What’s going to happen to liberals when the Right begins to give way?

So much of liberals’ orientation these past five decades has been shaped by the rise of the right; by the sense that the US is really, truly, in its heart of hearts, a center/right country; that the people who elected Nixon, Reagan, and Bush really are the permanent majority.

But a lot of demographic research is showing that this is radically changing among younger voters. Not just what we’re seeing in the Democratic Party, where younger voters are moving, galloping, to the left, but also among younger Republican voters, who are far less conservative than their Republican elders. As this Vox piece reports:

Piles of research had already indicated that the youngest generation is much more liberal than its predecessors.

But it turns out it’s not just that young people are in general more likely to identify as liberal or that young liberals are to the left of older liberals — though both of these phenomena do appear to be true.

It turns out young Republicans are also likely to be to the left of older Republicans, according to a new study from Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego.

Going into the research, Jacobson said he more or less expected young conservatives to be to their parents’ left on issues like same-sex marriage and immigration.

But Jacobson said he found sharp splits by age among Republicans on almost every topic, from whether they believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim to whether they listen to conservative talk radio. (Jacobson used a new Gallup data set involving 400,000 responses that he said hadn’t been previously analyzed.)

Perhaps just as surprising: Fewer young Republicans are willing to identify themselves as conservative.

One big question is if these trends will hold up as these younger conservatives grow up, have children, and begin paying taxes.

There’s reason to believe they will. Jacobson’s research is built around a well-known phenomenon in political science known as “generational imprinting” that’s been documented since the 1950s.

It’s a simple idea: Essentially, young people decide their political identities when they’re “coming of political age” — or when they first really begin paying attention to what’s going on in politics.

These large-scale demographic shifts are going to pose a big challenge to liberals.

Neoliberals will increasingly lose the ability to discipline the left by invoking the fear of the right. More genuine liberals, whose sympathies lie with the left but whose sensibility has been so disciplined by the right that they’ve sincerely internalized these norms as the outermost edge of what is politically legitimate, will also have to rethink. When your mental horizons are so constructed and constrained by something like Reaganism, you grow attached to them and find it hard to give them up, even when conditions change.

As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Because that fearing it so long/ Had almost made it dear.”


  1. Gary Othic April 9, 2016 at 7:41 pm | #

    It’s funny, people say the same thing in Britain (‘it’s a centre right country’). I largely suspect that it’s a myth though – or that people mistake electorates being ‘cautious’ for ‘conservative’

  2. msobel April 9, 2016 at 8:42 pm | #

    I would love to have this be our biggest problem.

  3. Pat Bowne April 9, 2016 at 9:07 pm | #

    We’ll pick at each other over smaller and smaller infractions until we’ve destroyed so much of our unity and reputation that the right comes back again. Or until the next generation rebels against their parents. Isn’t that what always happens?

    Can we, by taking thought now, avoid it? I look at places where liberals already dominate, and I am not sanguine.

  4. brodix April 9, 2016 at 9:15 pm | #

    The information age is corrosive to a constricted point of view.

  5. Steve White April 9, 2016 at 9:16 pm | #

    which is why Sanders is so important, not that he get elected Pres, but that he moved the frame of discussion way to the left.

    • willf April 10, 2016 at 10:47 am | #

      That frame will snap right back where it was if he drops out of the race.

    • UserGoogol April 10, 2016 at 11:27 am | #

      It seems like a fallacy to assume Sanders has any causal involvement in the process. Young people have been moving to the left well before Sanders even thought about running for president. Sanders was just the person who showed up and became the face of that social democratic tendency for a while. If any individual is responsible for this shift (and I’m definitely more inclined to favor systematic factors) it’s George W. Bush, for being a rather bad president and making conservatism look bad to the young people.

  6. stephen laudig April 9, 2016 at 10:07 pm | #

    One and a half of the two “major” political parties resemble the proverbial fighting drunks that have to lean on each other to stay vertical. Sanders is, in a sense, a jujitsu move of stepping away from codependency on oligarch money to watch the other fella sprawl. Clinton II is about to beshit herself [with an assist from Clinton I and his Podesta-type operatives] The flow of information courtesy of the internet will shrink [for a while] fundamentalism. The fake “two party” [they aren’t parties but free ranging fan clubs looking for a star to be a fan of with some political theory discussion] system is only being held up by the primitive, now nearly premodern single member district, gerrymandering winner take all electoral districts. cheers.

