Politics & Policy

America Isn’t Growing More Liberal; It’s Growing More Polarized

(Photo Illustration: NRO; Image: Dreamstime)

Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart has launched yet another debate about America’s ideological direction. Asserting that the country is becoming more liberal, Beinart argues that Occupy and Black Lives Matter activists have commandeered the national debate far more effectively than the radicals of the past, to the point that the next Democratic president is likely to be more liberal than Barack Obama and the next Republican president more liberal than George W. Bush. I think not. All evidence suggests that America is growing both more liberal and more conservative. The Left is moving Left, and the Right is moving Right.

From Bill Clinton to Al Gore to John Kerry to Barack Obama, each successive Democratic presidential nominee has run either slightly or substantially to the Left of his predecessor, and the party has won the popular vote in five of the last six national elections. Americans have moved left on sexual issues with astonishing speed, growing supportive of gay marriage and transgender rights in just a few years’ time. Young voters increasingly express support for socialist policies, and the polls record widespread support for immigrants and immigrant rights. The average Democratic legislator is more liberal than at any time in recent memory. For a movement liberal, the future looks bright indeed.

Following the explosive growth of the Tea Party, a movement that explicitly rejects big-government conservatism, Republicans control more elected offices than at any time in modern history. The Democrats have endured more electoral defeats under President Obama than Republicans did in the years after Watergate. Support for life is holding steady, with some evidence even suggesting that young people are more pro-life than their parents. State legislatures continue to pass pro-life legislation at a record-setting pace. Support for gun rights is increasing. Even Millennials support putting boots on the ground to fight ISIS. The 2016 Republican race appears likely to come down to a battle between first-generation tea-party conservative Marco Rubio and second-generation tea-party conservative Ted Cruz, both of whom still currently trail Donald Trump, who’s raced to the top of the primary polls by moving to the right of every other candidate on immigration. The average Republican legislator is more conservative than at any time in recent memory. For a movement conservative, the future looks bright indeed.

What remains clear is that America is more politically polarized than ever. The Left is growing more Left, and the Right is growing more Right. This is entirely consistent with other patterns, including the polarization of American religious practice, which is so pronounced that “nones” — those unaffiliated with any faith — and Evangelicals are on pace to soon become the two largest religious demographics in the country. America is growing both more secular and more religious, more liberal and more conservative. The middle is vanishing.

America is growing both more secular and more religious, more liberal and more conservative. The middle is vanishing.

Beyond increasing ideological and religious polarization — trends that are mutually reinforcing — America is geographically polarized to an extent that makes enduring majorities even harder to construct. Presidential races are fought in a shrinking number of battleground states, with the ideological cocoons of large urban centers and Red America leading partisans on both sides to overestimate their strength. For every conservative who believes the path to electoral success lies in consolidating the vast conservative base, there is a liberal who believes the path to electoral success lies in consolidating the progressive masses. Depending on the skill of a given candidate and the structural dynamics of a given election year, either argument could be correct.

#share#The truly interesting question isn’t whether America is becoming more conservative or more liberal, but whether there is any single significant cultural, religious, or political trend that is pulling this nation together rather than yanking it apart. The alleged gay-rights consensus has given way to new conflict over religious freedom, a cause that has united a broad swath of conservative Americans. Failed gun-control measures have given way to increasingly extremist rhetoric about confiscation, with progressives laying the political groundwork for an unprecedented level of state coercion. Left and Right are increasingly speaking different languages to culturally distinct populations.

Our nation’s shared love for Star Wars can take us only so far, and polarization can’t continue indefinitely without truly significant fault lines emerging in American culture. To a liberal living in Manhattan, the facts on the ground confirm a progressive view of reality. To a conservative living in Tennessee, the real ideological competition and real energy both seem to be on the right. A nation that respects federalism and core constitutional liberties can survive and even thrive in the face of profound ideological divisions. But what if the Left isn’t content to let Tennessee be Tennessee or to allow Christian institutions to be Christian? Then the political stakes will be raised, polarization will increase, and America will move into some truly perilous waters.

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.

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