonkish ideas do not convey moral authority. Many such ideas afloat these days, whether about how to balance the budget or control health care costs or improve the transportation system, communicate no special moral authority to the public. There is no way liberalism can win back its good name solely through technical and legal strategies.

Voters do not weigh policies on their technical merits, since they believe they don’t have the knowledge to make such evaluations; they judge ideas and policies for their moral authority.

Ideas that possess moral authority have two characteristics–practicality and moral rightness. The average American is very down-to-earth. Abstract, vague, idealistic proposals, especially if they cost a lot of money, arouse public suspicion. Ideas must also strike people as morally “right”–in the sense of fair, decent, and humane. Unfortunately, many liberal policies now lack moral authority because in the eyes of the public they fail on both these counts.

The Clinton health care plan shows how moral authority can be won–and then lost. The president’s announcement of the plan in September 1993 won acclaim across the land. The idea of providing health insurance to all Americans, including the 41 million uninsured, struck the majority of voters as morally sound, and the idea of controlling costs by cutting waste and greed appealed to them on both moral and practical grounds.

As the debate unfolded, however, the Clinton plan progressively lost credibility. The mechanisms for saving money seemed unrealistic and overly complex, and the addition of costly new entitlements and the massive effort to fix those parts of the system that, in the public mind, were not broken failed both tests–practical and moral.

There is a simple reason why regaining moral authority is so important for liberals, more so than for conservatives: Liberals are badly outnumbered in the voting population–and not just today when their popularity is low. Even from 1932 to the mid-1970s, people who identified themselves as liberals in opinion polls rarely accounted for more than one out of three voters. Yet during that period, the liberal agenda dominated American politics and was even advanced by conservative Republican presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon. Liberals exercised that disproportionate influence because their ideas blended moral authority and common sense in ways that appealed to the moderate-conservative majority (e.g., offering a safety net for those momentarily in need, Social Security, Medicare, and guaranteed health care for the poor and old).

In what follows, I sketch a four-step strategy to regain liberalism’s moral authority: The first step is for liberals to reach a deeper, more sympathetic understanding of the public’s quarrel with current liberal policies. Second is to give top priority to offsetting the harmful effects of today’s lopsided economy. Third is to reduce the role of the federal government in social policy while strengthening its role in economic policy. Fourth is to rebuild institutions, helping teachers, doctors, lawyers, and unions to restore the public confidence they once enjoyed.

Step I: Internalizing the public’s point of view

The public has a serious quarrel with many liberal policies. Without a better understanding of the quarrel’s nature and causes, liberalism’s chances of redeeming its moral authority are slim. Typically, liberals attribute the public’s hostility to a “swing to the right,” an outbreak of national selfishness, or a grab for power by special interests. Liberals feel misunderstood, besieged, demoralized. They point to the mean-spiritedness of conservative proposals and deplore manifestations of the public’s lack of information (e.g., “The public thinks we spend 20 times as much on foreign aid than we actually do. How can the public be trusted when they don’t get the facts straight?”).

The main cause of the public’s animosity, however, is not ignorance or a swing to the right. It is anger with liberal attitudes: the apparent unwillingness of liberals to change outmoded policies and the apparent refusal–or inability–to originate bold new ideas for solving today’s problems.

Many liberal policies were established under radically different conditions. As conditions have changed, these policies have created a variety of situations the public finds intolerable. Liberals themselves are not overjoyed with all the unintended consequences of their own welfare, criminal justice, entitlement, and affirmative action policies. But liberals nonetheless defend them, criticize conservative alternatives, and devote more energy to arguing why these policies should not be changed than to developing new solutions to the problems now facing us.

To regain credibility, liberals must overhaul old policies. Welfare is perhaps the most profound example of an obsolete policy where liberal attitudes frustrate the public.

Welfare legislation was put into place in a historic context that has now changed almost beyond recognition. Up to the 1960s, the social morality of earlier eras of American life still prevailed. Having children out of wedlock was taboo. The prevailing norm was that even married couples ought to postpone having children until they could afford to give them a good home and raise them properly. When people were obliged to accept welfare, they did so with a sense of shame, hurrying to escape its humiliations as quickly as possible. In this moral environment, most Americans supported providing temporary help to those down on their luck.

In today’s moral climate, however, legislation that made sense in an earlier era is now seen as having perverse effects. The majority of the public perceives welfare as encouraging women on welfare to produce children without the resources to take care of them, fostering the breakup of families and discouraging the work ethic (Los Angeles Times, April 1994). Polls also show that people believe welfare recipients get government benefits and give nothing in return (Times Mirror, April 1995).

Similarly, the public feels the direct costs of welfare legislation pale beside the indirect costs of contributing, however inadvertently, to a culture of drugs, crime, violence, and dependency. The fact that a disproportionate number of welfare recipients are minorities feeds racist tendencies in society.

