The danger for Democrats from rising liberalism is nowhere clearer than their diminishing conservatism. Their danger is both quantitative and qualitative. On one hand, it threatens Democratic numeric ranks, which is itself consequential. On the other, it threatens the ameliorating mooring keeping Democrats concerned with America’s mainstream.
On Jan. 8, Gallup released a poll showing America’s changing ideological makeup over the last quarter century. Notably, liberals have grown from 17 percent to 26 percent. Undoubtedly, this is somewhat explained by the polling data beginning at the end of the Reagan-Bush era, America’s liberal low point, and running through 2018 — right after Barack Obama’s presidency, America’s most liberal one.
Liberals’ gain came at moderates’ loss, as moderates dropped from 43 percent to 35 percent. Conservatives remained remarkably consistent: Beginning at 36 percent and ending at 35 percent.
While attention focused on liberals’ gain, the overlooked but obvious fact is that America overwhelmingly remains a center-right country. It began at 79 percent center-right (versus 17 percent liberal) and ended 70 percent center-right (versus 26 percent liberal).
Similarly, the data’s headline attention was positive for a Democratic Party disproportionately comprised of liberals. In 1994, 25 percent of Democrats were liberal, while only 8 percent of Republicans were. By 2018, 51 percent of Democrats were liberals, versus just 4 percent for Republicans.
Logically, it would seem Democrats are likewise disproportionately benefitting from America’s leftward migration: If liberals have grown, then the party with a disproportionate share of them should seem to benefit. However, beyond this superficial look, a deeper question remains: What does the Democratic leftward lean mean for the significant remainder of their coalition?
This question is punctuated by this dramatic change. In 1994, when America was 80 percent center-right versus 17 percent liberal, Democrats were 73 percent center-right versus 25 percent liberal. In 2018, when America was 70 percent center-right versus 26 percent liberal, Democrats were 47 percent center-right versus 51 percent liberal.
The danger for Democrats here is twofold. Number one is having a far lower center-right ratio than America’s. The other is that their liberal majority may push the party to embrace policies and politics that drive away the still-sizable Democratic moderate and conservative voters.
America’s center-right/liberals ratio is almost 3-1. That ratio for Democrats is effectively 1-1. America’s center-right majority remains very large. Despite the left’s rapid rise and recent headlines, the Democrats’ ratio puts them at serious odds with that significant majority.
Worse, Democrats’ liberal percentage is just a bare majority. This means, while it can determine outcomes, it can leave a significant disgruntled minority. The effect of such estrangement can easily be attrition in Democratic ranks, which in turn could imperil their decades-old position of being America’s largest party.
To understand what can happen to minorities in a political party, look at what has transpired with both Democrats and Republicans.
As Democrats have gotten more liberal, their moderate and conservative percentages have fallen. Since 1994, Democratic moderates have fallen from 48 percent to 34 percent, and conservatives from 25 percent to 13 percent. If that attrition has taken place while liberals were a minority, imagine what could occur as they are now a majority for the first time.
While politics is not necessarily a zero-sum game, it can be. Perhaps Democratic moderates become independents, in which case they are just subtracted from the party’s column. More concerning would be a migration of Democratic conservatives — at 13 percent of Democrats, still significant — into Republican ranks. Subtraction from Democrats and addition to Republicans equals a double loss. To understand this effect, one need only look to Democratic losses of Southern voters.
And the quantitative problem for Democrats could be compounded by a qualitative one. Absent their moderate and conservative counterweights, which have been their majority until now, Democrats could see themselves drift even further left.
Their heady moments of rapidly adding to their liberal base concerns a hard reality. Despite liberals’ overall growth in America, the nation remains disproportionately center-right. However within their own ranks, liberals are already a majority and could become a disproportionate one. Democratic strategists assuredly see this danger, but they may find themselves now powerless to stop it.
• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department.
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