“Democrats can be too big of a tent,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told New York magazine in a profile of the rising star New York congresswoman that came out Monday. Of Joe Biden, the party’s presidential front-runner, Ocasio Cortez said this: “Oh God. In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”
Those comments, much like AOC’s first year as a member of Congress, are both intriguing and provocative. But is she right? Are Democrats too much of a big tent party? Or, put another way: What does the Democratic Party, ideologically speaking, look like right now? Are its politics closer to Ocasio-Cortez’s unapologetic liberalism (she identifies as a democratic socialist) or Biden’s more-pragmatic centrism?
Luckily, we have loads of data that help us answer that question somewhat definitively. And what’s quite clear is that liberals within the party are very much on the rise.
Gallup has been tracking the ideological composition of the Democratic Party for decades. And in 2019, for the first time, those identifying as liberals comprised a majority of all Democrats (51%), while 34% describe themselves as moderates and 13% say they are conservatives. That’s a massive change from Gallup data in 1994, when the breakdown looked like this: 48% moderate, 25% liberal, 25% conservative. And it’s even a clear change from 2008, when 38% said they were liberals, 38% moderates and 21% conservatives.
“Since 2014, the percentage of Democrats identifying as liberal has increased at an even faster rate of two points per year on average,” wrote Gallup’s Lydia Saad of the numbers.
The Gallup data is consistent with more recent polling conducted by CNN, too. In CNN’s mid-December national poll, 50% of respondents called themselves liberals as compared to 36% who chose the term moderate and 10% conservative.
There is no doubt then that liberals like AOC are surging within the party. We’ve seen that not just in polls about ideological identification but also in how the party has handled itself from a policy perspective.
When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders talked about his “Medicare for All” plan during the 2016 campaign, it was widely dismissed by the party establishment as not only unworkable but a massive political liability. In the 2020 campaign, a slew of serious contenders — including the likes of Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — supported some version of Medicare for All. And Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both top-tier candidates at the moment, are unequivocal in their support for the elimination of the private insurance industry in favor of a government-run system.
Other decidedly liberal proposals — the “Green New Deal,” a wealth tax — have garnered considerably more support within the party (and its 2020 candidates) than was the case even a few years ago.
But acknowledging that liberals are increasingly legion (and powerful) within the Democratic Party is not the same thing as suggesting — as Ocasio-Cortez seems to in the quotes above — that the party could do without everyone but its liberal wing.
Again, just look at the numbers above. Yes, liberals now make up a majority of all Democrats. But according to Gallup, 47% call themselves either moderates or conservatives. Ditto the CNN December 2019 poll; 50% say they are liberals but 46% identify as either moderates or conservatives. Lop off that half — or close to it — of the Democratic Party and, well, you don’t have a party that can win national elections.
Which is why the likes of former President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have warned their party about moving too far to the left.
“My one cautionary note is I think it is very important for all the candidates who are running at every level to pay some attention to where voters actually are,” Obama said in November 2019, citing some of the party’s more liberal views on immigration and health care. Obama added that voters are “less revolutionary than … interested in improvement” and said that the party risked losing voters with policies not “rooted in reality.”
Last month, in an interview with Bloomberg, Pelosi echoed those sentiments. “What works in San Francisco does not necessarily work in Michigan,” Pelosi said, adding: “Remember November. You must win the Electoral College.”
And even one of AOC’s freshman Democratic colleagues — Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah — took issue with how she portrayed moderates and conservatives within the party. “Comments like this are why people can’t stand Washington,” he tweeted Tuesday morning. “I’m glad we’re in the US, not any other country. We’re all on the same team, with different perspectives, whether you’re a moderate, conservative or anywhere else on the political scale. @aoc.” (McAdams represents a district where Hillary Clinton received just 32% of the vote in 2016.)
While Ocasio-Cortez is more blunt about her view of what the Democratic Party should look like than the two leading liberal lights in the presidential race (Sanders and Warren), there is little question that the fundamental question at the core of the primary fight will be the one she poses: What is the Democratic Party? And, what should it be?
While Ocasio-Cortez isn’t running for president — yet! — she is very much a driving force within the party to turn it even more leftward. The question she — and her fellow liberals — have to answer is whether they are OK with potentially losing moderate and conservative Democrats along the way.