Democratic voters, especially young, white liberals, have been moving sharply in a progressive direction, not only on issues of race, but across the board — on the economy, on immigration and on the environment.
Zach Goldberg, a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgia State University, has been tracking ideological trends among liberal, moderate and conservative whites, using survey data collected by American National Election Studies.
The accompanying chart measures support for higher immigration levels from 1992 to 2016. White moderates and conservatives, including Republicans and independents, showed relatively little change over those 24 years. Among white liberals, though, support for increased immigration grew from a low of 4 percent in 1996 to 38 percent in 2016.
Goldberg broke down the data by age groups and found that the driving force was young, white liberals aged 18 to 24. In an email, Goldberg wrote:
To sum up, both social media and the progressive direction of the Obama years helped lay the groundwork for the progressive/multicultural normative context that Trump would later enter and threaten to smash. For liberals, Trump and his supporters were perceived as white supremacists who aspired to “make America white again.”
In other words, he continued,
in an era where “whiteness” has become increasingly associated with moral injustice (past and present), liberals are determined to distinguish themselves as “inclusive” and “unlike the deplorable white majority.”
In further support of his argument, Goldberg produced the following graphic from ANES surveys:
In our email exchange, Goldberg argued that Trump’s election produced what he calls “moral panic” among liberals:
Liberal progressives perceive Trump as a threat to the increasingly egalitarian/multicultural moral order. They fear that he will undo or turn back the clock on many of the gains they’ve made over the past few decades. America under Obama was trending in the progressive direction — towards a proverbial “end of history” or egalitarian multicultural utopia. Trump then emerges and is perceived as not only “crashing the party,” but also as threatening to return it to its “whites only”/exclusivist format.
The Pew Research Center has documented some of the most striking shifts in a liberal direction among Democratic voters. For an October 2017 report, Pew asked respondents to choose between two statements:
First, “immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents,” and second, “immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing and health care.”
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The percentage of self-identified Democrats and Democratic leaners who agreed that immigrants strengthened the country grew from 48 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2017. Conversely, the share of Democrats describing immigrants as a burden fell from 60 percent in 1994 to 12 percent in 2017.
“Many pro-immigrant positions are at an all-time high (among Democrats) in public opinion,” Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster, told me by email, “especially questions around immigration strengthening society and the positive impact of immigration.”
“Taking that position is now a signal that you are not with Trump and you are not with white nationalist elements of the Republican Party,” Gourevitch added. “If you are strongly anti-Trump now, you are almost, by definition, pro-immigrant, pro-racial justice.”
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Immigration in essence is an issue that hinges on race. White conservatives vote on race. As Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, put it in The Washington Post in November 2016:
Racial attitudes became strongly connected to whether whites identified as Democratic or Republican during Barack Obama’s presidency. That, by itself, meant that racial attitudes would matter a great deal in 2016 — even above the powerful impact of partisanship itself. There is now a stronger partisan divide than ever between racially sympathetic and racially resentful whites. Indeed, the divide is so large it exceeds what was true in 2008 and 2012 — when there was an actual African-American candidate on the ballot.
Republican turnout swamped Democrats in 2016: As my colleague David Leonhardt wrote last year, if liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Hillary Clinton would be president.
A June 2017 report issued by the bipartisan Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group found that a subset of all voters that the organization calls “American preservationists” gave Trump 20 percent of his total vote. It was these voters who comprised “the core Trump constituency that propelled him to victory in the early Republican primaries.” American preservationists, the study group found, “take the most restrictionist approach to immigration — staunchly opposing not just illegal but legal immigration as well.”
In testing racial attitudes, Pew asked voters to choose between “blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their condition” and “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.” The percentage of Democrats citing discrimination grew from 28 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2017.
A similar pattern, although less extreme, can be seen in responses to questions on environmental issues. For example, from 2006 to 2014, the percentage of Democrats who believed that there is “solid evidence that the average temperature on earth is getting warmer,” fluctuated from the mid to high 70s. In 2017, it shot up to 92 percent.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, sees the trends among Democratic voters as a clear plus, with little downside:
There has been a tremendous shift in the public to progressive positions and awareness — on marijuana, on marriage equality, on calling out racism, on #MeToo, on support for comprehensive sex education and women’s reproductive health issues. Democrats are both leading the way and catching up. Millennials are the future and they are totally in support of these positions.
Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, is more ambivalent.
On the plus side, he wrote in an email,
this shorter-term trend clearly comports with the multi-decade trend in which both the country at large and the Democratic Party itself have become increasingly more open-minded, pluralistic and progressive on a range of social issues, including racial justice, immigration and women’s rights.
