Have Democrats gotten more liberal?



I'm a bit surprised by this Brookings Institute report on polarity showing Democrats becoming more liberal, though at one fourth the rate at which Republicans are becoming more conservative.

Suspect Graph

The data seems to be based on the DW-NOMINATE first dimension score from VoteView.com, which says

...the first dimension can be interpreted in most periods as government intervention in the economy or liberal-conservative in the modern era.

It's hard to believe that the Democrats of today are more liberal than those of the civil rights and strong unions periods. Voteview has a second dimension that they say aligns with racial issues through about 1980 after which racial issues evolved into economic ones, which suggests that that degree of liberalism is not included in the (older) data presented by Brookings.

Why does Brookings leave out the economic qualifier on the terms conservative and liberal? Are other less-economic issues like gun rights and gay rights also left out? Are Democrats really more liberal? Or has some of the social liberalness been reclassified as economic liberalness?


Posted 2013-07-21T18:43:44.630

Reputation: 273

@xan - You might have some success asking this question over on [Skeptics.SE], since it's really a question of how the data is measured and interpreted. – Bobson – 2015-06-29T22:31:29.457

3Interesting question, but I'd worry that these terms all all sufficiently 'fuzzy' enough that it will be hard to come to any concrete conclusions. – None – 2013-07-21T20:21:16.967


What makes you think that the Democrats during the Civil Rights era were more liberal? The Republicans had an 80-20% split on the CRA of 1964, while the Democrats had a 60-40% split.

– user1873 – 2013-07-22T04:31:48.737

2The DW-Nominate score measures the consistency with which a politician will vote with his block. So, an increasingly liberal score doesn't necessarily reflect on the philosophy of democrats, but rather indicates that they tend to vote as a block more. With Republicans, this effect is substantially more exaggerated: very few republicans will vote on something that democrats will, and so they tend to vote as a block as well. – Publius – 2013-07-22T06:33:44.970

@user1873 I am asking about Dems of today compared to Dems of 60s and 70s, not to Republicans. – xan – 2013-07-22T13:15:30.773

@DA. If it helps, I can clarify the question to "What is DW-Nominate measuring and is it accurate to characterize it as conservative/liberal?" – xan – 2013-07-22T13:39:48.257

@avi in that sense, are the numbers perhaps measuring partisanship more than anything? – None – 2013-07-22T13:57:17.777

@xan, I know, is it your contention that the the democrats would have less of a 60-40% split today regarding the Civil Rights Act? You would expect that only 50% would support the civil rights act? ... Interesting – user1873 – 2013-07-22T13:58:28.260

@xan that could be a good question. Also, I think user1873's point is that the civil rights legislation was hardly a landslide for democrats. – None – 2013-07-22T13:59:00.707

@user1873 I'm asking about general ideology and point is evidence against my sense. However, it's possible Dems would have less support for today's equivalent of CRA, whatever that may be. The answer may be that it's misleading to put a single ideology on Democrats of that era because of the bimodality caused by Southern Democrats, which voteview calls out separately. – xan – 2013-07-22T14:15:27.090

@xan, so are you separating out the Northern Democrats in 2013 from the southern when asking if they are more/less liberal? – user1873 – 2013-07-22T14:26:24.457

@DA yes, that's a pretty good way of summarizing it. Democrats are becoming a bit more partisan and Republicans are becoming substantially more partisan in congress. Check out xkcd.com/1127 for a more visual representation of this (using DW-Nominate scores) – Publius – 2013-07-23T00:25:38.443

1Your trouble here is that a change in policy may not reflect a measure of 'liberalness'. Lets say that in 1970 60% of Democrats supported complete racial equality, and today 100% do. Is that a change in 'liberalness' or a change in the times? – DJClayworth – 2013-07-23T03:44:28.073

@DJClayworth - good point. See gay marriage support over the years (538 had a good breakdown recently per-party) – user4012 – 2013-07-24T18:44:45.900



It's hard to believe that the Democrats of today are more liberal than those of the civil rights and strong unions periods.

Actually, it's quite easy. First, you have to realize that in those periods, the modern state would be considered quite liberal.

On civil rights in particular, no one is talking about rolling back any of the old laws. At worst, the conservative Supreme Court is. No Democrat opposes the Voting Rights Act. Contrast that with the actual results in 1965 when seventy-one Democrats (out of two hundred sixty-six) voted against the Act while only twenty-one Republicans did (out of one hundred sixty-two). That's more than a quarter of the Democrats against just over an eighth of the Republicans.

