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White Democrats Have Gotten Way More Liberal On Identity Issues

The ongoing fight over funding the government — which may finally be on the verge of a long-term resolution — has centered in large part on immigration. Democrats want a replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and if they settle for a deal without one, they’re likely to incur a good deal of wrath from their base.

That wrath probably would have been substantially milder even a few years ago. But there is a broader story happening here, according to public opinion polls and the moves of key elites in the party: Democrats have grown more liberal on issues of race, gender and identity — and not just the nonwhite and female Democrats.

Whites in the Democratic Party now see racism against people of color as a huge issue, increasingly perceiving it in a similar way to African-Americans and much differently than white Republicans. Similarly, men in the Democratic Party now see women as facing sexism in American society in numbers comparable to how Democratic women see the issue — and often in much greater degrees than Republican women.

Today’s Democrats have multiple identities but increasingly one position on identity issues: the liberal one.

The liberalism of white Democrats on racial issues

Issues of race get a lot of coverage nowadays, but polling on those issues tends to break down Americans by race instead of race and party. More and more, however, party is just as central as race in understanding public opinion on these questions: White Democrats have moved toward nonwhites.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted last August, for example, found that 95 percent of black Democrats and 73 percent of white Democrats agreed with the idea that “white people benefit from advantages in society that black people do not have.” In contrast, just 23 percent of white Republicans agreed with this idea, while 76 percent disagreed.

Indeed, white Democrats broadly agree that they receive advantages because of their race, that American society still has major barriers for blacks and that white Americans don’t face much “reverse discrimination.”

For instance, a 2016 poll by PRRI found that 74 percent of white Democrats said that blacks “face a lot of discrimination” in the U.S., a view shared by 88 percent of black Democrats. In contrast, only 30 percent of white Republicans shared that view. And an October poll sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPR and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 74 percent of white Republicans felt that white people in America were discriminated against based on their race, compared with 28 percent of white Democrats.

This leftward shift on racial issues appears to be recent. In 2009, according to Pew, only about half of white and Latino Democrats agreed with the statement that “the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites”; about 81 percent of black Democrats agreed. But by 2017, Pew found that the vast majority of all three groups felt the country needed to make more changes to ensure blacks had equal rights. The number of white and Latino Democrats holding that view has increased dramatically since 2014, when shootings of African-Americans by police officers started getting more news coverage.

It’s harder to find polling data that breaks out the opinions of white Democrats on immigration issues. But it’s worth looking at what party elites are doing. The white leaders of the party have taken up the mantle of immigration, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi herself accused Trump of trying to “make America white again.” In 2010, five Democratic senators — all of whom were white — voted against the Dream Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, whose status is now one of the the reasons for the congressional shutdown impasse. Eight years later, none of the 49 Democrats in the Senate has publicly taken a stand against new protections for DACA recipients. That includes Montana’s Jon Tester, the only Democratic “no” vote from 2010 who remains in the chamber, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who missed the 2010 vote but said he would have voted against the Dream Act at the time.

Latino Democrats, in and out of Congress, have certainly pushed for the party to move left on immigration. But the Democrats’ decision to force the earlier government shutdown was largely made by white Democrats, since Latino Democrats have limited power at the top levels of the Democratic Party. The 49 Democratic senators include only two Latinos and four other nonwhite members, compared with 43 whites.

The liberalism of male Democrats on gender issues

There’s also been a recent shift in male Democrats’ views on gender that bring them more in line with women in the party. Consider:

  • A November survey by PerryUndem, a nonpartisan research firm, found that 97 percent of Democratic men and 96 percent of Democratic women agreed that sexism is a problem in American society.
  • A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 81 percent of Democratic men and 86 percent Democratic women felt that sexual harassment in the workplace was a “serious problem,” compared with 57 percent of Republican men and 61 percent of Republican women. Asked if the attention around sexual misconduct issues has “gone too far,” 24 percent of Democratic men and 22 percent of Democratic women agreed, compared with 47 percent of Republican men and 52 percent of Republican women.
  • PerryUndem’s 2017 polling showed increases, compared with 2016, in all four groups (GOP women, GOP men, Democratic men, Democratic women) when asked if politics would be improved if more women served in elective office. The overwhelmingly majority of Democratic women (82 percent in 2016) already felt this way, but Democratic men were less convinced (68 percent). Now, among Democrats, 89 percent of women and 87 percent of men think politics would be better with more women, compared with 42 percent of Republican men and 59 percent of Republican women.1

It’s hard not to conclude that Hillary Clinton’s loss, the Women’s Marches, the #MeToo movement and other issues that put women — often liberal-leaning women — at the forefront moved Democratic men in this direction.

You can see this shift at the elite level, too. Democratic women in the Senate, led by New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, were the first to call for then-Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota to resign over allegations that he had touched women inappropriately. But eventually, 32 senators were calling for Franken to resign, 19 of whom were men. The push for Franken to resign was so strong in part because so many of his colleagues, including the men, joined it.

You might be skeptical of these findings. Maybe male Democrats feel compelled to tell pollsters that they have liberal views on gender issues and white Democrats feel similar pressure on racial issues. And maybe they don’t back up these sentiments in their actions. On the national level, for example, Clinton said in her book “What Happened” that she felt unfairly attacked because of her gender during the 2016 Democratic primary by the so-called Bernie Bros.

In addition, if views on these issues have become about partisanship, there’s reason to wonder how deeply held they are. For example, Republican support for free trade cratered during the 2016 campaign because the GOP nominee took a skeptical view of it. It’s likely that GOP support for free trade was never that strong — it was simply the “Republican answer.”

Now, we have a clear “Democratic answer” on issues of identity. The Democrats are the party of racial and gender liberalism — even the white guy Democrats.


  1. Those numbers rose 14 points for Republican men and 31 points for Republican women from 2016 to 2017.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.