If You Hate the Culture Wars, Blame Liberals


by Kevin Drum

On Thursday I posted a series of charts that all documented a similar theme: Since roughly the year 2000, according to survey data, Democrats have moved significantly to the left on most hot button social issues while Republicans have moved only slightly right.

This wasn’t meant to be a rigorous scholarly analysis. And you can argue about margins of error, question wording, choice of topics, and so forth. Still, the gaps are too big and the trend too consistent to ignore the obvious conclusion that over the past two decades Democrats have moved left far more than Republicans have moved right:

I’ve made this point many times before, and I want to make it again more loudly and more plainly today. It is not conservatives who have turned American politics into a culture war battle. It is liberals. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Almost by definition, liberals are the ones pushing for change while conservatives are merely responding to whatever liberals do. More specifically, progressives have been bragging publicly about pushing the Democratic Party leftward since at least 2004—and they’ve succeeded.

Now, I’m personally happy about most of this. But that doesn’t blind me to the fact that “personally happy” means nothing in politics. What matters is what the median voter feels, and Democrats have been moving further and further away from the median voter for years:

I’ve added a scale of 0-10 to these charts to make them easier to interpret. As you can see, in 1994 the average Democrat was at 5 and the average Republican was at 6. In 2004, that had changed slightly: the average Democrat was at 4 and the average Republican was just under 5. In other words, both parties had gotten a little bit more liberal.

But by 2017 that had changed completely. The average Democrat was at 2 while the average Republican was at 6.5. In other words, between 1994 and 2017, Democrats had gotten three points more liberal while Republicans had gotten about half a point more conservative.

That takes us up to 2017, by which time Democrats were quite obviously farther from the median voter than they had been in 1994 or 2004. And it showed: Our election victory in 2020 was razor thin even though (a) the economy sucked, (b) we were in the middle of a pandemic, (c) voters had had four years to see just what Donald Trump was really like, and (d) our candidate was bland, amiable, white, male Joe Biden. This should scare the hell out of liberals.

The best explanation for how 2020 played out comes from David Shor, a data geek who identifies as socialist but is rigorously honest about what the numbers tell us. Here’s a long excerpt from an interview he did with New York’s Eric Levitz a few months ago:

At the subgroup level, Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates (which is kind of crazy). Our support among African Americans declined by something like one to 2 percent. And then Hispanic support dropped by 8 to 9 percent….One implication of these shifts is that education polarization went up and racial polarization went down.

….What happened in 2020 is that nonwhite conservatives voted for Republicans at higher rates; they started voting more like white conservatives….Clinton voters with conservative views on crime, policing, and public safety were far more likely to switch to Trump than voters with less conservative views on those issues. And having conservative views on those issues was more predictive of switching from Clinton to Trump than having conservative views on any other issue-set was.

….This lines up pretty well with trends we saw during the campaign. In the summer, following the emergence of “defund the police” as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined. So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.

….Over the last four years, white liberals have become a larger and larger share of the Democratic Party….And since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of “racial resentment.” So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.

….If Democrats elevate issues or theories that a large minority of nonwhite voters reject, it’s going to be hard to keep those margins….Black conservatives and Hispanic conservatives don’t actually buy into a lot of these intellectual theories of racism. They often have a very different conception of how to help the Black or Hispanic community than liberals do. And I don’t think we can buy our way out of this trade-off. Most voters are not liberals. If we polarize the electorate on ideology — or if nationally prominent Democrats raise the salience of issues that polarize the electorate on ideology — we’re going to lose a lot of votes.

Now: maybe you’re personally delighted by the Democratic Party’s leftward march and maybe you’re not. It doesn’t matter. Despite endless hopeful invocations of “but polls show that people like our positions,” the truth is that the Democratic Party has been pulled far enough left that even lots of non-crazy people find us just plain scary—something that Fox News takes vigorous advantage of. From an electoral point of view, the story here is consistent: Democrats have stoked the culture wars by getting more extreme on social issues and Republicans have used this to successfully cleave away a segment of both the non-college white vote and, more recently, the non-college nonwhite vote.

So why is it conventional wisdom to point to conservatives as “culture war mongers”? As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a straightforward consequence of behavioral economics. For most people, losing something is far more painful than the pleasure of gaining something of equivalent value. And since conservatives are “losing” the customs and hierarchies that they’ve long lived with, their reaction is far more intense than the liberal reaction toward winning the changes they desire. This produces more outrageous behavior from conservatives even though liberals are actually the ur-source of polarization.

Here’s the nickel summary of all this:

* Since 1994, Democrats have moved left far more than Republicans have moved right.

* This has produced lots of safe states in liberal places like California and Massachusetts but has steadily pulled Democrats farther and farther away from median states like Iowa and Ohio.

* Recently, white academic theories of racism—and probably the whole woke movement in general—have turned off many moderate Black and Hispanic voters.[1] Ditto for liberal dismissal of crime and safety issues. Hispanics in particular moved in Trump’s direction despite—or maybe because of—his position on immigration and the wall.

* Democrats will remain on an electoral knife edge forever unless they can pull themselves back toward the center.

This is obviously not a popular proposal among the white activist class. But a dispassionate look at voting patterns hardly allows any other conclusion. Moving to the left may help galvanize the progressive base—which is good!—but if it’s not done with empathy and tact it risks outrunning the vast middle part of the country, which progressive activists seem completely uninterested in talking to.

It is well within our power to break our two-decade 50-50 deadlock and become routine winners in national politics. All it takes is a moderation of our positions from “pretty far left” to “pretty liberal.” That’s all. But who’s got the courage to say so?

[1] And for God’s sake, please don’t insult my intelligence by pretending that wokeness and cancel culture are all just figments of the conservative imagination. Sure, they overreact to this stuff, but it really exists, it really is a liberal invention, and it really does make even moderate conservatives feel like their entire lives are being held up to a spotlight and found wanting.

About the Author

Kevin Drum started blogging in 2002 at his own site. In 2004 he got hired by the Washington Monthly and then moved to Mother Jones in 2008, where he blogged and wrote for the print magazine for 12 years. Finally, in 2021, he came full circle, leaving MoJo to once again blog at his own site.

Prior to blogging, Drum was vice president of marketing for Kofax Image Products, a software company in Irvine, California. He’s married, no kids, two cats. In 2014 he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. It’s currently incurable, but modern treatments are pretty good and he remains alive and hopeful that a cure is on the way.

Publication Rights

First published in Jaberwocking. Republished here with the author’s permission.

Further Reading

Looking for the real conservative culprit in the culture wars? Forget about politicians. It’s all Fox News.

Frontpage Image

dutchlad: Fox News Celebrity Greta Van Susteren, 2008 (CC)

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