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How Liberals Fake Popular Support For Their Social Policies
And how non-liberal Democrats have responded.
The Democrat Two-Tier System
The American political party system is a de facto binary choice. Sure, there’s Libertarians and Greens and even zanier third parties, but the only two potential winners are Democrats and Republicans. On the national stage, the two parties appear evenly matched. The official Democrat platform supports gender ideology, and the official Republican platform does not. Many people then assume that all Democrats must support gender ideology, and thus about half the country does.
But what do the surveys show?
In the most recent YouGov survey, no answer to any question about hormonal treatment or surgery for trans-identifying teens even rises above 30%, while the majority of Americans are against any kind of medical procedure.
And for allowing trans-identifying males to play on women’s sports teams, the opposition is also overwhelming, with 63% against and 24% for. Even within Democrats, less than half would support a policy!
So what’s the explanation? How did issues that are so unpopular, even with many Democrats themselves, get so much support from the Democratic Party? The answer lies in the false conflation of “Democrat” and “liberal”.
The Democratic Party essentially functions as a two-tiered system. Much of the Democratic establishment tends to be socially liberal, but much of the Democratic base tends to be socially conservative. In fact, less than half of the Democratic Party considers themselves to be liberal.
One might ask how could anyone describe themselves as conservative and still vote Democrat. Yet I know plenty of people that do. These people tend to be more likely to be immigrants, more likely to be non-White, and more likely to be working-class. The liberals in the Democratic Party tend to be affluent and White:
Compared with the rest of the (nationally representative) polling sample, progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year. They are nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree. And while 12 percent of the overall sample in the study is African American, only 3 percent of progressive activists are. With the exception of the small tribe of devoted conservatives, progressive activists are the most racially homogeneous group in the country.
Indeed, the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, has found that
Democratic voters have shifted more to the left than Republican voters have to the right. In 1994, the second year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, 25% of Democrats thought of themselves as liberal and the same share—25%—called themselves conservative. A strong plurality of Democrats—48%—identified as moderate.
By 2022, the second year of Joe Biden’s presidency, the picture had entirely changed. An outright majority of Democrats—54%—now called themselves liberal, while the share of conservatives fell to just 10%. Moderates, who once outnumbered the party’s liberals by 23 percentage points, now trailed them by 18 points.
For Democrats, the ideological changes have varied significantly along racial and ethnic lines. In 1994, White, Black, and Hispanic Democrats were equally likely to think of themselves as liberal. But during the next three decades, the share of White Democrats who identify as liberal rose by 37 points, from 26% to 63%, while Black and Hispanic Democrats rose by less than half as much, to 39% and 41%, respectively.
The outcome: unlike three decades ago, the Democrat Party is now a coalition of White Liberals and non-white voters the majority of whom think of themselves as moderate or conservative. It is not a coincidence that the majority of Whites who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 rarely if ever attend church, while more than 90% of Black Biden supporters attend monthly or more.
The modern day Democratic Party is essentially led by wealthy mostly-White progressive activists that are far more liberal on social issues than everyone else, especially on issues of race and gender identity. However, their views are only held by a small minority of people. As I discussed in my last essay, pretty much all support for gender ideology in America comes from affluent White liberals. Black Americans are the least likely racial group in America to support gender ideology—even though Black Americans overwhemingly vote Democrat.
Earlier this year, Thomas Edsall wrote in The New York Times about this two-tiered system and asked multiple political experts to chime in. Some quotes:
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?
African Americans are now a moderating force within the party. It was no accident that they rallied around the most moderate candidate with a serious chance of winning the nomination in 2020, or that the leader of the pro-Biden forces took the lead in rejecting the “defund the police” slogan.
My sense is that much of the college-educated liberal political rhetoric is focused on social signaling to satisfy their own psychological needs and improve their social standing with other college-educated liberals, rather than policies that would actually reduce racial gaps in economic well-being, civil rights protections and other quality of life issues.
Many white liberals live in enclaves of affluence, sheltered from the economic and personal insecurity of the low-income communities. They are more strongly motivated by identity issues around gender and race but are less concerned with poverty or economic insecurity issues than liberals in the sixties.
