No, Liberals Don't Control the Democratic Party

The left may have more clout than it once did, but commentators shouldn't mistake progressives for the Democrats' equivalent of the Tea Party.

In a classroom in Harlem, the liberal new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, appeared with union leaders in support of his plan to raise taxes on incomes higher than $500,000 to fund public pre-kindergarten. "We're asking this of the wealthy," de Blasio said, "because there are too many working parents in this city today" who need help. 

At the same time, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was presenting his budget in Albany under a sign that trumpeted: "CUTTING TAXES."

You could hardly get a better illustration of the current tribal divide in the Democratic Party. Call it what you want—liberals versus centrists, populists versus the corporate wing—but these days, there's no doubt there are two different breeds of Democrats, both in elected office and in the activist grassroots. Along with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, de Blasio has been hyped as the avatar of a new, more boldly progressive Democratic Party that discards the timid moderation advocated by the party's old guard in favor of a frank, take-no-prisoners crusade for higher taxes and bigger government.

But do Warren and de Blasio really represent the party's mainstream? The Democrats' liberal faction has been greatly overestimated by pundits who mistake noisiness for clout or assume that the left functions like the right. In fact, liberals hold nowhere near the power in the Democratic Party that conservatives hold in the Republican Party. And while they may well be gaining, they're still far from being in charge.

The misimpression that the liberals have taken the reins of the party has become widespread. To take just one representative example: "The mainstream of the party has now veered back toward its more populist and pacifist instincts," Yahoo News' Matt Bai wrote Thursday, characterized by "outright contempt for the wealthy and for conservatives generally." Like others who embrace this analysis, Bai draws the conclusion that this will be an obstacle to the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton, who is perceived as hawkish, establishmentarian, and friendly to corporate interests

Many Democratic insiders minimize the party's divide. They note that there's broad ideological agreement on social and cultural issues, from abortion and gay marriage to gun control and immigration. National-security and foreign-policy questions have the power to divide but are no longer litmus tests. Even on economic issues, the party generally speaks with one voice: in favor of universal healthcare, against reducing safety-net programs, for progressive taxation and government-driven economic stimulus. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, told me in an email that the Democratic Party just doesn't get hung up on internecine battles these days. "I believe that it's a big-tent party that can and should accommodate centrists and liberals," Tanden said. "That ideological purity has not been a winning strategy for the other side." 

But this high-altitude view elides real differences, such as disagreement over how much to raise taxes and on whom, how much to regulate industry, and whether to press not just to preserve but to expand those safety-net programs. (In addition to the Cuomo-de Blasio feud, Warren's signature proposal would increase Social Security benefits, and Obama's push for new free-trade agreements has run into resistance from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.) And the divide isn't so much about issues as tone and tactics. The Warrenites harp on the gap between rich and poor and inveigh against big business; the centrists assure their big corporate donors that Democrats can be business-friendly. 

The comparison to Republicans is inevitable and instructive. No one seriously doubts anymore that the GOP is badly divided, with a right-wing faction that has virtually declared war on the more moderate establishment. But few of the party's politicians disagree on social or cultural issues (immigration is a notable exception), and the view that taxes should be lower and government smaller is virtually unanimous. What the Ted Cruz faction and the John Boehner faction disagree on is whether the party's rhetoric ought to be conciliatory or scorched-earth, and how far to go—shutting down the government? refusing to raise the debt ceiling?—in pursuit of agreed-upon goals like getting rid of Obamacare. The GOP's divide, like the Democrats', is more about tone than about issues.

But the Republican analogy becomes misleading when pundits assume that liberals play the same role in the Democratic Party that conservatives do in the GOP. The fact is, the parties are asymmetrical. There are a lot more conservatives than liberals in America. Almost all Republicans consider themselves conservative, whereas less than half of Democrats consider themselves liberal. These two charts from Gallup tell the story:

An overwhelming 70 percent of Republicans are conservatives, a share that has increased since 2000. This fits with the conventional wisdom of a GOP that's steadily become more ideologically pure and less moderate. Meanwhile, just 43 percent of Democrats call themselves liberal. Until 2007, liberals weren't even a plurality of Democrats—more were moderates—and even today, liberals are outnumbered by moderate and conservative Democrats. Note that there are about four times as many conservative Democrats as liberal Republicans. Liberals are increasing—their overall share of the American electorate this year, 23 percent, marked an all-time high in Gallup's polling—but there's a clear imbalance in the way the two parties are ideologically composed.

This imbalance is also readily apparent in the political contests where it's been tested. The right has proved its sway over the GOP time and time again. The Tea Party has had notable success taking out establishment Republicans in party primaries, from venerable incumbents like Bob Bennett and Dick Lugar to the establishment-anointed candidates rejected by primary voters who preferred Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Sharron Angle, and Christine O'Donnell. Even before there was a Tea Party, "RINO," for "Republican In Name Only," was a poisonous label in GOP politics.

Activists on the left have periodically tried to stage these sorts of purifying contests, but they have rarely succeeded. Howard Dean's "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" proved less potent than John Kerry's mainstream appeal in 2004. The populist Democrat of 2008, John Edwards, also didn't become the party's standard-bearer. Also in 2008, in the sixth most Democratic state in the country, Delaware's state treasurer, Jack Markell, ran for governor as a centrist against a liberal lieutenant governor who was endorsed by the state Democratic Party; Markell won. In 2010, liberals and unions teamed up in a massive effort to defeat conservative Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln in a Democratic primary in Arkansas; they spent millions of dollars boosting Bill Halter—and lost. That year also saw a tough Democratic primary between appointed Senator Michael Bennet, a centrist former education-reform-boosting school superintendent, and a liberal state lawmaker backed by the teachers union; Bennet prevailed. (Disclosure: Bennet is the brother of Atlantic editor in chief James Bennet.) Of five candidates endorsed in 2012 congressional primaries by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, four lost.

Liberals' one Tea Party-style coup in recent years was the 2006 Connecticut Senate primary, in which millionaire telecom executive Ned Lamont defeated pro-Iraq War Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman, however, went on to win the general election as an independent. (The largely bygone Democratic split over Iraq was also distinct from the current fracture over economics.) Lamont, by the way, tried again: He ran for Connecticut governor in 2010 and lost the Democratic primary.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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