The Democrats’ Leftward March

Years ago, back in the early 1980s, I had a conservative friend in England who liked to say, “The great thing about America is that you either vote Tory or you vote Tory,” meaning that the Carter-Mondale Democratic Party of that time wasn’t very far to the left at all. I tried to explain why American conservatives didn’t see it that way, but you have to understand that from his point of view, with a Labour Party committed then to pacifist disarmament to the Soviet Union and full socialism at home, it made some rough sense. And to be sure, Bill Clinton, for all of his duplicitous politics and appalling personal behavior, yanked the Democrats back to the center on economic policy, such that today the left hates on Clinton for being (along with Tony Blair) a “neoliberal,” which is about the worst thing you can be called on a college campus these days.

It is popular on the left these days to charge that the polarization and bitterness of today’s politics is entirely the fault of Republicans, who, the thesis runs, have steadily lurched to the right since 1980. This is the thesis, for example, of my old pals Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann, such as in this article in The Atlantic. This thesis relies in part on the work of several political scientists who purport to measure changes in the voting patterns of Republican members of Congress, yielding the chart to the left.

I’ve never bothered to do a deep dive into the numbers behind this chart for several reasons. First, it defies common sense. Take abortion as an example. I’m so old I can recall that George McGovern—who was wrongly called the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion” as least when it came to abortion—actually had two pro-life Catholic running mates on his 1972 presidential ticket. What are the chances a pro-life Democrat could be a presidential running mate today? Are there even any pro-life Democrats left?* There used to be quite a number of them, even Al Gore and Richard Gephardt on occasions. Could a Democratic presidential candidate today repeat what Bill Clinton said in 1992—that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare“? To the contrary, it is evident that Democratic Party orthodoxy about abortion today is like Democratic Party orthodoxy about slavery in the 1850s: it must be celebrated as a positive good. But because there are so few votes on abortion-related issues cast in Congress in recent years this shift doesn’t show up on any quantitative metrics. (By the way and for the record: McGovern’s actual position on abortion in 1972—before Roe v. Wade—was that the issue should be left up to the states to regulate. Just imagine what would happen to any Democrat who said that today.)

I could go on with other examples, such as the marked shift in Democratic Party fondness for single-payer health care, since it is obvious that Obamacare fixed very little. But the biggest flaw in this exercise is so blindingly simple that it is almost embarrassing to point out. The analysis purports to show that Republicans moved to the right in the 1980s and kept going that way. There is some truth to this, of course. But what else happened in the 1980s and 1990s? Hmmmm. . .  What could it be? Ah, that’s right: Republicans started winning more elections! First Reagan for president, and then for Congress starting in 1994. And since Republicans are forever supposed to be the Washington Generals to the Democrats’ progressive Globetrotters, something is clearly wrong with the order of the universe when Republicans win. If Republicans moved to the right and then started winning more elections, what does it say about the American people, or at least the preferences of voters? Liberals rarely say openly what they think, though when we do, we get “deplorables.”

This is all a long preface for setting up notice of Thomas Edsall’s column in the New York Times today, “The Democrats’ Left Turn Is Not an Illusion.” Edsall, keep in mind, is a liberal, though he’s long been critical of his own side, and keenly attuned to the populist rejection of establishment liberalism. His warnings, however, went unheeded. Here are a few excerpts from today’s article:

Over the past 18 years, the Democratic electorate has moved steadily to the left, as liberals have displaced moderates. . . From 2001 to 2018, the share of Democratic voters who describe themselves as liberal has grown from 30 to 50 percent, according to data provided by Lydia Saad, a senior editor at the Gallup Poll. . .

Well-educated whites, especially white women, are pushing the party decisively leftward. According to Gallup, the share of white Democrats calling themselves liberal on social issues has grown since 2001 from 39 to 61 percent. Because of this growth, white liberals are now roughly 40 percent of all Democratic voters.

Edsall does not shrink from pointing out some truly astonishing findings in the survey data, like this:

White liberals are well to the left of the black electorate on some racial issues. Take the issue of discrimination as a factor holding back African-American advancement. White liberals are to the left of black Democrats, placing a much stronger emphasis than African-Americans on the role of discrimination and much less emphasis on the importance of individual effort.

Hmmm. . . Maybe this is related to the polls showing surprising levels of black approval of Trump, and the apparent apathy of Hispanic voters about Democrats.

Toward the end Edsall quotes Harvard’s Yascha Mounk (mentioned here recently), who warns his fellow liberals:

One of the dangers for the Democratic Party — and the left-leaning parts of the establishment more broadly — is that they confound their actual audience with a small but highly visible group of activists.

Let’s vote.

* UPDATE: Turns out the New York Times on Tuesday asked whether there are any pro-life Democrats left, and pretty much comes up with the answer: No.

Joan Barry has been a member of the Missouri Democratic Party for 53 years. As a state legislator, she voted regularly for workers’ rights, health care and programs for the poor.

So when the party began writing a new platform after its crushing losses in 2016, Ms. Barry, a member of its state committee, did not think it was too much to ask for a plank that welcomed people like her — Democrats who oppose abortion.

At first the party agreed and added it. Missouri’s Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, even called Ms. Barry to praise her.

But within days, Ms. Barry began receiving angry emails and Facebook messages. People called her a dinosaur, a has-been and worse. Her children started to worry. . .

[Berry] worried that the Democratic Party had moved too far left on abortion. Gone were the days when the party, under President Bill Clinton, called for abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.” She also noticed fellow Democrats showing contempt for her when they learned her stance on abortion.

The party of “tolerance” and “diversity” proves once again it has neither.

Hat tip: Ben Boychuk.

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