Over the past four decades, the percentage of white Democrats who identify themselves as liberal has more than doubled, growing at a much faster pace than Black or Hispanic Democrats.
In 1984, according to American National Election Studies data, 29.8 percent of white Democrats identified as liberal; by 2020, that percentage grew to 68.5 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of liberals among Black Democrats grew from 19.1 percent to 27.8 percent, and among Hispanic Democrats from 18 percent to 41 percent.
This shift raises once again a question that people have been asking since the advent of Reagan Democrats in the 1980s: What does it mean for a party that was once the home of the white working class to become a coalition of relatively comfortable white liberals and less well off minority constituencies?
I posed this and other questions to a range of scholars and political strategists, including William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings, who recently cited similar (though not identical) trends in Gallup data. In an essay last month, “The Polarization Paradox: Elected Officials and Voters Have Shifted in Opposite Directions,” Galston wrote:
Galston argued in an email that Black Democrats have assumed an unanticipated role in the party:
The coalition of upper-middle-class liberals and minority voters, Galston wrote, “has been sustainable because the former believe in the active use of government to fight disadvantage of various kinds and are willing, within limits, to vote against their economic self-interest.”
Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, wrote back by email that
The Democratic Party, Wronski continued, has become
The Democrats’ biracial working-class coalition during the mid-20th century, in Wronski’s view, “was successful because racial issues were off the table.” Once those issues moved front and center, the coalition split: “Simply put, the parties are divided in terms of which portion of the working class they support — the white working class or the poorer minority communities.” The level of educational attainment is the line of demarcation between the two groups of white voters.
By 2020, the white working class — defined by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis Fed as “whites without four-year college degrees” — voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden 67-32, according to network exit polls. In the 2022 election, white working class voters backed Republican House candidates by almost the identical margin, 66-32.
The shift of non-college white working class support to the Republican candidates, Wronski wrote,
There are those who argue, however, that the contemporary Democratic coalition is more fragile than Wronski suggests. Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, emailed to say that “If you’re a Democrat, you might worry that the coalition is not stable.”
Over the long haul, Enos wrote,
Enos went to far as to challenge the depth of elite support for a liberal agenda:
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, is an explicit critic of the left wing of the party. “It is plain to me that the Democrats’ greatest challenge is the progressive left,” Begala wrote in an email:
In contrast, Begala continued,
In the November 2021 study of the composition of the Democratic Party that Begala referred to, Pew Research reported that
This disproportionally white wing of the party, as I have previously discussed, provided crucial support for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley when they ran for Congress in 2018, putting them over the top in their first primary victories over powerful Democratic incumbents.
A variety of forces is straining the center-left coalition.
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, replied by email to my inquiries:
As a result, in Cain’s view,
When all said and done, “White liberals are still a better deal for nonwhites than the Republican Party,” Cain contended, “but it is revealing that the African Americans in South Carolina preferred Biden to Sanders or Warren.”
The liberalism of white Democrats cuts across a wide range of issues. Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts cited data collected by the Cooperative Election Study:
Now, Schaffner continued, “white Democrats appear to be the most liberal group in the party on a range of issues, including immigration, climate, crime/policing, abortion, health care, gun control and economic/social welfare.”
I asked James Stimson, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, how the meaning of “liberal” changed over the past 40 years. He replied:
The term has become infused with racial content. That may be the key to the conversion of educated suburban voters into liberals and Democrats. Trump’s open racism must surely have added greatly to the new meaning of liberalism. Perhaps the L-word has become a way to say, “I am not a bigot.”
Along similar lines, Viviana Rivera-Burgos, a political scientist at Baruch College of the City University of New York pointed out how much the liberal agenda has transformed in a relatively short time:
Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, argued in an email that there is a danger of overemphasizing the liberal tilt of the Democratic electorate:
Erickson did not hesitate, however, to describe the party’s educated left wing as
“If we continue to let white liberals on Twitter define what it means to be a Democrat,” Erickson warned her fellow Democrats, “we are going to continue to alienate the voters of color who are essential majority makers in our coalition. While the Twitterati wants to ‘Defund the Police,’ communities of color want their neighborhoods to be safe — both from police violence AND violent crime.”
To build her case, Erickson cited that role of minority voters in the last New York City mayoral election: “They elected Eric Adams and rejected the far-left candidates whose voting blocs were made up primarily of white liberals,” noting that “Adams outpaced Maya Wiley by 23 points with Black voters and 10 points with Hispanic voters.”
In local elections in 2021, Erickson continued, Black voters “rejected a measure in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, to defund the police: According to ward-level data, the predominantly Black wards 4 and 5 rejected the Minneapolis ballot measure by wide margins (over 60 percent voted no), while predominantly white wards drove the measure’s support.
Erickson suggested that the culturally liberal tilt of the party’s left wing was a factor in declining minority support:
These losses reflect “a divergence in priorities and values,” Erickson wrote, citing poll data showing that
While the party is divided on values and priorities, Erickson pointed out that Democrats in Congress have reached general agreement on many issues that were highly divisive in the past:
The major intraparty conflicts that remain, Erickson wrote,
The transition from a partisan division among white voters based on economic class to one based on level of educational attainment has had substantial consequences for the legislative priorities of the Democratic Party.
Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, pointed out in an email that “the class base of the parties has atrophied” with the result that “the party system in the U.S. simply does not represent that ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots.’ Both parties represent a mix of haves and have-nots in economic terms.”
Because the Democratic Party must hold down “a coalition of upper-income whites and minority constituencies across all income groups,” Lee wrote, party leaders
As an example, Lee wrote, “Current Democrats are much more concerned about forgiving student loans than about the majority of voters who will not or did not go to college.”
What, then, is likely to happen in the Democratic ranks?
The reality, as summed up by Ryan Enos, is that for all their problems,
For the moment, the Democratic coalition — with all its built-in conflicts between a relatively affluent, well-educated, largely white wing, on the one hand, and an economically precarious, heavily minority, but to some degree ascendant electorate on the other — remains a functional political institution.
“In this sense,” Enos told me, “it’s important not to overstate the damage that some perceive liberalism as having done to the Democrat’s electoral fortunes.”
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