To understand how far left (and how quickly) the Democratic party has moved, let’s cycle back a very short 20 years. If 1998 Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary today, he’d be instantaneously labeled a far-right bigot. His support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” alone would label him as a conservative culture warrior. His crime bill and his views on illegal immigration would render him a racist bigot, and his balanced budget would block the dramatic expansion of the welfare state contained in Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
In fact, given the GOP move towards populism — aside from the significant issue of abortion — Clinton’s social and economic policies (and his interventionist foreign policy) would make him right-leaning even within the modern Republican party.
Let’s keep moving. 2008 Barack Obama would be a moderate and a bigot in the contemporary Democratic party. Obamacare is but an incremental change compared to Medicare for All, and his comments about gay marriage would be completely disqualifying. 2016 Hillary Clinton would firmly anchor the far-right edge of the 2020 Democratic primary. She didn’t support single-payer health care, her climate policies were modest compared to the Green New Deal, her plan for comprehensive immigration reform actually included (along with a path to citizenship) a pledge to “protect our borders,” and she was one of the most interventionist politicians of the modern era.
Any study of the political polarization in the 21st century has to account for the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve any kind of national consensus when one side is rapidly and constantly changing its demands. At the risk of sullying the prestigious online pages of National Review with something so trite as a gif, when I see the rapidly evolving progressive movement, I see this:
Moreover, when you look at the data, the people who are primarily moving the goalposts — the folks in charge of the change — are white progressives. Today, Gallup released a fascinating study examining the shifts in Democratic ideology from 2001 to 2018. To no one’s surprise, Gallup found that the party has moved substantially to the left over the last 17 years. In 2001, 42 percent of Democrats identified as moderate, 32 percent identified as liberal, and a surprising 23 percent identified as conservative. By 2018, there was a whopping 21 percent shift. Now, 46 percent of Democrats identify as liberal and 35 percent as moderate. Conservatives were down to 17 percent.
The change, however, isn’t uniform across Democratic constituencies. Whites jumped from 34 percent liberal to 54 percent. Only a minority of black and Hispanic Democrats call themselves liberal. Moreover, the liberal surge is driven primarily by college-educated white progressives — the exact people who occupy the commanding heights of American media, the academy, and pop culture.
This white-liberal surge dovetails with other data, including the comprehensive “Hidden Tribes” study identifying left-wing polarization as being primarily driven by a “progressive activist” class that is disproportionately white, disproportionately college-educated, and disproportionately secular. The secularization of white Democrats is obvious from other sources as well. Pew Research Center data indicates that only 32 percent of white Democrats believe in the God of the Bible, compared to 61 percent of nonwhite Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans. White Americans are to the left of black Americans even on racial issues.
And, again, white progressives aren’t just any American constituency. They’re the most culturally powerful people on the planet.
This increasingly rapid secularization and liberalization makes national unity far more difficult. There are times when progressives can win and yet get more angry. Take, for example, same-sex marriage. If you had told American culture warriors ten years ago that the gay marriage issue would be so settled that no serious GOP candidate would attempt to overturn it and that a prominent gay American would address the GOP convention, they might have been tempted to conclude that the culture wars were on the wane, that Americans were coming together on the most important issues of faith and family.
But no. The terms of the debate changed. The goalposts shifted. Now, there’s a live debate as to whether Christian schools can keep tax exemptions if they hold to traditional Christian teaching. It’s a national scandal when the vice president’s wife, a Christian woman, teaches at a Christian ministry — a ministry that again holds to the historic teachings of the Christian faith. It’s even a Supreme Court question whether a private citizen can be compelled to use his or her artistic talents to celebrate events — like a gay wedding — that he finds immoral.
But it’s not just the rapid policy changes that are antithetical to national consensus, it’s the spirit behind them. Change is fast, and there is no toleration for those left behind. Opposed to the latest attitudes about religious liberty? Well, all too many people will quite literally compare you to slaveowners or supporters of Jim Crow. “Deadnaming” — a term still unknown to the wider public — will get you expelled from Twitter, a social-media platform that has long billed itself as a bastion of free speech. Forget Trump’s wall, if you even dare advocate for enhanced border security or modest immigration, then you risk being labeled as a bigot.
And ironically enough, a large part of this angry white activism is conducted on behalf of a black and brown population that is more moderate and more religious than their woke white champions. At a time when being a “white savior” is seen as a mark of insensitivity — denying the power and autonomy of nonwhite Americans — white savioring is practically the mission statement of woke Twitter.
Nothing I say should be construed to minimize the polarization inherent particularly in Republican populism and a Trumpian political strategy that so often depends on demonizing his opposition and doing his best to inflame his base (I’ve written about the perils of Trumpism at exhaustive length). But those who care about the health of the American republic cannot and must not ignore the fact that our most powerful cultural cohort just keeps radicalizing. And they’re radicalizing in the least tolerant way. American politics are dangerously polarized, and white progressives share a large part of the blame.
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