Erickson did not hesitate, however, to describe the party’s educated left wing as overrepresented in the media, on Twitter and in positions of power. That group is loud and more culturally liberal, though they often purport to speak or act on behalf of communities of color. Meanwhile, the African American and Latino voters who deliver victories to Democratic candidates in nearly every race have remained much more ideologically mixed.
To summarize: the modern day Democratic Party is made up of an upper tier of affluent mostly-White liberals, and a lower tier of various groups that are more conservative, but still vote Democrat due to identity-based politicking. Ironically, the party that claims to be against White supremacy essentially has a tiered system that puts the interests of White people on top.
Progressive activists, despite making up only 8% of Americans, essentially have control of a party that half of Americans vote for.
How Identity Beat Ideology
All this data brings us to one key question, one that will determine the future of the two parties in America.
If so many Democrats are conservative, why don’t they vote Republican?
Republicans have lost 7 popular votes in the last 8 Presidential elections, with the only popular-vote victory in 2004 coming from an incumbent President with a country fighting two wars. Aligning conservatives to Republicans is the most important thing any Republican strategist needs to be theorizing about, lest Republicans never win a national election again. And the Republican Party wouldn’t even have to be less conservative. Republican politicians just have to convince conservatives to vote for them.
So if Republicans couldn’t court some conservative voters, how did Democrats succeed? The answer is through precise identity-based appeals.
The Democrat narrative given to non-White voters is that the Republican Party is a coalition of rich old White businessmen and poor rural rednecks that hate anyone who looks different.1 Some non-White voters believe it and end up voting Democrat, even if their true values align with the Republican platform.
Upper-tier Democrats, the progressive activists, are the most politically influential ones within the Democratic coalition. Most Democrat politicians are drawn from the upper tier, even when they claim to represent the lower tier:
And it's no accident; it's by design. The Democratic Party is well aware of the centrism of many Black voters, and to counter that, progressives have employed an explicit strategy: They pit a progressive Black candidate who reflects the preferences of white progressives against a moderate white one whose views more closely align with the Black community.
Indeed, many Democrat elites realize the power of identity-politics voting. They know that there are Black voters that will vote for a candidate simply because the candidate is also Black, and capitalize on that by running Black progressives that can appeal to both the ideological commitments of White liberals and the identity politics of Black voters. However, Black progressives are poor proxies for how most Black Americans actually think, but since progressives are the ones being elected, this creates the illusion for non-Black Americans that Black voters are all liberal, when most aren’t.
Paul Vallas’s defeat by Brandon Johnson in the Chicago mayoral race is perhaps the most recent high-profile example of how progressives manage to win elections while getting many conservatives to vote for them. If Johnson was White and Vallas was Black, Vallas would’ve crushed Johnson in a landslide, even when their policies were very different.
No racial group in America has more political loyalty than Black Americans. Political scientist Chryl Laird, author of Steadfast Democrats, has noted that
This partisan loyalty is maintained through a strategic social process that we call racialized social constraint, where by support for the Democratic Party has come to be defined as a norm of group behavior. In other words, supporting the Democratic Party has come to be understood as just something you do as a black person, an expectation of behavior meant to empower the racial group.
Laird discusses social experiments where Black voters are more likely to say that they’re Democrats when asked that question by a Black pollster than a White pollster—showing that many Black voters are ideologically Republican but vote Democrat due to social pressure. Black Republicans are less likely to attend Black churches than Black Democrats—showing that there is a strong pressure to vote Democrat in Black social networks that prevents otherwise-Republican voters from doing so.
Latino and Asian voters do not have a historical loyalty to Democrats2, and thus vote closer in line with ideology than identity. In fact, Asian voters used to lean Republican, backing Bush to Clinton 55% to 31% in 1992 and Dole to Clinton 48% to 44% in 1996. While nativist rhetoric has made Asian voters swing to Democrats over the past two decades, it’s very possible for this trend to reverse again.
Many Latino and Asian voters are immigrants, and immigrants tend to hold more conservative values. The average Asian immigrant is actually more conservative than their American-born children, which makes a lot of sense when you consider what American colleges do to young minds.
Republicans often see immigrants voting Democrat and think that immigrants must all be liberal. But the reason most immigrants vote Democrat is stunningly simple: because Democrats support immigration. A Republican Party that supports a sensible legal immigration policy would likely reverse the immigrant voting pattern, as then immigrants would vote for ideology over immigrant identity.
