For the first time, according to a survey that has been tracking American opinion for over four decades, a majority of Democrats now identify themselves as “liberal.” Believe it or not, that’s a seismic shift. The ramifications will be felt all over the country, even here in deep-blue Connecticut.
The General Social Survey, which is run by NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at of the University of Chicago, has been collecting data on American opinion since the 1970s. One of the many questions the survey asks is whether the respondent considers themself conservative, liberal, or moderate. The data allows sorting by party affiliation, and for the first time a majority of Democrats, 54%, identified as liberals. This is remarkable, as in 2014 the number was only 41%, and in 1980 it was a paltry 25%. To give you an idea of how much has changed since then, that 25% is barely higher than the 19% of Republicans who identified as liberal the same year.
Why is this happening? It’s tempting to read this as some sort of overall shift in American opinion, but that isn’t true. The actual percentage of people who identify as liberal hasn’t changed much over the years — it’s held steady somewhere between 22% and 29% of the population since 1975, and is neither trending noticeably upward or downward. The percentage who identify as conservatives (28%-38%) and moderates (34%-41%) similarly are surprisingly static.
Our definitions of what makes a liberal or a conservative are constantly shifting, as well. Something that would have been considered very liberal in the 1990s, such as same-sex marriage, would be a moderate position today. Similarly, moderate positions from the 1960s, such as very high tax rates for the top 1% of earners, would be considered liberal to the point of socialism now.
What has changed is the ideological homogenization of the two major political parties. On the GOP side, things are far less ideologically diverse. Conservatives have been a majority of Republicans since 1993, and now 70% of Republicans identify as conservative. It’s a lot easier to find a conservative Democrat (think Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV) than to find a liberal Republican, for instance. Conservatives and hard-right nationalists have driven pretty much every other viewpoint out of the modern GOP.
It’s tempting to see the same kind of ideological purge happening in the Democratic Party. Certainly there has been a lot of friction between liberal and moderate wings in the new House majority, but compared to the decades-long very loud and obvious campaign conservatives waged to drive ‘RINOs’ (Republicans In Name Only) out of the party, it seems very tame. The dynamics in the House feel like generational change going hand in hand with a more gradual ideological sorting, not a purge.
Besides, the left is unbelievably bad at getting organized, and I doubt that’s going to change anytime soon. So the Democrats’ big tent still stands — for now.
But that ideological sorting is still happening, and now liberals — however one wants to define them — are a majority of Democrats. What does that mean?
Nationally, I think it could be a sign of a party starting to coalesce around certain ideas, such as expanded health care, a strong response to climate change, and protecting minority rights. It’s likely also a response to the godawful antics of President Trump and his fellow crony capitalists and hard-right nationalists. “If Trump defines anyone who disagrees with him as a liberal,” so the thinking goes, “Then that’s what I must be!” If liberals enter 2020 re-energized and stronger than ever, Trump will only have himself to blame.
What about here in Connecticut, a state already dominated by Democrats? Some liberal/progressive ideas have already found fertile ground at the Capitol, such as paid family leave and cannabis legalization. There’s already been some of the same generational change in Hartford that is happening in Washington, where younger, more liberal legislators are entering as older, more moderate Democrats start to leave.
It’s possible that 2020 will bring more ideology-based Democratic primaries at both the state and federal level. It’s also possible that the 2021-22 legislature will be a lot more liberal than this one.
And yet, all of this does leave an awful lot of moderates on the center left and the center right without a political home. What will they do as both Republicans and Democrats move away from them? Maybe the story of the next decade will be theirs, instead.