Similarly, can you see any pro-labor forces asking for card check when unions were increasing? At the time, it was common for roving bands of thugs to beat up union and company sympathizers (because both company and union had their own thugs). Secret ballots was to prevent companies from retaliating against workers for voting for the union.

Unions are mostly victims of their success. They've made repetitive jobs so expensive that most are automated. Also, worker safety and wage requirements make unions less important. Why unionize for a minimum wage job? You can get the same job without paying dues. The laws are about as pro-union as they've ever been. Even if their enforcement is less so.

Remember that for years, it was the Republicans who were the liberal party while the Democrats were the conservatives. As late as 1932, FDR ran on a balanced budget plank against the reckless spendthrift Hoover. The New Deal? Those were mostly programs that Hoover proposed during the election. FDR rebranded them and got them passed.

It was when the South switched from the Democrats to the Republicans that this changed. Until then, Southern Democrats were routinely more conservative than New England Republicans. Now, even the most liberal Republican is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.

Finally, realize that even if Congress is becoming more conservative, that the Democrats aren't. Notice that Congress became more liberal in 2006 and 2008 even though the Democrats became more conservative. This was because the balance shifted. A bunch of comparatively conservative (for modern Democrats) Democrats were elected. This shifted the party more conservative but shifted Congress to be more liberal.

As others have noted, the new Democratic issues would have been considered quite radical in the past. Gay marriage? Until the nineties, homosexual acts were still against the law. Government mandated birth control insurance? Prior to Griswold, birth control could be outlawed. Immigration? Remember during World War II when a Democratic Congress and White House rounded up Japanese people into camps? In its own way, that's as bad as Trump's Muslim ban.


Posted 2013-07-21T18:43:44.630

Reputation: 86 095

Adding on to @user1530's comments, could you add a citation for all these assertions? – isakbob – 2019-03-27T03:35:06.563

4There is not a valid analogy between Japanese internment and Trump's intention to halt Muslim immigration or travel to these United States. Referencing the associated curtailment of immigration to these US from Japan and German during the war would be a stronger comparison. As it stands, this is an intellectually dishonest effort to connect the unlawful imprisonment of US citizens with an isolationist, and xenophobic, policy. – Drunk Cynic – 2016-01-13T14:21:36.993

2Minor nitpick: "They've made repetitive jobs so expensive that most are automated"...I'm not sure that holds up to statistics. I believe most have been outsourced, rather than automated. – None – 2016-01-13T18:54:06.180

2No, we lose more jobs to automation than outsourcing even including both domestic and offshore outsourcing. For example, note that we are a net exporter of agricultural products but have reduced from 90% of the population being employed in agriculture to less than 5%. The results in manufacturing are less extreme, but we actually produce more cars domestically than we did in the sixties. The fall in employment is as much a result of automation as foreign competition. – Brythan – 2016-01-14T04:31:47.420

3Do you have a citation for that (more jobs lost to automation)? Not saying you are wrong. Just curious as to the actual numbers. – None – 2016-01-23T05:58:04.290


Absolutely! Due to the results of party polarization, each of the major parties has become ideologically sorted relative to the 1960s-1970s. For example, the moderate Rockefeller republicans of yesteryears are (generally) democrats today, and the conservative southern democrats are generally republicans today. Because of the drifting of conservative democrats to the republican party, the remaining democrats have, as a group, become more liberal.

Most recently, you can see the effect of this from the 2010-2014 elections. As recently as 2008, there were some fairly conservative/moderate democrats in red seats that voted against Obamacare. Republicans have fared very well electorally speaking, and those conservative democrats were generally swept out and replaced by republicans, making the smaller democratic caucus more ideoligcally unified (and more liberal) as a result.


Posted 2013-07-21T18:43:44.630

Reputation: 702

After the Democrats realized segregation was a losing case, they bailed on the KKK and this is why the KKK is so insignificant and not even a blip on the map anymore. If it even is true that some who were single issue democrats jumped ship after bailing on the KKK and came to the Republican party, isn't that a good thing? Point is, the conservative right movement won and the left lost and now the progressives are scrambling to rewrite history (and yes this includes Wikipedia). – Post Impatica – 2015-08-24T00:39:56.047


Republicans are still fighting for the same policies they've been fighting for years. Low taxation, smaller government, fewer regulations, etc. The Democrats are fighting for things that are completely new. For instance you can't find old Democrat campaign speeches from like the 60's where they talk about: gay marriage, gays, women,and/or transgender military, relinquishing American sovereignty to foreign bodies, befriending rogue nations, forcing you to buy health insurance, telling you what types of soft drinks you can buy, i'm sure i could think of more but you get the point.

