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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Dems Have Become More Progressive on Racial Justice

If you were wondering “Why The Democrats Have Shifted Left Over The Last 30 Years,” Maddie Sachs explores some answers at FiveThirtyEight:

To answer this, we looked at data from the General Social Survey1 that tracks public opinion on the role of government in a variety of different policy areas between 1986 and 2018…First, the data shows that Democrats have indeed become more liberal over time, particularly on questions related to race and immigration. For instance, the share of Democrats who think the government has a special obligation to help improve black people’s standard of living due to past discrimination increased by over 20 percentage points between 1986 and 2018, while the share who think the number of immigrants to the U.S. should increase rose from 10 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2018.

…on the question of whether the government has a special obligation to help black people as a result of past discrimination, we saw a distinct gap in opinion when breaking down respondents by race. Far more black Democrats were in favor. White Democrats, on the other hand, have historically been less liberal on this question. The majority of the movement we saw in recent years was among white Democrats, who got closer to black Democrats on issues of race, as well as liberal Democrats, who broke away from conservative and moderate Democrats.

…Andrew Engelhardt, a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, found in a forthcoming paper that while Democrats’ movement on race in the 1990s was largely driven by more socially conservative Democrats leaving the party, the Democrats surveyed in the 2000s were updating their opinions to become increasingly liberal.

Put another way, the Democratic Party is the only national political community that increasingly prioritizes racial justice and honors diversity. Sachs notes further that “this trend has held up in other research as well. Dan Hopkins, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies racial politics and political behavior, interviewed the same group of 500 Americans multiple times from 2007 to 2018 and found that racial prejudice has decreased among white Americans, particularly among white Democrats.”

As for why this trend has accelerated in recent years, Sachs writes, “On the one hand, the fact that race and immigration played such a central role in the 2016 election was certainly a contributing factor. A 2018 study by Peter Enns at Cornell University found that rather than voters choosing a candidate who matched their views on controversies like the Black Lives Matter movement, they actually changed their own views to match those of their preferred candidates.”

In addition, “there is evidence that Trump is continuing to drive some of this — although, perhaps not in the way one might expect. There isn’t evidence, for instance, that his rhetoric has contributed to an uptick in racist and sexist attitudes among white voters; instead, as FiveThirtyEight contributor Matt Grossmann has written, “the evidence shows that liberal-leaning voters moved away from [Trump’s] views faster than conservatives moved toward them.”

This is all good news for the Democratic Party. However, Sachs warns “But although the Democratic Party has moved to the left in recent years, a continued leftward trend is not inevitable…while the share of liberals in the Democratic Party is certainly growing, 53 percent of Democrats still identify as moderate or conservative, according to data from Pew.” Yet, “it’s hard to imagine Democrats making a dramatic departure on issues of discrimination and immigration, so if Democratic Party elites continue to direct voters’ attention toward these issues, Democratic voters may move even more to the left.”

MLK once said that “we have to be together before we can learn how to live together.” Ironically, only a landslide defeat of the GOP in 2020 can force them to reassess their racial isolation, and begin to rebuild as a party of reasoned conservatism, instead of racial phobias.

2 comments on “Why Dems Have Become More Progressive on Racial Justice

  1. Victor on

    Doesn’t this mean that if Democratic elites continue shaping the views of liberal Democrats in too much of a liberal direction at some point moderate and conservative Democrats will start jumping ship again?

    I think this is what we saw in 2016, only that Trump’s attitude then made many conservative Democrats and some moderate Republicans reconsider in 2018.

    It doesn’t mean Democrats can move further to the left and drag the rest of the country or even the party with them.

    Isn’t this what we are seeing with Warren/Sanders now?

  2. Candace on

    This reads like the audience its targeting will be persuaded to vote for democrats if they are reminded of the Democratic Party’s affinity for racial justice and the Republicans lack of it.
    Are there Republicans or undecided voters out there confused about this?

    “MLK once said that “we have to be together before we can learn how to live together.”

    well we all kind of live online together now, don’t we. And there are all kinds of we in that equation.


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