For the first time in history, the majority of Democrats identify as “liberal” rather than as “moderate” or “conservative.” Yesterday’s Gallup poll marks a sharp turn leftward for the world’s oldest continuous political party, which considered itself just 38% liberal on the eve of Barack Obama’s first presidential election. During that time, the ideological identification of Republicans has ticked up just three percentage points, from 70% conservative in 2008 to 73% in 2018. American politics has indeed polarized over the past decade, but only insomuch as Democrats have radicalized.
In 2005, then-Senator Barack Obama declared, “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked.” Just three years ago Hillary Clinton bragged, “I voted, when I was a senator, to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.” Today the Democrat speaker of the House calls physical national boundaries “immoral.” Meanwhile, the most prominent incoming Democrat “congressmember” agitates for a $40 trillion federal takeover of industry and an income tax rate of 82.7%. The days of Clintonian triangulation are over. At last, the Democrats are honest radicals.
Republicans have always tolerated greater intellectual diversity than Democrats. While 73% of Republicans identify as “conservative,” what precisely they mean by conservative may differ wildly. Traditionalists, libertarians, neo-conservatives, populists, the Religious Right and others call their views conservative, yet none could confuse Edmund Burke for Friedrich Hayek or Norman Podhoretz for Jerry Falwell.
For Democrats in recent years, only one worldview will do: progressivism. For decades the unpopularity of progressivism led Democrats to hide their ideological radicalism or at best to neglect the logical conclusions of their progressive premises. Hillary Clinton, in the clearest example of this cynical strategy, proposed incoherently in 2008 to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” Why a morally grave act should be legal, or conversely why a morally irrelevant act should be rare, Clinton never managed to explain. In 1992, 36% of Americans identified as “conservative” and 43% as “moderate.” Just 17% called themselves liberal. By last year, conservatives’ nearly 20-point advantage had collapsed to single digits.
In 1964, as she helped to found the modern conservative movement, Phyllis Schlafly called for “a choice, not an echo.” Conservatives have always been forthright about our views, whether they brought defeat in 1964 or victory in 1980. Convenience now makes honest men of Democrats. A fair fight will tell if our country now is radical too.