  7. John Powers April 9, 2016 at 11:36 pm | #


  8. JohnB April 9, 2016 at 11:40 pm | #

    This makes me think of those classic talks by Noam Chomsky in which he regularly cited decades of carefully controlled public polling of Americans showing a two-thirds to three-fourths majority with mostly ‘social democratic’ views. Even self-identified conservatives would betray leftist leanings on economic and social questions if the polling was done without ideological cues. (Do you support welfare? No! Do you think government should help the poor? Yes!) I think a lifetime of advertisements, mind bending and business propaganda leads to whatever’s been happening for the last several decades.

  9. FoundOnWeb April 10, 2016 at 12:03 am | #

    As I see it, it depends in part on how fast and how completely the Right collapses. I see three possible, and not mutually exclusive, directions:

    1. The right moves left, but the fundamental urban/rural coastal/central northern/southern divides remain. Think of the political parties of Eastern Europe after the breakup of the Soviet empire — they all tracked very closely with the prewar parties stamped out by the communists.

    2. The left loses what little cohesion it had, and breaks into multiple fragmentary parties. As another lose analogy, this time think of the West after the breakup of the Soviet empire. With the loss of their common enemy, each country began to drift away from the others.

    The result of either or both of these would likely be the rump GOP poaching some of the centrist demographic.

    3. Our political discourse truely moves to the left, attitudes really do change across the board, and we end up more like Denmark, only with fewer bicycles per capita.

  10. G Hiatt April 10, 2016 at 1:29 am | #

    Well, I have learned two things about Reactionaries.
    1. Reactionaries NEVER give up trying to restore the ‘Natural Order’
    2. If pushed into a corner, they would prefer to tear civilization down and start from scratch, because they believe that there is no ‘Progress’ – there is only the ‘Natural Order’ where all life is a STRUGGLE, and where the strong dominate the weak…Hierarchy.
    So let’s not pretend that they won’t do whatever it takes to protect their privileged position and wealth.
    Actually, I’m not worried so much about the Conservatives/Republicans – I worry about Neo-Reactionaries (Libertarians) and all these people in Silicon Valley who talk about bringing on the Dark-Enlightenment. They want to do away with Democracy.

    Watching and reading the news everyday reminds me of something HH Hoppe said…
    “The central task of Libertarians wanting to turn the tide, is the de-legitimization of the very idea of democracy … And nothing is more effective in persuading the masses to cease cooperating with government than the constant and relentless exposure and ridicule of government and its representatives.”

    Enter Trump (and those arch-Libertarians – The Koch brothers).

    My Dad’s generation had the Young Republicans; my generation has Geeks For Monarchy.


  11. Benjamin David Steele April 10, 2016 at 9:51 am | #

    I worry less about all of the political right than I do about liberals. The political right wouldn’t be able to get away with most of what they do without the complicity and often cooperation of so many liberals. I say that as someone who identifies a ‘liberal’. Look at what goes for liberalism in this country, such as the Clintons.

    Research has found that when cognitive functioning is stressed (e.g., fear) or impaired (e.g., alcohol), liberals for all intents and purposes become conservatives. That was shown with liberals who watched the 9/11 attacks on tv compared to those who listened to it on the radio—the latter became strong supporters of the Bush War on Terror. With endless fear-mongering and socio-economic uncertainty, the cognitive functioning of liberals is under near constant stress and impairment. At this point, liberals don’t know anything other than this state of permanent dysfunction and they assume it’s normal.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that whenever some horrible thing is happening there are liberals nearby trying to make the best of a bad situation. There is no limit to how far liberal compromise will go. My other conclusion is that, therefore, only a strong left-wing can force liberals to be honest. So, what is the likelihood of a strong left-wing forming that won’t get stomped down by the powers that be? Whatever tactics the government uses on poor brown people abroad is what they will eventually do to their own populations, when conditions finally get bad enough. And when that happens, many liberals will as always be standing close to power, talking out of two sides of their mouths.

    Back in the colonial era, it took a revolution started by radicals to get most liberal-minded people to rethink. Isn’t that almost always the case. The liberal class or more broadly the liberal-minded will tend to be invested in whatever social order exists. Something will have to disrupt the status quo and the establishment rhetoric before the shackles begin to fall from the liberal mind. Considering our present situation, what will it take to finally get most liberals to rethink the entire corrupt, failed system?

    • Benjamin David Steele April 10, 2016 at 9:54 am | #

      Correction: “That was shown with liberals who watched the 9/11 attacks on tv compared to those who listened to it on the radio—the latter became strong supporters of the Bush War on Terror. ”

      It should state that, “the former became strong supporters of the Bush War on Terror.” It was the repeated viewing of the images of violence that entirely shut down the liberal mind. That is an extreme example of what happens to liberals all the time. In a society like ours, we always live in a state of fear, even if it is generally low level and in the background. If it isn’t terrorists, it’s dangerous blacks or economic problems or whatever.

