Is America Moving Left?

By Henri Mattila ’18:

BernWith the 2016 presidential campaign in full swing, political issues have re-emerged to the forefront of the American consciousness. The progressive developments permeating the media landscape suggest that, politically, America is moving left.

Arguably, the most significant progressive development has been the increase in support for gay marriage. According to Pew Research, in as recently as 2004, only 31 percent of Americans supported gay marriage, with 60 percent opposed. By mid-2015, these statistics had nearly reversed: 55 percent support while 39 percent oppose gay marriage. This shift in public opinion culminated in the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage nationwide. While Kentucky clerk Kim Davis has recently made headlines for refusing to issue gay marriage licenses, this act of protest does not signal a significant national backlash to the Supreme Court ruling. Instead, it highlights the lack of unified resistance from the Right, as the party appears divided on the issue.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act marks another recent progressive development. Despite persistent legal challenges since its inception in 2011, the law has endured two key Supreme Court cases vital to its survival (with the conservative Chief Justice voting in favor). Despite vows from Republicans to repeal the law, no candidate has yet put forth an alternative plan for the millions of Americans who are now, for the first time, insured. Because of these challenges, aside from brief comments from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, there was no mention of the Affordable Care Act at the Republican debate in September. With this in mind, it is reasonable to foresee the continued existence of the health care law.

The growing acceptance of marijuana for medicinal and recreational uses signals yet another progressive movement gaining momentum. Currently, 19 states have legalized the medicinal use of the controlled substance, and four states have permitted its recreational use. Public opinion is changing as well. According to Pew, only 16 percent of the population was in favor of legalization in 1990. Today, that number has more than tripled to 53 percent. With seven out of 10 Americans believing marijuana to be less harmful than alcohol, drug policies of the Reagan era no longer enjoy the same support they once did.

These progressive developments have fueled the rise of the self-described socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Although most Democrats and independents are probably not ready for a socialist president, Sanders is nevertheless causing the party to shift in an increasingly progressive direction. Because of this, the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton might be inclined to re-align her moderate positions with more progressive ones.

Clinton’s stances have already started to change. Once a proponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she now opposes it, claiming the deal negatively impacts American workers. Moreover, after remaining noticeably silent about the Keystone Pipeline, she came out against it in September, citing environmental concerns. Clinton has also become more vocal about the pharmaceutical industry; in response to a hedge fund’s decision to raise the price of cancer drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 overnight, she made a vow to end this “price gouging” when president. For some, her declaration appears to be a political-savvy demonstration of genuine concern for affected consumers. However, other observers see this as a calculated decision to attract Sanders’ supporters by distancing herself from Wall Street. This reasoning may be valid, given that she is the second most popular recipient of donations from individuals affiliated with major financial institutions, only behind Republican candidate Jeb Bush. Since Sanders’ tough rhetoric on Wall Street has helped to energize his base of voters (many of whom are former Occupy Wall Street activists), Clinton has an interest in publicly disassociating herself from these banks.

Conversely, some might cite the rise of Donald Trump with his anti-immigrant rhetoric as evidence that the nation is witnessing a shift in a rightward direction. Although a September poll of Republican primary voters suggested Trump commanded over 30 percent of the vote, the most recent CNN/ORC poll suggests he would lose to Clinton by 5 points in a hypothetical match-up, 50-45. As such, the majority of U.S. voters currently seem to favor the progressive stances of the Clinton campaign over the largely conservative positions of the Trump campaign.

Although there are a handful of issues on which U.S. voters do not seem to be moving left, and might even be moving right, progressive policies are clearly gaining momentum—both in the courts and on the presidential campaign trail.



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