Guess What? From Pot to Government Spending, Americans Are Far More Liberal Than Politicians Assume

Is American becoming more liberal? A growing set of data says the populace is shifting to the left, both in general and on a score of major issues, a seismic change from the days when social conservatism, anti-immigration anxieties, reactionary crime policies and more kept the populace—and their elected leaders—in a right wing crouch.

For proof, look no further than the fact that people are willing to call themselves liberal, a label long deployed by the right as a tag of decadent unelectability. Per a Gallup poll released last week, the number of people self-describing as liberal on social issues matched those calling themselves conservative for the first time in the poll’s history—an eighteen point shift from 1999, when 39% of the population identified as socially conservative, versus only 21% as liberal.

One main reason: liberal issues are becoming more popular. As the Washington Post pointed out, the liberal positions on ascendant issues, namely marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, have rapidly gained in popularity in the past ten years.

In the 2004 election George W Bush arguably snatched victory from the jaws of narrow defeat by motivating evangelical voters to the polls over gay marriage. It appeared at the time, and has subsequently proven to be, the death throes of the obsolete opposition. The public opposed same-sex marriage 42-55 in 2004; those numbers are exactly reversed today, a massive 26-point swing. (For even more dramatic context, opposition was 68% in 1996, during a Democratic administration.)

The public opinion has shifted even more on marijuana legalization. Two-thirds opposed legalization ten years ago, a situation that has almost completely flipped in the decade since. In 2014, as various state-level legalization measures were passed, 58% of the population approved of its legalization.

Shifting attitudes on immigration have also pushed the public leftward. In 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, immigration was uncontroversial and non-partisan; most people supported the act, which opened up immigration to Latin America and Asia.

But by the 1990s, PEW reports, “by wide margins, Americans saw immigrants as burdens on society rather than as strengthening the country through their hard work. Also, many thought that the growing number of newcomers would threaten traditional American values and customs.”

Those attitudes have changed. According to PEW, "By 2014, a healthy 57% majority had come to the opposite point of view, saying that immigrants strengthened the country through their hard work; and just 35% now say that the increasing number of immigrants is threatening American values."  As the Republican Party continually fails to bring its radicalizing conservative wing around to immigration reform, pro-immigration attitudes are becoming increasingly allied with liberals—which in turn strengthens other liberal views (see below).

It’s not just social issues. While not as liberal on economic issues as they are on social issues, neither are Americans as conservative on the role of government as commonly assumed. This is not seen in the top-level polling numbers, which reliably show a distrust of government, and a general disinclination toward an active rather than a limited government.

But a slightly deeper dive in the numbers reveals something else. “Government” is unpopular, but the individual programs and departments it runs suffer no such fate. A 2013 PEW poll on spending cuts was unable to find a single program the American public actually wanted to cut, despite professed desire for lower spending and lower taxes. GOP candidates may talk about axing of the Department of Education, but 60% of the public believes education funding should be increased. Majorities believe funding should be maintained or increased for infrastructure, environment, even unemployment aid.

The desire for a more activist government is in large part helped by demographic shifts, particularly among Hispanic voters. A whopping 75% of Hispanic voters favor “a big government which provides more services to a small one providing fewer services,” a number almost double that of the population at large. With Hispanic voters firmly in the Democrat’s camp for the foreseeable future, the desire for a more activist government drives up support for liberal policies, creating a mutually-reinforcing effect.

The general distrust of government is also matched by a suspicion of big business. Satisfaction with the influence of major corporations has cratered in the past fifteen years, falling from 48% just after the 9/11 attacks to 29% on the eve of President Barack Obama’s reelection. The rising dislike of corporations, increasing popularity of liberal social issues, and strengthening desire for an activist government combine to form a decidedly more liberal electorate than went to the polls ten or twenty years ago.

There are structural causes as well. The most primal reason people are becoming more liberal is that they are becoming more polarized in general. A PEW report on polarization found that the past twenty years have seen a marked move toward what they called “ideological consistency”—voting with your ideology on a wide range of issues. Per PEW:

As partisans have moved to the left and the right, the share of Americans with mixed views has declined. Across the 10 ideological values questions in the scale, 39% of Americans currently take a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions. That is down from nearly half (49%) of the public in surveys conducted in 1994 and 2004. As noted, the proportion of Americans who are now more uniformly ideological has doubled over the last decade: About one-in-five Americans (21%) are now either consistently liberal (12%) or consistently conservative (9%) in their political values, up from just one-in-ten in 2004 (11%) and 1994 (10%).

The retrenchment into ideology occurred for both liberals and conservatives. But when combined with the rise of issues like gay marriage and marijuana it shored up liberals more:

The ideological consolidation nationwide has happened on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, but the long-term shift among Democrats stands out as particularly noteworthy. The share of Democrats who are liberal on all or most value dimensions has nearly doubled from just 30% in 1994 to 56% today. The share who are consistently liberal has quadrupled from just 5% to 23% over the past 20 years.

In other words, Democrats twenty years ago were more likely to stray into conservative positions than they are today. For instance, the 1990s saw the peak of societal anxiety over crime, with even Democratic President Bill Clinton passing stricter law enforcement and criminal justice measures (that his wife now disavows on the campaign trail) in conjunction with a Republican Congress. The gain in popularity for marijuana legalization, and the subsequent (and welcome) mainstream focus on criminal justice reform, means that same Democrat will be less likely to bleed into conservative positions on drugs and crime.

Despite all of this data, perceptions of the ideological leanings of the populace lag behind the reality. A 2014 study from UC Berkeley recently highlighted by Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum found that both Democratic and Republican legislators significantly overestimate the conservative views of their own constituencies, with Republican lawmakers doing so by an average twenty points. Constituents had to overwhelmingly favor universal health care before their representatives believed the issue had district support, while lawmakers’ characterization of support for same-sex marriage was mired in the time before the issue rocketed to majority popularity:

Not until districts tend to support universal healthcare by a 2 to 1 margin do a majority of candidates running to represent a district tend to expect a majority of their constituents to favor the policy, while politicians appear to believe that public opinion on same-sex marriage resembles what it looked like over a decade ago.

What this means, in effect, is that constituents get legislatures that are at least ten points more conservative than they want, which helps explain why the populace seems to move to the left on issues like pot legalization long before their elected representatives do. If the greater trends are any indication, legislators have a long way to go to catch up to their constituents’ liberalization.

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