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WASHINGTON — American politics is full of second acts, but the biggest rehabilitation in 2019 may be around the word “liberal.” For years, even Democrats shied away from the moniker. But new data show that L-word has emerged from its exile, and is being embraced again by those who once shunned it.
This week Gallup released data showing that, for the first time since 1994, more than half of Democrats, 51 percent, identified their political views as “liberal.”
Another 13 percent call themselves “conservative,” while 34 percent call themselves “moderate.” Those numbers stand in stark contrast to 1994; when Democrat Bill Clinton was president.
In 2018, the “liberal” figure is 26 points higher than it was in 1994 when only a quarter of Democrats chose to call themselves liberal. Even more remarkable, back in 1994, an equal number of Democrats, 25 percent, labeled themselves as conservative. Since that time, the number of Democrats labeling themselves as conservative declined to only 13 percent.
There are a lot of ways to look at these numbers. They could, for instance, be seen as just another sign of the growing divides in American. Remember when President Clinton governed in the 1990s through triangulation and reaching for the center?
But step back and the full picture shows a bigger shift. When you look at ideology across all voters in the Gallup data there has been notable leftward movement.
Back in 1992, across all Americans, people who identified as “conservative” outnumbered those who identified as “liberal” by a nearly 20 percentage points — 36 percent to 17 percent respectively. In 2018, the gap between “conservatives” and “liberals” narrowed to 9 points — 35 percent to 26 percent.
Furthermore, that change was not just driven by a shift among Democrats. Even among political independents, there has been movement since 1994. The number of independents that identify as “liberal” has grown from 18 percent to 22 percent, while the percentage of “conservatives” has declined from 31 percent to 28 percent.
And when you look at the issue environment, the liberal shift looks like it may be about more than just nomenclature. Consider two big issues where Bill Clinton took conservative stances in his presidency: marijuana usage and gay marriage.
When he ran in 1992, Clinton admitted that he smoked pot when he was younger, but added that he never inhaled in an effort to fend off any critiques about drug use. On the issue of same-sex unions, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Since the 1990s both those issues, once held out as signature “liberal” causes, have become very mainstream, according to Gallup.
In 1995, only 25 percent of Americans thought marijuana use should be made legal; in 2018 the number was 66 percent — a 41-point jump. In 1996, only 27 percent of Americans thought that same-sex marriages should be recognized by law; in 2018 the number was 68 percent — a 41-point increase.
And beyond cultural changes, the broader ideological shift even seems to have impacted the way people think about pocketbook issues, according to Gallup’s polling. Consider federal income taxes.
In 1992, 41 percent of Americans said their federal incomes taxes were “about right” or “too low”, while 56 percent said were “too high.” In 2018, the numbers were flipped — 51 percent of Americans said their taxes were “about right” or “too low,” while 45 percent said they were “too high.”
Considering how people generally feel about taxes – they’d almost always rather pay less — that’s a remarkable shift.
To be clear, none of this means we’ve entered a new age of political liberalism in America, where policies from the left side of the spectrum are uniformly greeted with open arms. There are still more “conservatives” out there than there are “liberals.” And even in this polarized age, there is a large group of voters in the middle (35 percent of the population in Gallup’s numbers) who serve as the nation’s center of political gravity.
But these data suggest that the Democratic Party, and the country as a whole, have moved leftward, even in the age of President Donald Trump. One big result: Issues that were once deemed too liberal for the mainstream, even among Democrats — Medicare and/or college for all, universal employment, abolishing ICE — may play a big role in the 2020 campaign.