In the 1988 presidential campaign, George H. W. Bush, was able to cruise to victory over Massachusetts Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis, largely by labeling Dukakis as a liberal. The “L” word had become a dirty word. From Nixon’s drubbing of George McGovern, through Ronald Reagan’s two landslide wins, any national candidate who wore the liberal label was all but assured a humiliating defeat. The “L” word was such an obvious political kiss of death, that the Democrats found their way out of the political wilderness, by running a pair of White Southern centrists (Clinton and Gore) in 1992. The Southern ticket was a way to insulate the party from being tarred as too liberal, yet again.
According to Gallup, which has been tracking self-identified political ideology since 1992, liberalism was appealing to less than one-fifth of Americans during the 1990s. The liberal label reached rock bottom in 1995, with just 16 percent of Americans polled, choosing to describe themselves as liberal.
Friday’s 2015 Gallup survey, however, finds that liberalism is resurgent. A record 24 percent of Americans now describe themselves as liberal. While more Americans (38 percent) still call themselves conservative, the gap between liberals and conservatives is the smallest it has been, in the 23 years Gallup has polled political ideology.
The 2014 election seems paradoxical. Liberalism is on the rise, yet Republicans had a banner year at the ballot box. The collapse of the political moderate, combined with low voter turnout on the left, enabled the GOP to score sweeping House and Senate victories. However, if the Democrats run on a strong, progressive populist message in 2016, they can expect to win the allegiance of the growing legions of liberal voters.
Self-identified liberals now constitute 44 percent of Democratic voters. That number is way up from the 29 percent who called themselves liberals in 2000. A Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, who tries to run too close to the center, risks alienating nearly half the party.
Liberalism has increased in popularity, while the Democratic Party’s popularity has declined. This should be a wake up call to Democratic candidates that complacency and status quo politics are a recipe for continued failure. If the Democrats want to win in 2016, the American people are telling them how. Move forward and turn left with bold ideas. Stand up for America’s working class. Stand and deliver on liberal principles. Gallup’s latest survey says Americans are becoming increasingly liberal. The Democratic Party had better be ready to position itself where liberals have reason to turn out and vote for them.