  12. L.M. Dorsey April 10, 2016 at 12:20 pm | #

    Fear has been such a part of the political landscape and for so long, that were it to vanish like the morning mists… It’s a lovely thought, Corey.

    But being (on this issue at least) one of the owl-of-Minerva-flies-at-dusk crowd, I tend to think that the fear came first, and the right has done little more than harness, pander to, shape and exploit it: fear that not only has government failed, but the state tout court, and politics and a means of addressing problems.

    But it’s not just the right, and not just the US right. For instance, David Rieff’s Reproach of Hunger draws a grim picture of how the international development community tends simply to presume that wealth and technology are more effective than politics. (Btw, Rieff’s interviewed by Henwood here: http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html#S160317)

    But so what? What’s the difference? Chicken and egg. Well, I think it goes to how one can hope to meet the political challenge (if one still can). Addressing the talking points of the right seems almost beside the point — distracting ourselves with distraction from distraction — tho it must be done. The nubbin, tho, is how? How to address is the fear that enables the right. Which I doubt will diminish at all if the right implodes. On the contrary.

    I was just watching Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a fine documentary about Studio Ghibli. In it Miyazaki remarks several times the “push to the right” in Japan’s culture. It is helping him see, he says, how things went so wrong in Japan in the 20s and 30s. It’s complicated (of course), lots of moving pieces, but briefly, The Wind Rises seems to me now less an exercise in nostalgia than an attempt to communicate a warning. Before fear becomes something like fate.

  13. janinsanfran April 10, 2016 at 12:58 pm | #

    Take a look at California. Power abhors a vacuum. When the vehicle of the right (Republican party) sinks under demographic shifts, the fights move within the Democratic party. If the left neglects to take over the institutional Democratic party vehicle out of purism, a lot less changes …

    • lazycat1984 April 11, 2016 at 10:56 am | #

      More like if the left neglects to take over the institutional Democratic Party through laziness.

  14. Patrick McCann April 10, 2016 at 2:23 pm | #

    No comment on the effect of the growing number of people of color?

  15. davidly April 10, 2016 at 6:58 pm | #

    It doesn’t matter. Democracy is not driven by voters, but a carefully vetted set of candidates who respond to the needs of the people who pay their unofficial salaries and subsequent sinecure.

  16. Will G-R April 11, 2016 at 12:11 am | #

    I’d be careful not to overestimate the importance of individual self-report surveys as a way to gauge ideological drift. People are liable to say all sorts of stupid, poorly thought-out, and frankly incorrect things about their own beliefs depending on how a question is phrased and what positions they have the ideological language to articulate, which is especially pertinent when the questions are a simple yea/nay to ideological labels like “liberal”, “conservative”, or “socialist”. US discourse in particular has a long history of hollowing out such labels and filling them with meanings that would be all but unrecognizable in any serious intellectual context, e.g. how many people even among readers of your blog wouldn’t necessarily be aware that “liberalism” and “socialism” are traditionally considered mutually exclusive?

    If there’s any of these “ideological label yea/nay” questions I’d consider potentially important, it’s the extent to which people are willing to explicitly reject patriotism and identify as citizens of the world — most other “leftist” commitments can be subverted fairly easily by appealing to nationalist solidarity against some group of foreigners or another, especially the ones who are allegedly “stealing our jobs”. But I’d want to see some more data before concluding that internationalism among young Americans is more robust and widespread today than back in the era of “Imagine there’s no countries…” and so on.

    • Benjamin David Steele April 11, 2016 at 2:27 am | #

      “how many people even among readers of your blog wouldn’t necessarily be aware that “liberalism” and “socialism” are traditionally considered mutually exclusive?”

      Well, both liberalism and socialism have their roots in social reform movements. That goes back to one of the old distinctions between socialism and communism.