Post Impatica

Posted 2013-07-21T18:43:44.630

Reputation: 201

This is simply the definition of progressives and conservatives. Progressives want to push for change, conservatives want to maintain the status quo. – None – 2016-01-10T08:41:46.593

3@blip Conservatives in the US fight for change: "[l]ow[er] taxation, smaller government, fewer regulations". Perhaps less change, but following the "conservative" wish list would make things quite different. – Brythan – 2016-01-12T05:53:32.620

@brythan, semantics, perhaps. Some would argue those are regressive ideas. – None – 2016-01-12T06:05:27.403

1Perhaps. But they aren't the status quo. If you changed it to "return to days gone by", I wouldn't protest it. Even though some conservative ideas (not in that list) are quite avante garde. They also aren't nearly as popular. – Brythan – 2016-01-12T06:14:53.853

@Brythan well, in the context of the few policies you mention, yes, that's an attempt to retain the status quo of the wealthy. – None – 2016-01-13T18:58:26.793


Complications in this sort of graphic:
- Political alignment is better plotted along a 2-D axis, where one axis contains economic policy, and the other axis contains social policy. The graphic in the original post is plotting ideology on a one-dimensional axis, which can cause significant loss of fidelity. I say this because, as will be explained later, the Republican Party gets more conservative on economic issues while getting more liberal on social issues. The Democratic Party got more conservative on economic issues, while getting more liberal on social issues. So, in both cases, their ideological drift will have been disguised by a 1-D political axis.
- Republicans and Democrats have both gotten more economically conservative from the 1930's-1970's era to the 1980's-present era. Back in the 1930's - 1970's era, both parties supported a top tax rate that was clearly above 50%, and some conservatives like Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon even supported a guaranteed basic income. The top marginal tax rate was even 91% under the Eisenhower administration (Republican); as compared to 28% in 1988 at the end of the Reagan administration (Republican).
- The Southern Realignment of 1964 saw the Democratic Party and the Republican Party switch ideologies on social issues. At that inflection point, the Republican Party became radically more socially conservative, and the Democratic Party became radically more socially liberal (it's also important to note that the Southern Realignment was a gradual process, and some conservative Democrats didn't lose their seat or change parties until the 1980's, although others switched parties promptly in 1964).
- Outside of the Southern Realignment, both parties have gradually become more socially liberal over time (and the Democratic Party especially so). In the late 60's, the Democratic Party was on the frontier of supporting civil rights along racial and gender lines; but were still decades away from pushing for same sex marriage, transgender protections, etc. In the early 2010's, the Republican Party opposed same sex marriage; but they were way past the point of openly opposing the right to vote for women and non-whites.


Posted 2013-07-21T18:43:44.630

Reputation: 4 429


Unfortunately, the link to the "DW-NOMINATE" site isn't working, but in general attempting to quantify how liberal or conservative a person is without introducing bias is extremely difficult.
For example, consider racism. Is a racist position conservative or liberal? Conservatives Republicans will tell you that the Republican party has always been the party opposing government racism whether that racism was directed at blacks or more recently when affirmative action laws target whites and people of Asian ancestry. And of course you know that most liberal Democrats will say that conservatives are racist.
Consider civil forfeiture laws. Conservatives will say that as people opposing government power and supporting the Constitution that they view opposition to civil forfeiture is a conservative issue. Liberals will say that as people who support civil liberties they view opposition to civil forfeiture laws as a liberal. On many or perhaps most issues there is a stereotype each side holds of the other. How does one go about classifying issues as "liberal" or "conservative" without buying into any of those stereotypes?

The answer is most likely that the chart tells you more about the political leanings of professors Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal (the source of the data for the chart) than it does about which party is increasing in extremism more or at all.


Posted 2013-07-21T18:43:44.630

Reputation: 1 157

I don't see how the data has anything to with extremism. – None – 2016-01-13T19:01:56.543