Have Democrats Really Lunged Left? Maybe Not.

More Democrats identify as liberal than ever before, but key policy positions have changed little.

By G. Elliott Morris

On Jul. 27, 2017  in US Politics

It is no secret that lawmakers in congress have become polarized in an asymmetric fashion, with Republican House members moving to the right far more than Democrats have moved left. However, it is entirely plausible that Democratic voters are more liberal than they used to be, even if lawmakers are not. To answer this riddle I consult the data. Is there a shift left among the party base itself, even if lawmakers have not moved? Current popular rhetoric would definitely have you believe that there is.

Certainly recent events make that rhetoric plausible, the near-success of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary chief among them. Has the party’s average voter adopted a plan for single-payer health care? Do they favor higher levels of government spending? Is their stance on military defense further to the left?

In short, no. The graphs below uses data from the 2016 American National Election Studies to show that the Democratic party has more self-identified liberals in it now than it ever has had before. The “liberal left” is still smaller than the conservative right, but the trend shows that that could change relatively soon. However, don’t let this trend fool you; just because an individual calls themself a liberal does not mean they have the policy preferences or beliefs to back that up.

The percentage of self-identified Democrats who also describe themselves as liberal (59%) is up from a previous high (44%) at the turn of the century. More importantly, 8 percentage points of that increase has happened since 2012. The proportion of Democrats who describe themselves as “moderate” remains at previous levels.

As discussed, it is not necessarily the case that an increase in the number of “liberals” in the Democratic party automatically encompasses an increase in support for liberal policies,. It is always possible that people feel more at home identifying as liberal without changing their issue opinions on the matter. If we compare some level of support for traditionally left-leaning policies (high general government spending, low defense spending, and government insurance plans) we can determine if this is the case.

Year Services Defense (Lower) Gov. Healthcare
Source: American National Election Studies
Democrats Haven't Budged on Key Policies
2016 60% 34% 59%
2012 48 42 55
2008 64 39 59

Unfortunately for advocates of policies like single-payer healthcare and dovish war, the idea that the Democrats have moved left on big ticket issues is incorrect. The “liberals” among democrats — many of whom appeared during the most recent election — don’t appear to be departing from their usual policy preferences. They are not as “operationally liberal” — to borrow a phrase from professors of political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson — as we would expect given the recent increase in use of the “l” word. Rather, these Democrats may be “symbolically liberal,” using the term to define themselves rather than their policy beliefs. This is a fundamental disconnect between asserting that ideology is more perceived on symbolic grounds (which is is) and operational grounds (which it may soon not be). This could be a departure from a long trend in American politics which has seen a lot of operational liberals and symbolic conservatives — or, demystifying the language, those who favor typically left-leaning policies but identify themselves as conservatives.

Nevertheless, this brief analysis suggests that a recent increase in the self-identified liberalness of the Democratic party is not reflected in the distribution of voter’s beliefs and policy preferences. If anything, 2016 was more of the same; the real movement in the party happened in the late 19th century with the rise of the Great Society and countering of the conservative right.

Of course, this cuts against the grain of some data that suggest America has moved in the liberal direction over the past nine years. There are a number of reasons why the entirety of America could have shifted left while Democrats remained in the same general area. Or, of course, it could be that the movement took place among policy issues that we did not include above, such as same-sex marriage or gun control. Finally the fundamental weakness in this data is that it was collected prior to the 2016 election — things have certainly changed since then. Indeed this would be telling, as the hypothesis that the Democratic Party is moving to the left on social but not economic issues (possibly independent of Republicans) is one worth exploring.

A same-old-same-old Democratic party is not exactly what we expect to find, given the current politically-activated, anti-Trump attitudes among America’s left. Given the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 it’s also arguably not what Americans have voted for. But as we continue to track the attitudes of the public we should keep these contrarian findings in the back of our minds. Investigating public opinion through a “we’re not that different” lens may offer a unique and refreshing perspective on party politics. Otherwise, we may be reading too much into a population of voters who say that they’re different yet don’t appear to be (though I’m hesitant to call these people “liars” or “fake liberals”).

Finally, if you will allow me to present some brief electoral prognostication: A not-so-left Democratic party on the cusp of the 2018 and 2020 election cycles will probably face the same challenges it did in 2016. It will likely face bitter infighting on the “true direction” of the party, even though that direction has not changed in fact. The Democrats will likely nominate another moderate-turned-“liberal” for their presidential candidate in 2020, after pretty substantial success with candidates in the 2018 midterms that are more liberal than average (as is the nature of midterms). Of course, it may always nominate Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren (or Mark Zuckerberg?), though a structurally and ideologically similar party will hinder the probability of those nominees being successful.

That, in a nutshell, is the current state of the Democratic party. It is without a doubt much more liberal by symbolic self-identification, though that’s not so in operational policy beliefs. Is this the new state of Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren’s brainchild political faction, or is it the same as it was on July 25th, 2016 when it nominated Hillary Clinton as its choice for President of the United States?

Only time will tell, but until then keep your eyes on the polls.

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