Progressive Democrats Are Leading the Party - But There Is a Divide With the 'Left-Behind Centrists'

Democrats across their spectrum are far more united and motivated toward having an impact in 2018’s elections than Republicans, one of the most extensive national surveys in years of partisan attitudes has found. But that doesn’t mean the Democrats’ dominant left flank appreciates the concerns of its most centrist working-class base.

That’s the takeaway—not the lingering splits between Clintonistas and Berniecrats—in a revealing national survey of more than 5,000 adults across the country this past summer of “political typology” by the Pew Research Center, which revealed “deep fissures on the right and left.”

“The Democratic coalition is largely united in staunch opposition to President Trump,” Pew reported. “Yet, while Trump’s election has triggered a wave of political activism within the party’s sizable liberal bloc, the liberals’ sky-high political energy is not nearly as evident among other segments in the Democratic base. And Democrats also are internally divided over U.S. global involvement, as well as some religious and social issues.”

Pew’s survey, its seventh in a series dating back several decades, broke down the electorate into four Democratic and four Republican subsets, as well as a ninth category of politically apathetic Americans. They sorted each party’s members into columns they labeled from the far left to the far right. Taken together, the Democratic groupings add up to 50 percent of the general public surveyed, while the Republicans add up to 42 percent. When added up among registered voters, Democrats account for 55 percent of registered voters and Republicans account for 45 percent of registered voters. (Those figures underscore a point not in Pew’s survey, which is how the GOP has rigged the rules of voting this decade to undermine a more representative government.)

Nonetheless, Pew’s breakdown of both parties’ factions is revealing and useful. Its four Democratic Party segments, starting on the far left and moving toward the center, are: “Solid liberals” (19 percent of registered voters); “Opportunity Democrats” (13 percent); “Disaffected Democrats” (14 percent) and “Devout and Diverse” (9 percent). After their middling category of political “bystanders,” the spectrum continues moving to the right in Republican territory with: “New Era Enterprisers” (11 percent); “Market Skeptic Republicans” (12 percent); “Country First Conservatives” (7 percent) and “Core Conservatives” (15 percent). Here’s Pew's quiz to see where you fit in their matrix.

“Although the partisan divide on political values is now wider than at any point in the past two decades, significant divides in values are evident within both the Democratic and Republican coalitions,” Pew said. “In both coalitions, the most deeply partisan and ideological groups, Solid Liberals and Core Conservatives, also are the most likely to vote, to pay attention to politics and to be invested in the outcome of the 2018 congressional elections.”

What follows are 23 findings and takeaways about Democrats, including more detailed descriptions of each intraparty group, as well as how Democrats compare to Republicans on a range of topics that contrast their values and views of the role of government.

1. The Activist Left Is More Energized Than the Activist Right. “In addition to being the most likely to say they always or nearly always vote, these highly partisan ideological groups also donate money, contact elected officials and discuss politics with others at the highest rates. Far more Solid Liberals say they engage in these activities than do members of other typology groups, including Core Conservatives."

2. Progressives—Pew’s ‘Liberals’—Have Stepped Up This Year. “Solid Liberals stand out for their political activism over the past year, particularly since the 2016 election. Fully 39% of Solid Liberals say they have attended a political event, rally or organized protest since the 2016 election, making them about twice as likely as any other typology group to have engaged in this kind of political activity…

“59% of Solid Liberals say they have contacted an elected official, 49% say they have contributed money to a candidate and 19% say they worked or volunteered for a political candidate over the past year. They are significantly more likely to report engaging in each of these activities than other political typology groups. While Core Conservatives report these types of political behaviors at lower rates than Solid Liberals, they are more active than most other [Republican] groups.”

3. The National Political Battle Is Between the Far Left and Far Right. “Aside from Solid Liberals, Core Conservatives are more likely to make financial contributions to campaigns (32%) than the other typology groups and also to report contacting elected officials at relatively high rates (38% say they have done so over the past year). The current activism gap between Solid Liberals and Core Conservatives is wider than the gap seen in the 2014 Political Typology between Solid Liberals and the two most politically engaged GOP-oriented groups at that time (Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives)."

4. Progressives Are the Biggest Democratic Party Bloc. “Solid Liberals anchor the Democratic coalition, as similar groups did in 2014 and 2011. Those in this group take liberal positions across nearly every domain – including government, the economy and business, race, gender and immigration. They also think the U.S. should be active in world affairs. Solid Liberals are highly engaged and intensely partisan: 99% affiliate with, or lean to, the Democratic Party, including 47% who describe themselves as strong Democrats. About seven-in-ten (71%) describe themselves as liberal; by comparison, no more than a third of those in any other typology group call themselves liberal.

