The Cha Cha Slide of the Democratic Party

By David de la Fuente

In 2000, DJ Casper gave us strict instructions in his infamous banger Cha Cha Slide, “Alright we gonna do the basic steps: Slide to the left.” It appears that the Democratic Party might have listened to DJ Casper a little too closely — and the Party has slid to the left on the ideological spectrum. But has this been a uniform swing on all issues, or has it been like the Cha Cha Slide itself — a little “funky?”

Data from Pew Research Center shows that in 1994, about 70% of those who identified with the Democratic Party were to the left of the median Republican, based on Pew’s 10-question matrix of political values. That means that 30% were to the right of the average Republican. By the time of Pew’s 2017 survey, that percentage had swung significantly, and 97% of self-identified Democrats were to the left of the median Republican. Of course, this is due to both parties shifting to their respective corners during this timeframe, but even a look at just Democrats shows the Party shifted leftward on a 10-question matrix.

Source: Pew Research Center

However, a deeper look at Pew’s ideological consistency measurement instrument shows that the biggest shifts in the Democratic Party have occurred on social issues, where there’s been huge attitude changes in the population as a whole. While there has also been a shift in the Party on issues like healthcare, economy, and the role of government, that movement has been much less pronounced.

The Social Issues Slide

There is no doubt that over the past two decades, there has been an undeniable shift to the left — within the Democratic Party and more broadly — on many of the most prominent “social issues.” Take abortion access, for example, where nearly four-in-five Democrats today are unified in support of the right to choose, while that position was much more controversial within the Party just 20 years ago.

In fact, three key social issues have seen massive jumps in support amongst Democrats. They are support for marriage equality, the immigrant community, and legalizing marijuana. On these three, more inclusive positions were a minority opinion in the Democratic Party in the 1990s, but today, they enjoy nearly three-fourths support amongst self-identified members of the Party. And on all three, the broader electorate has moved with Democrats.

  • In 1996, only 33% of Democrats supported marriage equality. By 2017, that number had jumped 40 points from 33% in support to 73% (the general population moved from 27% to 62% during this time period).
  • Regarding legalizing marijuana, in 1996, only 24% of Democrats supported legalizing marijuana. But, in 2017, 69% of Democrats supported legalizing marijuana (the general population moved from 25% to 61% during this time period).
  • With immigration, the policy questions have not been consistent over the years, but Pew has tested on attitudes toward immigrants generally. In 1994, 32% of Democrats said that immigrants strengthen the country. But by 2016, that percentage stood at 78% (the general population moved from 31% to 59% during this time period).

Other social issues that had majority but not supermajority support in the Democratic Party in 1990s have also become more and more popular among Party members. These include reproductive rights and gun safety, where the broader electorate has not taken a similar step to the left.

  • On abortion, in 1995, 64% of Democrats favored abortion to be legal most of the time, but by 2017, that number had jumped to 79% (the general population remained at 59% in both polls).
  • On enacting gun safety legislation, Democrats have jumped from 65% support in 1993 to 78% support in 2017 (the general population actually dropped from 57% to 51% during this time period, though these numbers shift wildly based on proximity in time to a mass shooting).

Pew’s 10-question matrix of political values cited above shows this same pattern over time. For instance, in 1994, 62% of Democrats said immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care. By 2017, that number dropped to just 12% — a 40-point drop in 20 years. The amount of Democrats during that same time period who said homosexuality should be discouraged by society also dropped substantially — from 42% to 13%.

Views on race have also shifted, especially as the Democratic coalition has changed in hue. Pew data shows that in 1997, the Democratic Party was 75% white, but by 2017, it was just under 60% white (a greater shift than the general population as whole). As white Democrats became more exposed to a diverse coalition, they changed perspectives. In fact, FiveThirtyEight found that white Democrats have become much more liberal on race issues over the past few decades. That’s not surprising, as studies have shown that person-to-person contact is critical to changing minds.

The Economic Issues Nudge

Now, let’s look at where the Party is today on a range of economic issues. While the Party has moved substantially to the left on social issues, the movement to the left on economic issues has been less pronounced.

In Pew’s 10-question matrix of political values referenced earlier, five questions deal with economic issues while four deal with social issues (the 10th with national security). From 1994 to 2017, Democrats became 13 percentage points more liberal on economic issues, but 33 percentage points more liberal on social issues — a two and a half times difference.

For example, in the Pew 10-question matrix of political values cited above, 59% of Democrats in 1994 believed that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient compared to 45% in 2017, and in 1994, 46% of Democrats said that government regulation of business usually does more harm than good compared to 30% in 2017. But the move to the left was more pronounced on social issues.

Yet economic issues tend to be some of the most important issues to Democrats (and voters at large). In Pew’s 2016 election survey, they found that the economy was the most important domestic issue to voters, followed by healthcare. And on the economy, the slide has been much less dramatic, leaving the Party’s voters still squarely positioned on the center-left.

On healthcare, a 2016 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that while Democrats had positive views of both the Affordable Care Act and a single government plan, they supported keeping and improving the Affordable Care Act over a single government plan by 54% to 33%.

On trade, in 2016, Pew found that 56% of Democrats favored free trade policies during the Obama years, and that number has since jumped to 67% during the Trump Presidency (hardly a shift to the left).

On taxes, in 2017, a Pew poll showed that only 57% of Democrats favored increasing the tax rate on household income over $250,000.

When it comes to labor unions, the percentage of Democrats who have a favorable opinion of labor unions has remained extremely constant over time rather than seeing a shift to the left — or right. In a 2001 Pew survey, 74% of Democrats had a favorable opinion of unions, and that has seen little movement over the years, and it measured at 76% in 2017.

With issues like these, the Democratic Party has not seen a massive leftward lurch like the mammoth movement on social issues. While there has been a shift in some areas, it has been much smaller than common wisdom may lead you to believe.

Conclusion

Fifty-one percent of Democrats still describe themselves as moderate or conservative. While this is down from two decades ago, it appears that most of this shift has centered on policy that could be described as social issues, and there’s been a smaller but less significant slide on the economy and the role of government. On the social issues where the Party has changed the most, so has the country. So while Democratic views on those topics may look very different than they did in the early 90s, it doesn’t mean the Party is becoming out of step with voters. It may simply mean, as Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


David de la Fuente is a political analyst at Third Way.