I'm a bit surprised by this Brookings Institute report on polarity showing Democrats becoming more liberal, though at one fourth the rate at which Republicans are becoming more conservative.

Suspect Graph

The data seems to be based on the DW-NOMINATE first dimension score from VoteView.com, which says

...the first dimension can be interpreted in most periods as government intervention in the economy or liberal-conservative in the modern era.

It's hard to believe that the Democrats of today are more liberal than those of the civil rights and strong unions periods. Voteview has a second dimension that they say aligns with racial issues through about 1980 after which racial issues evolved into economic ones, which suggests that that degree of liberalism is not included in the (older) data presented by Brookings.

Why does Brookings leave out the economic qualifier on the terms conservative and liberal? Are other less-economic issues like gun rights and gay rights also left out? Are Democrats really more liberal? Or has some of the social liberalness been reclassified as economic liberalness?

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    Interesting question, but I'd worry that these terms all all sufficiently 'fuzzy' enough that it will be hard to come to any concrete conclusions.
    – user1530
    Jul 21, 2013 at 20:21
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    What makes you think that the Democrats during the Civil Rights era were more liberal? The Republicans had an 80-20% split on the CRA of 1964, while the Democrats had a 60-40% split.
    – user1873
    Jul 22, 2013 at 4:31
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    The DW-Nominate score measures the consistency with which a politician will vote with his block. So, an increasingly liberal score doesn't necessarily reflect on the philosophy of democrats, but rather indicates that they tend to vote as a block more. With Republicans, this effect is substantially more exaggerated: very few republicans will vote on something that democrats will, and so they tend to vote as a block as well.
    – Publius
    Jul 22, 2013 at 6:33
  • @user1873 I am asking about Dems of today compared to Dems of 60s and 70s, not to Republicans.
    – xan
    Jul 22, 2013 at 13:15
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    Your trouble here is that a change in policy may not reflect a measure of 'liberalness'. Lets say that in 1970 60% of Democrats supported complete racial equality, and today 100% do. Is that a change in 'liberalness' or a change in the times? Jul 23, 2013 at 3:44

5 Answers 5


It's hard to believe that the Democrats of today are more liberal than those of the civil rights and strong unions periods.

Actually, it's quite easy. First, you have to realize that in those periods, the modern state would be considered quite liberal.

On civil rights in particular, no one is talking about rolling back any of the old laws. At worst, the conservative Supreme Court is. No Democrat opposes the Voting Rights Act. Contrast that with the actual results in 1965 when seventy-one Democrats (out of two hundred sixty-six) voted against the Act while only twenty-one Republicans did (out of one hundred sixty-two). That's more than a quarter of the Democrats against just over an eighth of the Republicans.

Similarly, can you see any pro-labor forces asking for card check when unions were increasing? At the time, it was common for roving bands of thugs to beat up union and company sympathizers (because both company and union had their own thugs). Secret ballots was to prevent companies from retaliating against workers for voting for the union.

Unions are mostly victims of their success. They've made repetitive jobs so expensive that most are automated. Also, worker safety and wage requirements make unions less important. Why unionize for a minimum wage job? You can get the same job without paying dues. The laws are about as pro-union as they've ever been. Even if their enforcement is less so.

Remember that for years, it was the Republicans who were the liberal party while the Democrats were the conservatives. As late as 1932, FDR ran on a balanced budget plank against the reckless spendthrift Hoover. The New Deal? Those were mostly programs that Hoover proposed during the election. FDR rebranded them and got them passed.

It was when the South switched from the Democrats to the Republicans that this changed. Until then, Southern Democrats were routinely more conservative than New England Republicans. Now, even the most liberal Republican is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.

Finally, realize that even if Congress is becoming more conservative, that the Democrats aren't. Notice that Congress became more liberal in 2006 and 2008 even though the Democrats became more conservative. This was because the balance shifted. A bunch of comparatively conservative (for modern Democrats) Democrats were elected. This shifted the party more conservative but shifted Congress to be more liberal.

As others have noted, the new Democratic issues would have been considered quite radical in the past. Gay marriage? Until the nineties, homosexual acts were still against the law. Government mandated birth control insurance? Prior to Griswold, birth control could be outlawed. Immigration? Remember during World War II when a Democratic Congress and White House rounded up Japanese people into camps? In its own way, that's as bad as Trump's Muslim ban.

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    There is not a valid analogy between Japanese internment and Trump's intention to halt Muslim immigration or travel to these United States. Referencing the associated curtailment of immigration to these US from Japan and German during the war would be a stronger comparison. As it stands, this is an intellectually dishonest effort to connect the unlawful imprisonment of US citizens with an isolationist, and xenophobic, policy. Jan 13, 2016 at 14:21
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    Minor nitpick: "They've made repetitive jobs so expensive that most are automated"...I'm not sure that holds up to statistics. I believe most have been outsourced, rather than automated.
    – user1530
    Jan 13, 2016 at 18:54
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    No, we lose more jobs to automation than outsourcing even including both domestic and offshore outsourcing. For example, note that we are a net exporter of agricultural products but have reduced from 90% of the population being employed in agriculture to less than 5%. The results in manufacturing are less extreme, but we actually produce more cars domestically than we did in the sixties. The fall in employment is as much a result of automation as foreign competition.
    – Brythan
    Jan 14, 2016 at 4:31
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    Do you have a citation for that (more jobs lost to automation)? Not saying you are wrong. Just curious as to the actual numbers.
    – user1530
    Jan 23, 2016 at 5:58
  • Adding on to @user1530's comments, could you add a citation for all these assertions?
    – isakbob
    Mar 27, 2019 at 3:35

Absolutely! Due to the results of party polarization, each of the major parties has become ideologically sorted relative to the 1960s-1970s. For example, the moderate Rockefeller republicans of yesteryears are (generally) democrats today, and the conservative southern democrats are generally republicans today. Because of the drifting of conservative democrats to the republican party, the remaining democrats have, as a group, become more liberal.