In a final example, Muslim voters were once solidly Republican, as most Muslims hold conservative values like Evangelicals do.3 71% of Muslim voters voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Bush would’ve lost the election if it weren’t for the 50,000 Muslims in Florida mostly voting for him. Six days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush visited a mosque and proclaimed that terrorists did not represent American Muslims. Most Republicans did not listen to him, and their anti-Islam rhetoric resulted in Muslims becoming a solidly-Democrat bloc. Democrats didn’t have to do anything to earn those votes—they just had to not be Republican.
This is how Democrats have successfully managed to push very socially-left issues to the forefront even without having the numbers to back it up. By indulging in identity politics for various groups that are more conservative, Democrats are able to gain their votes to push something far more liberal. Then those liberals pretend like all Democrats support those issues, when in reality many people vote Democrat due to identity, not ideology.
Republicans have their own splits, of course. A few months back, I wrote about the tension between establishment classical-liberal conservatives and a surging populist “national conservative” movement. But that infighting has less to do with ideology and more to do with how to promote conservative values—either by purging libertarian “small-government” ideals and increasing government power to win the culture war, or to remain the Party That Buckley Built.
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is composed of two tiers that disagree over basic values. One tier is overwhemingly young, college-educated, extremely socially liberal—and claim to represent the other tier. Progressive activists frame Democrat wins around the country as evidence that people support every plank on the platform, even when a sizeable number of Americans are single-issue voters, or simply prioritize certain issues.
A rural hunter could be a liberal in almost every aspect—but vote Republican because she likes guns. Someone in the trades could be a conservative in almost every aspect—but vote Democrat because he’s in a union. A radical feminist could be horrified that Democrats are letting biological men into women’s spaces—but vote Democrat because she’s pro-choice. And so on.
This all sets the stage for a shift in the two parties. Many lower-tier Democrats are tired of the upper-tier lying about their interests and promoting an ideology that is far more liberal than average.
You don’t have to wait around to watch the coalition crumble. It’s already happening. Trump’s 2016 victory was framed as a shifting of White working-class voters, but the truth is that working-class voters of all races shifted toward him. The irony is that Republicans were called the party of rich White people for so long—yet Democrats are now led by, you guessed it, rich White people.
Pundits on the left have been paying attention. The socialist magazine Jacobin in particular has covered this shift extensively. I have a folder where I bookmark articles about this shift, and it’s getting longer and longer every day.
Muslim voters went from 90%+ support of John Kerry in 2004 to 35% support of Trump in 2020—impressive numbers for a candidate that once called for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries. In Sunset Park, the Asian immigrant community I live in, Asian voters rapidly switched from solidly Democrat to solidly Republican. In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke, winning Asian voters 52% to 46%. Al Sharpton is getting on TV to talk about how Democrats are losing Black men. And there are a million articles about how Latinos are abandoning Democrats.
The two tiers of the Democratic Party are going through a long and messy breakup. As the upper tier pushes deeply unpopular policies on gender and race that are far to the left of most voters, more groups will want to leave the coalition. The vast majority of voters don’t support puberty blockers and double mastectomies for “trans kids”. The vast majority of voters don’t even know there is a prison abolition movement. The vast majority of voters don’t think math is racist. The vast majority of voters don’t think we’re in some massive climate crisis. The vast majority of voters don’t know a single word of theory cooked up from the ivory towers.
As for now, though, the coalition still hangs on a thread. The upper tier will still push its most radical policies while pretending the lower tier signed off on them. As above, but not so below.
Sometimes liberal Democrats will also add Christian to the list of Republican adjectives, but they don’t always because they know that a lot of their Black and Latino voters are Christians. In fact, Black and Latino Americans are more likely to be Christian than White Americans.
The question of why Black Americans are almost monolithic in voting Democrat despite tremendous ideological diversity is one that needs to be fully contextualized within historical shifts. Most Black voters in the Reconstruction era were Republicans. The labor movement turned many Black voters Democrat, as did Harry Truman’s support of federal civil rights legislation. Democratic support of the Civil Rights movement solidified these gains in the 1960s.