This situation frustrates the majority of Americans: People feel they are being obliged, through their taxes, to pay for the very violence that threatens their security. Compounding a pervasive sense of economic insecurity, this perversion of well-meaning social legislation fans cynicism about government’s ability to address society’s real problems.

This troubles liberals as well as conservatives, but liberals focus on social causes, not on the policies themselves. One typical attitude liberals express in focus groups is, “Yes, it’s too bad so many children are born out of wedlock, but that’s not unique to welfare families. It’s happening everywhere. It’s not the fault of welfare policies; it’s part of today’s scene.”

Another typical reaction is to give less attention to new ideas for solving the problem than to cite reasons why these proposed solutions are immoral or impractical. In focus groups, liberals vigorously defend existing policies. Their most frequent rejoinders to criticism are: “You can’t punish the children for the mistakes of the parents,” or, “Welfare mothers don’t have babies for the sake of a measly 62 bucks a month.” Yet neither of these responses directly addresses the public’s concerns.

Why is it so important that liberals take public attitudes more seriously? The answer is not that liberals should pander to popular opinion. In fact, if liberals better understand the public’s point of view, they can mount more persuasive arguments when they are convinced the public is wrong.

The main reason to take the public’s concerns seriously is that it offers liberals the opportunity to exercise moral leadership again. Voters expect leaders to make mistakes. They expect circumstances to change. But they also expect leaders to learn from experience–and to change policies that no longer work.

If circumstances have changed so drastically that welfare policies now undermine social morality rather than support it, liberal leaders have a special responsibility to initiate welfare reform in ways that acknowledge moral authority in today’s world. Liberals argue that it is foolish to think young women get pregnant out of wedlock for the sake of a paltry $60 to $80 a month. Factually this may be correct, but it misses the moral point. From the point of view of moral principle, even a $5-a-month benefit is a message that the government thinks it is all right to have children out of wedlock, however stingy it may be in helping to support them. From the point of view of moral leadership, the worst thing liberal leaders can do is promote government policies that the public sees as encouraging immoral behavior, giving the opposition the opportunity to attack liberal doctrine.

The fact that the present welfare system doesn’t work well does not mean we should just cut it without putting some alternative safety net into place. In making reforms, voters have two concerns: cost and moral rightness. Of the two, moral rightness is by far the more important. My firm’s research shows the public is turning away from the moral relativism that took hold in the 1960s toward more strict, absolute forms of social morality. The public increasingly supports a moral principle of reciprocity rather than entitlement–that is, when people receive a public benefit they should give something back unless they are too aged or infirm to do so.

If liberals want the nation to bear the costs of a strong safety net for those in need, they can persuade the public to support it financially only if they are willing to change its moral underpinnings. This includes obliging fathers to be more responsible, discouraging teenage out-of-wedlock births, encouraging independence rather than prolonged dependency, and developing programs so recipients can give something back to the society that gave them a helping hand when they were in need.

Liberals need not compromise their principles; they need to bring their self-critical and leadership faculties to bear on social values. This means responding to the public with swift and pre-emptive initiatives when the public is right, and–when they believe the public is wrong–engaging their fellow citizens in serious dialogue. If liberals guided the nation down a path that no longer makes sense, then they have a responsibility to take the lead in changing direction.

Step II: Correcting the lopsided economy

Taking into account the public’s point of view can re-establish rapport with the electorate, making dialogue possible. But it won’t, by itself, redeem liberalism’s moral authority. For this to happen, we turn to the second–and most important–thrust of a new liberal strategy: correcting the lopsided effects of the new American economy.

In the post-World War II decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the American economy was far less lopsided. Then, the economy offered Americans two paths to make a good living: a blue- collar path through well-paid, heavily unionized manufacturing jobs, and a white-collar path through technical, managerial, and professional jobs requiring higher education. Jack Kennedy praised economic growth as a rising tide that lifted all boats.

Today’s economy is radically different. The rising tide now lifts only the yachts and big boats. Less well-educated workers–the majority of working Americans–face a bleak future: low and stagnant wages, erosion of benefits, job insecurity.

This lopsidedness arises in large part from the competitive pressures of the global economy. So new is this reality that our leaders and experts have not yet digested it. Operating under the old economic rules, leaders make false promises to the public that growth still means good times for all. But when there is growth without good times for all, people feel let down.

This sense of betrayal creates much of the fear, confusion, and anxiety driving the current public mood. The lopsided economy benefits about 40 percent of working Americans while closing off the American dream for the 60 percent majority. Even if this were tolerable from an economic point of view, it is not from a political one. It threatens to destabilize our politics and to turn problems such as crime, drugs, race, welfare, and illegal aliens into scapegoat issues.