Cowan then shifted to what he called “the rest of the story”:
Not all of the country is moving at the same pace. Donald Trump won a national election playing a brand of racial politics not seen in this country since George Wallace. So while Democrats fight for progress and justice on racial issues, we cannot be dismissive or scornful of voters who do not share precisely the same views or beliefs, but who nonetheless want an alternative to the hard-core misogyny, nativism and racism of Trump.
Third Way analyzed all 435 House districts in anticipation of the 2018 election and reached the conclusion that the key fights will be in districts that require appeals to swing voters to win.
The study found that 168 districts are virtually certain to elect Democrats, who currently hold 165 of these seats. On average, these districts are 44 percent white and 56 minority.
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Conversely, there are 195 districts almost certain to elect Republicans. They are 75 percent white and 25 percent minority. 193 are held by Republicans, and, based on past voting records, Democrats face long odds making gains in these deep red districts.
In the middle, there are 72 so-called purple districts that are key to control of the House. They are, on average, 70 percent white and 30 percent nonwhite. Democrats currently hold just over a third of these seats, 27, and must make major gains to reach a House majority. The whites in these disproportionately suburban, relatively high income districts stand out in that they are far better educated than the national average, suffer less poverty and register lower unemployment rates.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at liberal leaning New America, contends that the hostility of Democratic elites to Trump is driving the leftward shift among Democratic voters.
“Opinion leadership among Democratic elites has become much more ‘woke’ over the past several years,” Drutman said by email:
Democratic politicians and journalists have spent more time talking about social justice issues and championing the causes of historically disadvantaged groups, and there’s a basic cue-following that happens. What it means to be a Democratic is shifting, and voters are updating their views to fit with that.
At the same time, Drutman noted, many conservative whites have left the Democratic Party, effectively increasing “the percentages of self-identified Democrats taking more liberal stands on cultural issues.”
Perhaps most important:
Democrats are defining themselves in opposition to Trump, and to stand in opposition to Trump is to take liberal stands on social and cultural issues.
Animosity to Trump is one of many factors driving liberal positioning among Democrats. Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, pointed to some of these in an email:
It’s hard to sort out the roles of Black Lives Matter, police violence, Trump statements, Democratic comments on Trump, social desirability pressures for educated liberals, increasing education among Democrats, campus movements, me too, etc.
The general explanation is that, as a result of all of that, political elites, including the presidential candidates, and the media are talking more about these views, with Democrats publicly taking liberal positions and Trump-era Republicans taking the opposite views.
Cowan argues that rapid advances in digital communications have played a crucial role in the liberalization of Democratic voters:
There are a series of Great American Awakenings sweeping the country in the early part of the 21st century, and each of these awakenings are being radically accelerated by the ubiquity and advent of digital technology and the stories and movements it enables people to tell and build, e.g. The outrageous mistreatment of African Americans at Starbucks now caught on cellphone video or dash cams, the rise of the #MeToo Movement and the ability of social media platforms to empower, amplify and sustain the stories of Dreamers.
From a strategic vantage point, there is no question that the United States — and the world for that matter — is moving in the same direction as the Democratic Party. Still, a question remains: Is the Democratic Party too far ahead of the electorate, in danger of being swamped by reaction?
Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm that conducts polling for NBC and The Wall Street Journal, provided data in an email suggesting that the Democratic Party is at the leading edge on the issue of immigration.
In a series of surveys for NBC/WSJ, Public Opinion Strategies asked voters to make a choice similar to the one posed above by Pew:
A. “Immigration adds to our character and strengthens the United States because it brings diversity, new workers, and new creative talent to this country.”
B. “Immigration detracts from our character and weakens the United States because it puts too many burdens on government services, causes language barriers, and creates housing problems.”
The percentage of all voters choosing A has grown steadily from 41 in 2005 to 47 in 2010 to 54 in 2013 to 64 in 2017. Democrats have led the charge, going from 42 percent in 2005 to 81 percent in 2017, but equally significant are the shifts that Public Opinion Strategies found among Republican constituencies:
In 2010, a majority, 54 percent, of white Southerners agreed that immigration weakens the country; by 2017, a majority, 53 percent, said immigration strengthens the country. Similarly, 59 percent of women without college degrees said immigration hurts the country; by 2017, 53 percent said immigration helps the nation.
Immigration is one of a package of issues that fall under the broad category of liberalization — something Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, calls emancipation.
The worldwide trends on emancipation have been moving decisively in a liberal direction, as shown in this chart developed from Pinker’s new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.”
Over the course of the years covered by the chart, from the 1960s to the present, America’s two major parties have taken opposing sides in a large-scale social struggle over emancipation: the Democrats on the front lines fighting against conservative resistance, a rear-guard Republican action that is determined to maintain the status quo or roll it back. The advantage has rotated from one party to the other over the past several decades.
The Republicans are back in power now. Trump’s fervent millions stand loyally behind him. The president is pushing ever more aggressively to bring the emancipation project to a halt. But his foothold is insecure — and he is rowing against the current.