“Solid Liberals are the largest group in the Democratic coalition, and they make up close to half (48%) of politically engaged Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Largely white, financially comfortable and highly educated (most are college graduates and nearly a third have postgraduate degrees), Solid Liberals overwhelmingly express liberal attitudes on virtually every issue. And their level of political activism in the months following Trump’s election sets Solid Liberals apart from all other groups in the political typology, left or right. Nearly half of Solid Liberals (49%) say they have contributed money to a political candidate or campaign in the past year; no more than a third in any other group (32% of Core Conservatives) say the same. And 39% of Solid Liberals report they have participated in a protest against Trump’s policies, which also is by far the highest share among the political typology groups [or both parties].”

5. Next on the Left Are Pro-Business Dems Skeptical About Government. “For the most part, Opportunity Democrats agree with Solid Liberals on major issues. But Opportunity Democrats are less affluent, less politically engaged and less liberal – both in their attitudes on issues and in how they describe themselves politically. One area of difference between Opportunity Democrats and Solid Liberals is on corporate profits: 40% of Opportunity Democrats say most corporations make a 'fair and reasonable amount of profit,' compared with 16% of Solid Liberals. And Opportunity Democrats stand out in their belief that most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard.”

6. Then Come “Disaffected Dems,” Those the Economy Left Behind. “Disaffected Democrats similarly are more likely to call themselves moderate (44%) than liberal (30%), even as 85% identify with or lean to the Democratic Party. Generally in alignment with Solid Liberals on most political values, this group diverges from them in their skepticism about government. In contrast to Opportunity Democrats, Disaffected Democrats are more critical in their views of the economic system broadly, including U.S. involvement in the global economic system.

Disaffected Democrats have very positive feelings toward the Democratic Party and its leading figures. Their disaffection stems from their cynicism about politics, government and the way things are going in the country. This financially stressed, majority-minority group supports activist government and the social safety net, but most say government is 'wasteful and inefficient.' A large majority of Disaffected Democrats say their side has been losing in politics, while fewer than half believe that voting gives them a say in how the government runs things.”

7. Finally, There Are Conservative Democrats Across Middle America. “The final group in the Democratic coalition, Devout and Diverse, is the most politically diverse group in the typology: 59% are Democrats or lean Democratic, while 26% are Republican or lean Republican. Most of those in this majority-minority group hold liberal values about the social safety net and racial issues. But Devout and Diverse part ways with other Democratic-oriented groups in their isolationist views of foreign policy and are far more mixed than these other groups in their views about immigrants, environmental regulation and homosexuality.

"Devout and Diverse face even tougher financial hardships than Disaffected Democrats. Devout and Diverse also are the most politically mixed typology group (about a quarter lean Republican), as well as the least politically engaged. Like Disaffected Democrats, they are critical of government regulation of business. They also are the most religiously observant Democratic-leaning group, and the only one in which a majority (64%) says it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.”

8. Regardless of Political Philosophies, Dems Despise President Trump. “Overwhelming majorities of Solid Liberals (98%), Opportunity Democrats (86%) and Disaffected Democrats (89%) say they don’t like Trump’s conduct in office. As with Trump’s job approval, Devout and Diverse offer less critical views of Trump’s conduct, though far more express negative (52%) than positive views (10%).”

9. Progressives Will Set Tone for 2018’s First Elections: Primaries. “Solid Liberals constitute by far the largest proportion of politically engaged Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Solid Liberals make up a third of all Democrats and Democratic leaners – but close to half (48%) of politically engaged Democrats. That is about the same proportion as the other Democratic-leaning groups combined.

“The next largest group, Disaffected Democrats, make up 23% of Democrats and about the same share of politically engaged Democrats (20%); similarly, Opportunity Democrats constitute 20% of all Democrats and an identical share of politically engaged Democrats. And Devout and Diverse, who express very low levels of interest in politics and government, make up a substantially smaller share of politically engaged Democrats (7%) than of all Democrats (11%).”

10. So Far, There Are More Engaged Progressives Than Right-Wingers. “More than eight-in-ten Solid Liberals (84%) say it matters a great deal to them which party wins control of Congress next year, the highest share of any typology group. Core Conservatives are next highest, at 77%. At this point, other groups are less engaged by the struggle for partisan control of Congress. And the drop-off is particularly notable among three groups close to the middle of the typology. On the right, fewer than half of Market Skeptic Republicans (44%) and New Era Enterprisers (41%) say it matters a great deal which party wins control of Congress; on the left, just 44% of Devout and Diverse say the same.”