To date, liberals have paid little attention to the reality that a global marketplace, combined with the impact of technology, has created a different economy, with new strengths and weaknesses. Its major strength is that it opens the prospect of growth for all nations, the poorer developing nations as well as the rich nations of the industrialized West. Managed wisely and with generosity of spirit, the new global economy could fuel a new boom for generations of Americans, similar to the sustained period of world growth after World War II.

If, however, it is managed unimaginatively and in a mean-spirited fashion, it threatens to deprive the majority of their birthright as Americans: the opportunity to better themselves through their own efforts. In my view, this is the single most important domestic issue facing the nation today.

Some liberal leaders, such as Labor Secretary Robert Reich, are concerned with aspects of this problem, such as the need for worker retraining. But unfortunately, other issues have deflected liberal attention, with the result that neither the president nor the liberals in Congress have yet come to grips with this issue.

It was an economic issue, the Great Depression, that gave birth to modern liberalism. The consequences of the new lopsided economy are more subtle and less drastic in the short run. But in the long run they pose a problem of equal gravity–and an opportunity for liberals to reseize the initiative from conservatives.

The stakes are momentous. If our nation falters in dealing with the problems posed by our lopsided economy, the results can lead to class warfare, social pathology, and political demagoguery.

Unfortunately, implementing this step of the strategy will be quite difficult. No one knows how to make our economy less lopsided. Even the best of our economists don’t know: Their tools are blunted by several decades of sluggish growth, low savings rates, massive budget deficits, a political mood of hostility toward government, and the fact that the payoff for present investments may take years to achieve in a society that expects quick results. Nor can we return to the two-track job system of the past, which depended heavily on low-skilled manufacturing jobs, strong unions, and an economy more insulated from world markets. Those conditions are gone forever.

Many experts despair at these realities. But I believe despair is unwarranted. The problem is not exclusively one of technical economics; it also is moral and political. It embraces education and saving as well as job creation and economic growth. It involves our culture and social institutions as well as our economy. For these reasons, it has to be attacked as a broad political problem rather than a narrow economic one. What this involves is a series of actions I can indicate here only schematically. Liberals must:

*Become identified in the public’s mind with the moral will to correct the distortions of our lopsided economy. Liberals should focus on this issue to the exclusion of almost all others.

*Show that unless this problem is solved, other issues such as race, crime, drugs, and welfare are unsolvable, and conversely, with it solved, these other issues become manageable.

*Persuade the public–and themselves–that only a genuine partnership between government and industry can solve the problem.

*Learn how to break down the artificial walls that now exist between high school, job training, and job experience.

*Concern themselves with job creation (for instance, by revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure) as well as job training.

*Bring imagination to the task of creating a new two-track job system allowing people without a four-year college education to make a good living. One example would be to develop new jobs in childcare, elder care, and other services that use the skills of those Americans who may lack technical training but who have the gifts of compassion, caring, and responsibility.

Step III: Altering the role of government

As a matter of principle as well as practicality, liberal strategy should seek to strengthen the federal government’s economic policy role but reduce its role with regard to social policy.

This suggestion cuts across traditional political lines. Conservatives see red whenever anyone suggests strengthening the role of government in the economy; their desire is to weaken it. Liberals fear that, if the federal government reduces its involvement in social policy, we will revert back to the bad old days of trampling on the rights and needs of minorities and others who require protection.

Both of these convictions have merit. Government regulation of the economy is often ill-conceived and poorly implemented, doing more harm than good. And liberal fears about turning welfare over to the states, reforming affirmative action and other retreats from federal engagement are also justified. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that more suffering and injustice will result.

Despite these drawbacks, there is, I believe, an even more powerful case to be made for ratcheting up the federal government’s involvement in the economy and ratcheting down its involvement in matters of social morality.

This is what the public wants. It is a well-documented fact that the public holds the president personally responsible for the health of the economy. George Bush learned this the hard way in 1992. He took the traditional conservative (and classical economic) view that the recession had to play itself out without interference on his part. To the voters he conveyed an attitude of detachment from the vicissitudes of the economy. Technically, he may have been right. But politically, it was a disastrous position for him to take. A large body of opinion poll data suggests that this position, more than any other, cost him the election.

The argument for greater government involvement in the economy is that its present lopsidedness will not straighten itself out automatically without intelligent intervention. As it grows worse, it presents a politically intolerable threat to our society, and only the most skillful forms of business-government cooperation can correct it. As some European parties of the left, such as Britain’s, are learning, a market economy can be a powerful tool to help realize their values and goals. The traditional prejudice of the left is that the market is always to be mistrusted. The new insight of some European left leaders now is that the market can be a friend as well as an enemy and that, in any event, it is too good an asset to abandon exclusively to the right. We can learn from their experience in rethinking the liberal position toward market economies.

