Elections have consequences, and many of those consequences are — well, consequential. But every election brings endless speculation that this election was the election – the realignment, the death of the losing party, the upending of the current political era.
The midterm election in 2002 was “a disaster” that crushed Democrats and forced them, if they were smart, to tack toward the center. President Bush’s 2004 victory only solidified the Democrats’ fate. Until, of course, the 2006 and 2008 elections marked a resurgent Democratic left and the ultimate failure of the conservative project. Until 2010… well, you get the point.
Some of these speculations are more well-founded than others. In his last post for the New York Times’ Campaign Stops blog, Columbia professor Thomas Edsall asks if “Rush Limbaugh’s country [is] gone“. Pointing to some polling data and discussions with prominent Democratic pollsters, Edsall suggests that a new left-leaning electorate is emerging from the ashes of the political polarization and financial crisis of the late 2000s.
The argument is interesting, but we could probably reconsider some of the evidence he points to.
Mr. Edsall, for example, discusses a Pew Research survey showing that young voters, African Americans and Democrats with a favorable impression of socialism. This could mark the emergence of a potent leftism that could forever transform the American political landscape.
The numbers say something else to me. I’m not sure that any more Americans would support actual socialist policies today than would have two or ten years ago. What likely changed is the affective charge of the term.
Take, for example, dissertation research by UNC’s K. Elizabeth Coggins on the emergence and relative decline of “liberalism” as a political identity. A paper (pdf) by Coggins, coauthored with Jim Stimson, explores how individuals attach meaning to such labels as “liberal” and “conservative”, and “how widely popular liberal policies like Social Security, Medicare, and workplace safety came unhinged from the ideological label which defines them. ”
If liberalism could come unhinged from its ideological content, it stands to reason that the same could happen to socialism. Over the past several years, many conservative commentators and Republican leaders have called President Obama’s policies “socialism”; and if the term might rally voters on the right, it may too help to redefine how many liberals think of “socialism”. If liberals begin associating Obamacare and higher taxes on top income earners as socialism, they may be more inclined toward the ideology.
The rest of Mr. Edsall’s case rests on striking differences between liberals and conservatives on an array of policy proposals. The gaps are stark, but they are not necessarily new. Self-identified liberals and conservatives have long held distinct views on an array of policy issues from education to welfare spending.
True, ideologically-leftist voters attach more consistently to the Democratic party, and conservatives self-identify more as Republicans, than in decades past. This upholds a partisan sorting hypothesis, but not to any particular narrative of either left- or right-of-center ideologies emerging as dominant.
In fact, there is little sign that the American electorate is moving either left or right. Macropartisanship is known to shift over time in response to economic conditions, the occupant of the White House and political shocks. Surely Republicans will want to rethink their strategy of appealing to minorities and to a lesser extent women; but it’s unlikely that Republicans will have to learn to live with an emerging leftism in the American electorate.