11. But Bad News—Progressives Are Least Tolerant of Opposing Views. “On average, Democratic-oriented groups are more likely than Republican-oriented groups to say that discussing politics with people who have different opinions about the current Republican president are stressful and frustrating, with Solid Liberals particularly likely to say this… Solid Liberals are particularly likely to say that a friendship would be strained if someone voted for Trump: 55% say this, along with 32% of Disaffected Democrats and smaller shares of other Democratic-leaning groups.

“Among the Democratic-oriented groups, Opportunity Democrats stand out as being more likely to have at least some Republican friends (51% say this). Though partisan composition accounts for some of this (15% of Opportunity Democrats identify with or lean Republican), even among Democratic Opportunity Democrats, 47% have at least some GOP friends – substantially more than in the other Democratic-oriented groups... Overall, Democrats are more likely to view a friends’ vote for Trump as a strain than Republicans are to say a friends’ vote for Clinton would strain a friendship."

12. Not All Dems Think Government Does a Good Job, but the Far Left Does. “Most Solid Liberals (66%) and Opportunity Democrats (57%) take the opposing view – that government 'often does a better job than it gets credit for.' Yet a majority of Disaffected Democrats (63%), a financially hard-pressed group that overall expresses a preference for bigger government, say government is almost always wasteful and inefficient. Devout and Diverse, another Democratic-leaning group that favors bigger government, are divided over whether government is almost always wasteful (49%) or often gets too little credit (47%). And while New Era Enterprisers side with other GOP-leaning groups in supporting smaller government, they are split over government’s performance (49% almost always wasteful, 47% often does a better job than given credit for).”

13. Democrats Are Split on Whether the American Dream Is Real. “On the Democratic side, there is disagreement over whether hard work leads to success for most people. Solid Liberals are broadly skeptical, but a large share of Opportunity Democrats think most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard. Views of the social safety net prompt traditional partisan responses. Republican-leaning groups say the government can’t afford to do much more to help the needy, while Democratic-leaning groups say the government should do more for the needy even if it means going deeper into debt."

14. Most Dems Think the Economy Is Rigged. “Democratic-oriented typology groups are especially likely to view the economic system as unfair. Fully 99% of Solid Liberals and Disaffected Democrats say the country’s economic system unfairly favors powerful interests. Two-thirds of Opportunity Democrats (67%) say this, as do a somewhat smaller majority (55%) of Devout and Diverse. On the Republican side, 94% of Market Skeptic Republicans say the economic system unfairly favors the powerful. By contrast, most other Republican-oriented groups think the economic system in the country is generally fair to most people.”

15. Dems Want Better Safety Nets, While Republicans Don’t. “Overall, 85% of Solid Liberals say the government 'should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.' Most Disaffected Democrats (72%), Opportunity Democrats (62%) and Devout and Diverse (62%) share this view. Republican-oriented typology groups take the opposite view: 83% of Core Conservatives and 70% of Country First Conservatives say the government cannot afford to do much more to help the needy. Smaller majorities of Market Skeptic Republicans (58%) and New Era Enterprisers (59%) say the same."

16. Health Care Epitomizes Clashing Economic Philosophies. “Core Conservatives and Solid Liberals are poles apart on the question of the government’s role in health care, but this hot-button political issue also surfaces differences among the Republican-oriented groups. And while majorities of all Democratic-oriented groups think the government should make sure all Americans have health coverage, there are differences over whether the country should institute a 'single-payer' system.

“An overwhelming share of Core Conservatives (88%) say it is not the government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage. Most Country First Conservatives (72%) also take this position. A narrower 57% majority of Market Skeptic Republicans say it’s not the government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage. However, among the Republican-leaning New Era Enterprisers, about as many say it is not the government’s responsibility to ensure Americans have health care (50%) as say it is (47%).”

17. National Split: Higher Taxes On Corporations But Not Rich. “A 43% plurality of the public says tax rates on household income over $250,000 should be raised. About a quarter (24%) say tax rates on this income should be lowered, while 29% say these rates on household income over $250,000 should be kept the same as they are now. Views on taxes for large businesses and corporations are roughly similar to those on higher-income rates: 52% think tax rates on large businesses and corporations should be raised, while 24% think they should be lowered and 21% say they should stay the same.”