While voters assume the health of our economy is simply a political rather than an economic issue–and hold the government responsible for it–they take a very different attitude toward the role of government on matters of social morality. My firm’s studies show that the majority of Americans have concluded that, as a society, we don’t know how to use government to achieve social objectives (in contrast to economic ones). Affirmative action, abortion, prayer in the schools, public housing, drugs, bilingual education, regulations governing the rights of the handicapped, and welfare are all examples of social agendas that divide the public rather than unite it.

As long as government is seen as imposing liberal social values on a largely conservative population, at a high tax cost and without much competence, antagonism toward the government will continue to grow. People will then resist using the government for purposes for which it is well-suited, especially in the economic domain.

Yet if this were the only reason to reduce federal involvement in social policy, it would not constitute a strong enough argument. The main argument for doing so is subtle but cogent. It is one that thoughtful individuals like Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) are starting to make. Bradley’s position is that on complex national problems, we assume there are only two alternative sources of solutions: the government (for liberals) or the market (for conservatives). This, he says, is like trying to sit on a two-legged stool. When the third leg–civil society–is missing, the stool doesn’t work.

Step IV Strengthening social institutions

If we rely solely on the government or the market for our rules of behavior, our society will grow ever more unworkable. This, indeed, has been happening for some years now. From the time of de Tocqueville to the present day, the U.S. has enjoyed what is arguably the world’s most highly developed civil society. What the public is now sensing, correctly in my view, is that the core values and institutions that hold us together as a civil society (and constitute the “unum” in our national slogan “e pluribus unum”) have started to unravel. An overwhelming 87 percent of the public holds this view (DYG’s SCAN, April 1995).

More government is not the solution to this problem. Here, it seems to me, the moderate elements in the electorate are correct: The role of government in advancing a social agenda should be reduced. (The far right, of course, holds no such view: It wants government to enforce its social morality–prayer in the schools, abortion, guns, etc.) If liberals accept the moderates’ position, then the only way to fill the vacuum is to revitalize the social institutions that constitute our civil society.

The government is not the only institution suffering from low credibility with the public. That “honor” is shared by most institutions. In the past few decades, the medical profession has slipped from confidence ratings of 73 percent to 26 percent. Institutions such as big business, organized labor, and the press all have confidence ratings below 30 percent (Louis Harris poll, 1995).

The main cause for the slippage is simple. People believe these institutions are failing to serve those they are supposed to serve. The reason: the public’s perception that the professionals who run them are more interested in their own careers and interests than in the public interest. This perception is leading to what sociologists call a crisis of legitimacy where institutions lose public credibility, trust, and authority.

In some instances the perception is unfair, but in many it is not. Moreover part of the problem can be blamed on another liberal doctrine that may be less appropriate now than it was in the past. Traditional “interest-group liberalism” held that the interplay of special interests would automatically represent the general interest. But it is increasingly clear that this view is just as flawed as the conservative economic theory that the invisible hand always converts greed into public good.

American society has evolved toward ever-more highly organized special interests, each of which pursues a more extreme agenda than most of the citizens it represents. That is, after all, the job of organized special interests: to look out for the narrow interests of their members. But this evolution is gradually squeezing out the general interest, leaving the public frustrated and discouraged.

A revitalized liberalism would build up civil institutions by infusing the professionals who manage them with a stronger commitment to the public good. Business leaders, union leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and universities used to do a better job of balancing the public interest with their own special interests. If liberal theory inadvertently contributed to the present imbalance, then liberal theory should seek to redress it.

Creating a liberal political movement capable of challenging the current conservative trend is not as impossible as it might seem. In today’s America, it takes only two conditions to launch an influential social movement: the existence of a small group of determined activists, and a large public receptive to one or two key points in the small group’s agenda.

Consider such diverse events over the past 30 years as the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the Gingrich conservative revolution.

In almost every instance, the general public did not buy the full agenda of the activists who launched these movements. It endorsed particular points–often a single point–rejecting most of the activists’ programs. The typical public response to successful activist movements, whether on the left or the right, is, “I don’t agree with much of what they say, but they have a point.” It is this seemingly simple judgment–they have a point–that fuels the engine of America’s social and political transformations.

At the moment, the public believes the conservative attack on liberalism “has a point.” This doesn’t mean that the public is buying the full conservative agenda or swinging wildly to the right. It does mean that the public agrees with conservatives that government has grown too obtrusive and incompetent, especially when it comes to social issues.

But although “liberalism” has become a dirty word in the strident debates of the moment, liberals have lost neither the opportunity nor the ability to appeal to the broad majority of the American electorate. In order to do this, however, liberals may have to choose between liberal values and many traditional liberal policies. A dogged defense of these policies will only consolidate conservatism’s recent gains. Adopting new strategies to enhance liberal values and redeem liberalism’s moral authority, by contrast, offers great promise both for liberals and for the country as a whole.

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