‘Lib­eral’: So hot right now

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DANAMIL­BANK Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

Lib­eral is no longer a dirty word.

Since the 1988 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, when Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Lee At­wa­ter turned “Mas­sachusetts lib­eral” into an ep­i­thet, the la­bel has been tainted — so much so that many lib­er­als aban­doned it for “pro­gres­sive.”

But new polling shows a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of Amer­i­cans who de­scribe them­selves as lib­eral and the num­ber of Amer­i­cans tak­ing lib­eral po­si­tions on is­sues. Gallup has found the per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans call­ing them­selves so­cial lib­er­als has equaled the per­cent­age of so­cial con­ser­va­tives for the first time since poll­sters be­gan ask­ing the ques­tion in 1999 (when 39 per­cent iden­ti­fied as con­ser­va­tive and 21 per­cent as lib­eral). Democrats are more likely to call them­selves lib­eral and Repub­li­cans are less likely to em­brace the “con­ser­va­tive” de­scrip­tion, opt­ing in­stead for mod­er­ate.

Like­wise, Repub­li­can poll­ster Bill McIn­turff, who con­ducts the NBC News/Wall Street Jour­nal poll with Demo­crat Fred Yang, has iden­ti­fied a sud­den and un­ex­pected shift in ide­ol­ogy among reg­is­tered vot­ers; such views have tra­di­tion­ally been sta­ble. In sev­eral polls over the past year, he has seen the pro­por­tion of reg­is­tered vot­ers iden­ti­fy­ing over­all as con­ser­va­tive drop to 33 per­cent from 37 per­cent and the per­cent­age iden­ti­fy­ing as lib­eral in­crease to 26 per­cent from 23 per­cent.

McIn­turff said the trend was first seen in sur­veys in 2014, and in 2015 the shift has been “de­tectable above a mar­gin of er­ror” on four straight sur­veys. Since 2010, the num­ber of Democrats iden­ti­fy­ing as lib­eral has in­creased seven points and the num­ber of Repub­li­cans iden­ti­fy­ing as con­ser­va­tive has de­creased six points.

It used to be as­sumed that “the public doesn’t like the word lib­eral,” said Frank New­port, who runs the Gallup sur­veys. “But that’s chang­ing now. The public cer­tainly finds it more ac­cept­able, when we ask them to put a la­bel on them­selves, to use the word lib­eral than in the past. It would seem that the word lib­eral is back in vogue.”

And it’s not just a mat­ter of nomen­cla­ture. Other Gallup polling finds that Amer­i­cans are mov­ing in a more lib­eral di­rec­tion across the board on so­cial is­sues. The move­ment is most strik­ing on same­sex mar­riage, but it has also oc­curred on is­sues such as out of wed­lock birth, di­vorce, stem­cell re­search, sui­cide, abor­tion and even polygamy. Two so­cial is­sues on which Amer­i­cans didn’t show a more per­mis­sive at­ti­tude in 2015 than in 2001 were the death penalty and an­i­mal test­ing — but there, too, they’ve em­braced a more lib­eral view.

Why? More re­search must be done to be sure — but there are the­o­ries.

One is that more peo­ple are iden­ti­fy­ing as lib­eral be­cause of huge and rapid shifts on a cou­ple of so­cial is­sues, par­tic­u­larly gay mar­riage. This would ex­plain why there hasn’t been a com­pa­ra­ble shift to lib­er­al­ism on eco­nomic is­sues, de­spite a per­cep­tion of ris­ing pop­ulism. McIn­turff, while not yet iden­ti­fy­ing causative links, said he’s ob­served a more lib­eral di­rec­tion taken by Lati­nos on immigration and by ed­u­cated younger women on gay mar­riage: “It’s pos­si­ble, given the groups that have shifted the most, that those is­sues are in play in terms of what they be­lieve the def­i­ni­tion is of what it is to be a lib­eral or a con­ser­va­tive.”

A sec­ond pos­si­bil­ity is that the na­tion’s moral pen­du­lum has al­ways been swing­ing through history, and mod­ern opin­ion polling is sim­ply cap­tur­ing the latest swing to­ward the lib­er­tine. This would also ex­plain why con­fi­dence in re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions has been on the wane.

A third the­ory, which I find com­pelling, is that the rise in lib­er­al­ism is a back­lash against the over­thetop con­ser­vatism dis­played by the tea party move­ment. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter and oth­ers have doc­u­mented a dra­matic in­crease in ide­o­log­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion within po­lit­i­cal par­ties over two decades. The Repub­li­can Party has long been dom­i­nated by con­ser­va­tives, and the re­cent rise in lib­er­al­ism among Democrats may be a mir­ror im­age of that— the begin­nings of a tea party of the left.

What­ever the cause— and it’s likely a com­bi­na­tion of all of the above — the change brings welcome bal­ance to the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, but also risks. The rise of a more lib­eral ide­ol­ogy sug­gests Democrats could be­come just as un­com­pro­mis­ing — and just as in­sis­tent on ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity— as Repub­li­cans have been. The hard­en­ing ide­ol­ogy also sug­gests the na­tional po­lar­iza­tion could en­dure even if ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts are un­done.

It’s healthy that the lib­eral flag, hid­den for a gen­er­a­tion, flies proudly again. If those who have been call­ing them­selves pro­gres­sives use their grow­ing num­bers as a coun­ter­weight to the other side but don’t im­i­tate its ex­cesses, they can keep the lib­eral la­bel from again be­com­ing an ep­i­thet.

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