18. Race and Racial Justice Matters to Dems Much More Than to GOP. “With the exception of the Opportunity Democrats, the groups on the political left broadly express the view that the U.S. needs to continue making changes in order to give blacks equal rights with whites. A clear majority (67%) of Opportunity Democrats also support this idea, but nearly a third (31%) say that the country has made the necessary changes, setting them apart from the other Democratic-leaning groups.

“There is a similar pattern in views of whether racism is a major problem in the U.S. Majorities of all four Democratic-leaning typology groups say racism is a 'big problem' in society. Substantially smaller shares of Republican-leaning groups – ranging from 26% of Core Conservatives to 45% of Market Skeptic Republicans – view racism as a major problem.”

19. But Dems Split on Relationship of Race and Poverty. “Democratic groups are more deeply divided on whether racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks are unable to get ahead. Among Solid Liberals – who include larger shares of white non-Hispanics and college graduates than other Democratic-leaning groups – 91% say racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks cannot get ahead. That number falls to 63% among Disaffected Democrats and 54% for Opportunity Democrats. And among Devout and Diverse, a group that is 53% nonwhite, only 41% see racism as the main barrier to blacks getting ahead; 47% say blacks who are unable to get ahead are mainly responsible for their own condition.”

20. Republicans Say Dems Are Making Up Discrimination. “On broader attitudes about discrimination – whether it is generally overstated or understated – majorities in Republican-leaning groups say the bigger problem is 'people seeing discrimination where it really does not exist.' Among each of the Democratic-leaning groups, about 70% or more say the bigger problem is people failing to see discrimination 'where it really does exist.'”

“Support for the Black Lives Matter movement is most widespread – and intense – among Solid Liberals. More than nine-in-ten Solid Liberals (94%) support the movement, with 65% saying they support it strongly. And opposition is strongest among Core Conservatives: 84% oppose the group, 66% strongly.”

21. All But Most Centrist Dems Favor Immigration. “When it comes to attitudes about immigration, Democratic-leaning groups hold almost universally positive attitudes toward immigrants and support the idea of America being open to people from all over the world. Virtually all Solid Liberals say that immigrants strengthen the society and that openness is 'essential' to America’s identity as a nation (99% each). The only group on the political left that holds ambivalent views of immigrants is Devout and Diverse, a group that is racially and ethnically diverse and also has the lowest family incomes and levels of educational attainment of any typology group.

“The Republican-leaning groups are sharply divided in views of immigrants and the nation’s openness to people from around the world. About three-quarters of Country First Conservatives (76%) say immigrants are a burden on the country – the largest share of any typology group. Country First Conservatives also are most likely to say that the U.S. risks losing its identity as a nation if it is too open to people from around the world (64% say this).”

22. Centrist Dems Also Skeptical of Climate Change. “Majorities across the Democratic-leaning groups say there is solid evidence of global warming, but only about half of Devout and Diverse (52%) say it is mostly caused by human activity, the lowest share in any Democratic group. Republican-leaning groups, Core Conservatives are the only one in which a clear majority (71%) say there is no solid evidence of global warming. Country First Conservatives are more divided (44% see solid evidence of warming, 50% say there is no solid evidence). Two-thirds of Market Skeptic Republicans and New Era Enterprisers (66% each) say there is solid evidence of global warming."

23. But a Majority of Americans Support Environmental Laws. “Large majorities of Core Conservatives (92%) and Country First Conservatives (70%) say stricter environmental laws cost too many jobs and hurt the economy. But majorities in the other GOP-leaning groups – Market Skeptic Republicans (57%) and New Era Enterprisers (60%) – say stricter environmental laws are worth the costs. Among Democratic-oriented groups, sizable majorities say stricter environmental laws are worth the cost, with the notable exception of Devout and Diverse. This financially hard-pressed group is divided: 48% say stricter environmental laws are worth the cost, while 45% say they cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.”

The Democrats’ Challenge for 2018 and 2020

The Pew Research Center report paints a different picture of divisions within the Democratic Party than what was widely portrayed in the Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders nominating contest of 2016. Sanders’ supporters hewed to the progressive far left and the old labor movement center—where Democrats in Midwestern states that saw an exodus of manufacturing supported him in the spring and Trump in the fall. Clinton, in contrast, had the support of progressives by the November election and more centrist corporate Democrats in the spring nominating contests.

Looking ahead, the Pew Center survey more than suggests that progressives have to find ways to reach out to less ideological and less well-off centrists without being patronizing. Similarly, Democrats in the center who have been hurt by globalization and other pro-corporate policies need to find ways to have their voices and concerns taken far more seriously. Those are the intraparty divides that need to be bridged if Democrats are to recover national power in Congress and win key statewide races in 2018.

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