Most recently, you can see the effect of this from the 2010-2014 elections. As recently as 2008, there were some fairly conservative/moderate democrats in red seats that voted against Obamacare. Republicans have fared very well electorally speaking, and those conservative democrats were generally swept out and replaced by republicans, making the smaller democratic caucus more ideoligcally unified (and more liberal) as a result.

  • After the Democrats realized segregation was a losing case, they bailed on the KKK and this is why the KKK is so insignificant and not even a blip on the map anymore. If it even is true that some who were single issue democrats jumped ship after bailing on the KKK and came to the Republican party, isn't that a good thing? Point is, the conservative right movement won and the left lost and now the progressives are scrambling to rewrite history (and yes this includes Wikipedia). Aug 24, 2015 at 0:39

Republicans are still fighting for the same policies they've been fighting for years. Low taxation, smaller government, fewer regulations, etc. The Democrats are fighting for things that are completely new. For instance you can't find old Democrat campaign speeches from like the 60's where they talk about: gay marriage, gays, women,and/or transgender military, relinquishing American sovereignty to foreign bodies, befriending rogue nations, forcing you to buy health insurance, telling you what types of soft drinks you can buy, i'm sure i could think of more but you get the point.

  • This is simply the definition of progressives and conservatives. Progressives want to push for change, conservatives want to maintain the status quo.
    – user1530
    Jan 10, 2016 at 8:41
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    @blip Conservatives in the US fight for change: "[l]ow[er] taxation, smaller government, fewer regulations". Perhaps less change, but following the "conservative" wish list would make things quite different.
    – Brythan
    Jan 12, 2016 at 5:53
  • @brythan, semantics, perhaps. Some would argue those are regressive ideas.
    – user1530
    Jan 12, 2016 at 6:05
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    Perhaps. But they aren't the status quo. If you changed it to "return to days gone by", I wouldn't protest it. Even though some conservative ideas (not in that list) are quite avante garde. They also aren't nearly as popular.
    – Brythan
    Jan 12, 2016 at 6:14
  • @Brythan well, in the context of the few policies you mention, yes, that's an attempt to retain the status quo of the wealthy.
    – user1530
    Jan 13, 2016 at 18:58

Unfortunately, the link to the "DW-NOMINATE" site isn't working, but in general attempting to quantify how liberal or conservative a person is without introducing bias is extremely difficult.
For example, consider racism. Is a racist position conservative or liberal? Conservatives Republicans will tell you that the Republican party has always been the party opposing government racism whether that racism was directed at blacks or more recently when affirmative action laws target whites and people of Asian ancestry. And of course you know that most liberal Democrats will say that conservatives are racist.
Consider civil forfeiture laws. Conservatives will say that as people opposing government power and supporting the Constitution that they view opposition to civil forfeiture is a conservative issue. Liberals will say that as people who support civil liberties they view opposition to civil forfeiture laws as a liberal. On many or perhaps most issues there is a stereotype each side holds of the other. How does one go about classifying issues as "liberal" or "conservative" without buying into any of those stereotypes?

The answer is most likely that the chart tells you more about the political leanings of professors Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal (the source of the data for the chart) than it does about which party is increasing in extremism more or at all.

  • I don't see how the data has anything to with extremism.
    – user1530
    Jan 13, 2016 at 19:01
  • This is a complete misunderstanding of how the DW-NOMINATE method works. No votes are hand-coded as being conservative or liberal. The scores are estimated mathematically.
    – Will May
    May 15, 2022 at 22:44

Complications in this sort of graphic:
- Political alignment is better plotted along a 2-D axis, where one axis contains economic policy, and the other axis contains social policy. The graphic in the original post is plotting ideology on a one-dimensional axis, which can cause significant loss of fidelity. I say this because, as will be explained later, the Republican Party gets more conservative on economic issues while getting more liberal on social issues. The Democratic Party got more conservative on economic issues, while getting more liberal on social issues. So, in both cases, their ideological drift will have been disguised by a 1-D political axis.
- Republicans and Democrats have both gotten more economically conservative from the 1930's-1970's era to the 1980's-present era. Back in the 1930's - 1970's era, both parties supported a top tax rate that was clearly above 50%, and some conservatives like Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon even supported a guaranteed basic income. The top marginal tax rate was even 91% under the Eisenhower administration (Republican); as compared to 28% in 1988 at the end of the Reagan administration (Republican).
- The Southern Realignment of 1964 saw the Democratic Party and the Republican Party switch ideologies on social issues. At that inflection point, the Republican Party became radically more socially conservative, and the Democratic Party became radically more socially liberal (it's also important to note that the Southern Realignment was a gradual process, and some conservative Democrats didn't lose their seat or change parties until the 1980's, although others switched parties promptly in 1964).
- Outside of the Southern Realignment, both parties have gradually become more socially liberal over time (and the Democratic Party especially so). In the late 60's, the Democratic Party was on the frontier of supporting civil rights along racial and gender lines; but were still decades away from pushing for same sex marriage, transgender protections, etc. In the early 2010's, the Republican Party opposed same sex marriage; but they were way past the point of openly opposing the right to vote for women and non-whites.

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