News by Numbers: ‘Progressive Conservatives’

By Bill Knight

Many voters are traditional, devout and cautious, but that doesn’t mean they’re politically conservative. Still, too many Big Shots in business and politics take the electorate for granted or dismiss them altogether as stereotypical conservatives – even when they’re actually voting for change.

A look at new economic numbers helps explain this new “progressive conservative” phenomenon.

“A combination of slower wage growth and fast inflation has led to falling real hourly and weekly earnings for most workers,” reports Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute. “A year ago, annual hourly wage growth before inflation was 4.3%; this year it was 3.7%.”

Added to that slowdown in wages is inflation, which hurts the pocketbook even more. “Driven up by higher energy prices,” Bernstein adds, “inflation is growing about twice as fast as was the case one year ago.”

Consumer Price Index numbers recently released showed that prices generally increased 4.3% between January 2007 and January 2008. In the Midwest, people have been hardest hit by food at home (+5.6%), private transportation (+11.4%), energy (+20.4%) and gasoline (+40.6%). And that’s in the last 12 months. Gas prices weren’t exactly low a year ago.

Real hourly and weekly earnings – numbers for pay that reflect rising prices – are down by about 1% from a year ago, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s significant, says EPI, an independent, nonprofit, non-partisan think tank that studies how the economy affects working people. The implications are twofold, Bernstein adds.

“First, falling real wages will likely lead to diminished consumption, reinforcing slower macro-economic growth,” he says. “Second, the reality of squeezed paychecks for most workers helps to explain the primacy of economic concerns among voters in the Presidential primaries.”

A look at some rural counties in the area of Illinois where I live confirms voter concerns—and their actions at polling places.

Following are Feb. 5 primary results comparing both “Progressive” candidates (totaling Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) and both “Conservative” candidates (totaling Republican John McCain and Mike Huckabee) [with their 2004 presidential preference and percentage, according to the Illinois State Board of Election]:

Adams County Progressive 6,200 / Conservative 4,600 [Bush 65%]

Fulton P 6,100 / C 1,700 [Kerry 53%]

Hancock P 2,200 / C 1,800 [Bush 59%]

Henderson P 1,000 / C 500 [Kerry 55%]

Knox P 7,000 / C 2,800 [Kerry 54%]

McDonough P 2,800 / C 2,100 [Bush 51%]

Peoria P 21,700 / C 12,300 [Bush 50%]

Tazewell P 14,400 / C 10,900 [Bush 58%]

Warren P 1,800 / C 1,400 [Bush 52%]

Woodford P 15,300 / C 9,500 [Bush 67%]

True, primary turnouts are lower than general elections, and Illinois’ was an open primary, meaning anyone could vote for any party, out of mischief as well as zeal. However, it’s reasonable to assume that citizens who feel strongly about the state and nation cast ballots.

Further, the numbers plainly show a trend toward reform, even in areas where Bush easily won four years ago.

When the 7-union, 6-million-member Change To Win labor coalition endorsed Obama, CTW chair Anna Burger said, “There’s a movement building here and the winds of change are blowing.”

Many Americans may be prudent, moral and careful, but that doesn’t mean they won’t consider social reforms they see as necessary. Those who typecast or pigeonhole voters as unthinking conservatives are out of touch with constituents, customers and communities, and they risk alienating themselves from their districts, patrons and the future.

Progressive conservatives or traditionalist reformers, they spell hope—audacious or not.

See EPI’s “Economic Snapshot” at

Bill Knight is an award-winning journalist who teaches at Western Illinois University.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2008

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