The New American Majority

Women and minorities swung the election to the Democrats. Can the Republicans now claim them?

Yet the election offers glimmers of a sensibility that the Republicans may not be able to co-opt. If it is not progressive in the classic sense, at least it is receptive to the L-word (and I don't mean laissez-faire). Consider that, in New York, the usual antiliberal smear tactics failed against Schumer, who avoided the exculpatory stance that can make progressive pols look like kids caught masturbating. In California, more voters were willing to call themselves liberal and fewer were proud to be conservative. These crocuses may reflect a warm winter—a live-and-let-live attitude founded on good times—and skeptics can point to the drubbing affirmative action took at the polls. But something is blowing in the breeze, if not the wind.

"We've seen the beginning of a sense that something is wrong with the Republican agenda," says Berkeley sociologist Robert N. Bellah, coeditor of Habits of the Heart, the formative 1985 study of American attitudes. "In Europe, every country has a moderate left-wing government, and in America, there's a growing feeling that something is wrong with the neocapitalist ideology, that labor and minority groups have been left out. But it's very inchoate, and we don't even have the remnants of the social democratic agenda that would allow us to make a critique of what's happened."

What we do have, however, is a certain reflex toward liberalism, founded on a sensibility Bellah's book calls "associationalism," in which communal affinity and personal choice are more credible than programs and policies. Given the syncretic nature of the current American experiment—which borrows from both the moral revolution of the '60s and the market revolution of the '80s, and fully intends to preserve the gains of both—it's probably healthy that the new majority is up for grabs. If progressives don't embrace it, contradictions and all, conservatives certainly will—and if they succeed, any potential for radical renewal will be lost again behind a wink, a nod, and a beaming Bush.

Research: Michael Zilberman

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