No More Social Conservative Temptation for Democrats

So the headline from Gallup is pretty striking: “On Social Ideology, the Left Catches Up to the Right.”

Gallup first asked Americans to describe their views on social issues in 1999, and has repeated the question at least annually since 2001. The broad trend has been toward a shrinking conservative advantage, although that was temporarily interrupted during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Since then, the conservative advantage continued to diminish until it was wiped out this year.

That in itself is significant, but if you add partisanship into the mix, the change is even more significant. As recently as 2009, 31% of self-identified Democrats also self-identified as “conservative” or “very conservative” on “social issues.” That was a bit of an outlier, but the number was in the low twenties earlier. Now it’s at 14%, even as the “liberal/very liberal” total has spiked to an all-time high of 53%. There’s been a smaller but still significant shift among Republicans from “conservative’/very conservative” to “moderate,” but the overall trend is being driven by Democrats.

So whatever else this means, it means the temptation for Democrats to carve out some sort of “economic liberal/social conservative” position, which was very strong in the 1980s and 1990s in some culturally conservative areas of the country (typically those with a lot of white working class voters who retained enough union influence to keep them from defecting to the GOP entirely), has now pretty much vanished. And that’s evident in the fact that most “struggles for the soul of the Democratic Party” these days are focused on economic issues.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.