      Frederick Engels writing in the 1890 preface to the Communist Manifesto:

      “Nevertheless, when it appeared, we could not have called it a socialist manifesto. In 1847, two kinds of people were considered socialists. On the one hand were the adherents of the various utopian systems, notably the Owenites in England and the Fourierists in France, both of whom, at that date, had already dwindled to mere sects gradually dying out. On the other, the manifold types of social quacks who wanted to eliminate social abuses through their various universal panaceas and all kinds of patch-work, without hurting capital and profit in the least. In both cases, people who stood outside the labor movement and who looked for support rather to the “educated” classes. The section of the working class, however, which demanded a radical reconstruction of society, convinced that mere political revolutions were not enough, then called itself Communist. It was still a rough-hewn, only instinctive and frequently somewhat crude communism. Yet, it was powerful enough to bring into being two systems of utopian communism — in France, the “Icarian” communists of Cabet, and in Germany that of Weitling. Socialism in 1847 signified a bourgeois movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, quite respectable, whereas communism was the very opposite. And since we were very decidedly of the opinion as early as then that “the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the working class itself,” [from the General Rules of the International] we could have no hesitation as to which of the two names we should choose. Nor has it ever occurred to us to repudiate it.”

  17. mark April 11, 2016 at 4:10 am | #

    Simon Wren-Lewis blog Wednesday, 14 October 2015 ‘When economists play political games’:

    “‘I saw you talking to those people the other day. You really should think twice before being seen to talk to people like that.’

    Similar lines could be taken from countless novels about class, race or some other form of social exclusion. When I agreed to be part of a group that would occasionally advise the new Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on economic policy, I must admit I hadn’t expected something like that to be said to me by economists I respect. Political hacks would say it for sure, but economists interested in promoting good policy?

    Just to be clear, McDonnell’s group places no restrictions on what its members can say in public about policy. We are not required to support or endorse Labour policy. Indeed, to the extent that Labour does adopt a policy that any of its members disagree with, the group gives those members a slightly higher public profile if we make that disagreement public. As the media generally fails to distinguish good economic advice from political spin, a direct channel like this group seemed like a good idea, with no cost to its members except their time.”

  18. Chatham April 11, 2016 at 3:38 pm | #

    Also important to keep in mind that poor leadership on the left has contributed to conservative policies in areas of the country that really shouldn’t have them (IE, marijuana still being illegal in states where the citizens support legalization). Most of the professional talking heads on the left are fairly useless, as they’re so afraid of rocking the boat that the idea of actual change scares them.

    At the ground level, however, movements have realized that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have policies that the majority of the electorate support. So at the state level we’ve seen the massive success of marriage equality, the growing success of minimum wage increases and marijuana legalization, as well as movements pushing for single-payer healthcare, paid family leave, universal preschool, free college education, etc.

    Hopefully more and more people will realize just how useless the very serious liberals are and start paying more attention to (and joining) the movements on the ground which are actually getting things done.

  19. Paul April 11, 2016 at 10:02 pm | #

    Tom Frank’s thesis in his latest book seems to be that the genuine liberal doesn’t actually have any sympathies for the left — they just disagree with the Republicans on what type of meritocracy is best, i.e. they prefer the one they excel in — academia and “inno”. It’s a pretty convincing argument given the events of the last few decades. Also, Frank’s book should have been called “Hopeadope” – since that’s what the neoliberals have used the Democratic party to do to the poor.

  20. LFC April 12, 2016 at 3:13 pm | #

    A glance at Will G-R’s comment above led me to the discovery of a 2015 book by Ian Hunt, a philosopher in Australia, called Liberal Socialism, with the names of Rawls and Marx in the subtitle. Fwiw.

    There’s also a book from a couple of decades ago w/ the same title, on the Italian socialist Carlo Rosselli (if I’m spelling that correctly).

  21. Roquentin April 13, 2016 at 11:08 am | #

    Terms and ideas go in and out of fashion just like music, clothes, and architecture. Their substance and meaning shifts too. Socialism is back in fashion, after many decades of being maligned and liberalism is starting to look pretty shabby. It’ll go on that way for quite some time. The days when the people can be bought off and pacified with a few bones concerning identity politics, carefully packaged in such a way not to threaten corporate power (women and minorities can be CEOs too!) or capital accumulation are numbered. Age has everything to do with it. The Boomers raised during the Cold War and propaganda associated with it might have gone in for that nonsense, but their kids won’t. There’s no Soviet or Maoist boogieman to frighten them into growing up to be good little reactionaries.

    If this leftward shift really does happen, the surest sign will be less and less people willing or able to defend the neoliberal consensus. I’d make the case that half the people who currently are purveyors of neoliberal ideology aren’t doing so because they believe any of it, they do so because it benefits their career and finances. Absent those incentives no one will give a shit. It’s not unlike how Reagan quit associating with the Democrats and started shilling for GE when they handed him a paycheck. When this really sets in, just you watch. Today’s Republican pundits are going to pretend like none of this ever happened and claim to have always been “on the left.” Once you see that quiet slinking away from an idea like that among the intelligentsia and celebrities, that’s when you know things are over.

Leave a Reply