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Why The Progressive Left Fits So Uncomfortably Within The Democratic Party

With dozens of candidates trading endless jabs over policies like Medicare for All and systems like capitalism and socialism, this primary season has highlighted a growing divide within the Democratic Party about where it’s headed, both in this election and future ones.

But now that former Vice President Joe Biden seemingly has a lock on the nomination, he may soon be making overtures to other candidates’ supporters as he looks ahead to the general election. So what are the fault lines splitting Democratic voters? And is the Democratic Party as splintered as we think?

To answer this, I analyzed data from a survey fielded in the summer of 2019 by two liberal organizations, YouGov Blue and Data for Progress, that asked 2,900 likely Democratic primary voters how favorably they felt about 13 politicians and organizations on a five-point scale.1 (Full disclosure: I am a fellow at Data for Progress.) Respondents were asked to weigh in on labor unions, Wall Street, the Democratic National Committee, the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, Ivy League universities, Facebook, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Socialists of America and former President Barack Obama.

This question let me aggregate respondents’ favorability ratings to understand how someone who gives high ratings to Schumer might rate, say, Ocasio-Cortez. And by running a statistical analysis known as principal component analysis, I was able to identify the types of organizations and individuals that respondents tend to have similar opinions about. For example, if someone rated Schumer positively, they were also likely to rate Pelosi positively, and positive feelings about labor unions were correlated with positive feelings about the DSA. By linking people according to their shared feelings, I saw two clear poles emerge within the Democratic Party: the “establishment” and the “progressive left.” A third group also emerged, and while it’s not as clearly defined as the other two, it has some overlap with the establishment and tends to be more fond Wall Street, so I’m calling that “neoliberals.”

The establishment includes those likely Democratic primary voters who rated the DNC, Schumer, Pelosi and Obama highly, and as you can see, those who rated these establishment figures highly tended to be less enthused about the groups and individuals associated with the progressive left.

The progressive left gives high ratings to the DSA, Ocasio-Cortez, labor unions, Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. As you can see in the charts below, this feeling more favorably toward these activist groups meant respondents were less likely to feel warmly about the establishment, and were even more unlikely to feel favorably toward Manchin and Wall Street. In particular, the data suggests a tight connection between Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA, which may not be surprising considering her membership in the organization, but her rise to national prominence and the fact that progressive respondents tend to feel positively about both her and the organization speaks to the DSA’s increasingly high-profile role in the party.

There was a third group, though. The neoliberal group wasn’t as clearly defined as the other two groups, although as I mentioned earlier, there is overlap with the establishment wing of the party. It is a bit more of a hodgepodge, though, in terms of what types of groups and individuals were rated highly (for example, the connection between rating Wall Street, the Ivy League and Manchin all highly is not necessarily clear), although it’s possible that the people in this group are part of a more affluent wing of the party. This group was also less likely to give favorable ratings to individuals and groups associated with the progressive left.

So who exactly is this progressive left that is polarizing to both the establishment and the neoliberal wings of the party?

Well, we know this wing of the party feels warmly toward ideologies like democratic socialism and supports political insurgents like Ocasio-Cortez, so they may find themselves at odds with party leadership.

But we can also use our survey data to look at how respondents answered a variety of socioeconomic, demographic and attitudinal questions. Given the warm feelings this group has toward democratic socialism and the rising importance of group identities in politics, I focused on analyzing characteristics of respondents who describe themselves as socialists. For starters, they were more likely to be male than female and more likely to be white than nonwhite. (Though identifying as Hispanic or Latinx also made it somewhat more likely that a person would say they’re a socialist.) In general, younger respondents were more likely to adopt the socialist label, as were those who endorsed left-leaning outlooks, like the idea that it’s unjust for a society to have billionaires while others are living in poverty. Many also said they had experienced sexual harassment, with 63 percent of women and 33 percent of men saying it had happened to them.2

Party loyalists were also less likely to identify as socialists, which could be a problem for Democrats if Biden is indeed the nominee — he will not be able to take this group’s support for granted and may have to make a special effort to win their votes in the general election.

There are also a few interesting places where I didn’t find much connection between groups or ideas. For example, although some of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters have a history of attacking women online and on the campaign trail, holding sexist attitudes didn’t make an individual more likely to identify as socialist in this survey, suggesting that the group that’s lashing out may be a minority of voters who hold views similar to the Vermont senator’s.

At the same time, despite progressive leaders like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez calling for a Green New Deal, there wasn’t evidence that individuals committed to clean energy or a federal green jobs guarantee were more likely to see themselves as socialists than those who did not support these Green New Deal policies. But this lack of coherent policy preferences isn’t actually that surprising; there’s a large body of political science research that suggests that broad identities and labels are much more meaningful to individuals than specific policy preferences.

And labels like progressive left and democratic socialist are the product of a very conscious movement that’s been years in the making. It’s not entirely a political movement either. The DSA, for instance, has been instrumental3 in shaping what it means to be a “democratic socialist” in the U.S., but it isn’t actually a political party. So even though individuals like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are often thought of as the vanguards of progressive left politics, it’s important to remember that think tanks like the People’s Policy Project and Data for Progress, media outlets such as Current Affairs and Jacobin, and the popular podcast Chapo Trap House have also played a role in shaping what it means to be part of the progressive left. Much like the Tea Party forged a transformation in the Republican Party, this new socialist wing of the Democratic Party is pushing for its own revolution.

But it’s not clear how strong the progressive left’s current configuration is. Movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are well-liked within the progressive wing of the party, but leftist activists and politicians haven’t always prioritized issues of race, gender or sexuality. And in fact, in this survey, people who held racial biases weren’t really any more or less likely to identify as socialist. It’s possible, then, that the progressive left risks creating a less diverse movement, particularly as it’s already weighted toward white, male supporters. And that could be a problem if the group wants to win races in a party whose coalition is largely built on women and nonwhite voters.

For the Democratic Party as a whole, this growing divide between the establishment and neoliberals versus the progressive left is perhaps one of the most important challenges it will have to face — not only going into this upcoming presidential election, but also in elections to come. And already, we’ve seen that when the party establishment refuses to budge — as, for example, when it continued to back Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois despite his opposition to major Democratic planks like abortion access and the Affordable Care Act — organizations such as Justice Democrats are willing to primary “their own” (challenger Marie Newman beat the eight-term representative). This all suggests that if the establishment won’t willingly make space for ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, then a growing progressive left may attempt to make that space for itself.

CORRECTION (April 2, 2020, 11:10 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the field dates of the YouGov Blue/Data for Progress survey. It was in the field in June and July of 2019, not November.



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Footnotes

  1. Respondents were allowed to choose from “strongly favorable,” “somewhat favorable,” “neither favorable nor unfavorable,” “somewhat unfavorable” and “strongly unfavorable,” or say they were “not sure.”

  2. In total, I looked at 25 characteristics, and in some cases, I created an index to combine multiple questions on a given topic, like questions designed to elicit whether a respondent holds racial biases.

  3. It was an early advocate, for example, of policies like Medicare for All, which has now been endorsed by many major Democratic politicians.

Shom Mazumder is a social scientist and fellow at Data for Progress. His writings focus on the role of race and class in American politics as well as the future of the American left.

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