Democrats Disagree About Labels, Not About Issues

Democrats are actually pretty united if you ask them about issues rather than abstract ideological identifiers. Photo: Timsa/Getty Images/iStockphoto

There is no hoarier meme in American politics than “Democrats in disarray.” You know, the assumption that (to trot out as many clichés as possible in one sentence) the Donkey Party is deeply divided between progressives and centrists, the Establishment and insurgents, the left and the middle, populist base-mobilizers and moderate swing-voter-persuaders, perpetually forming a circular firing squad and making life easier for the GOP and assorted other Bad People. Add in disagreements over racial, ethnic, and gender identity as well as arguments about whether economics should trump culture, and you do have the appearance of a party that doesn’t know its own mind, particularly when Democratic tribes trade insults.

But as Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz explains in a deep dive into some September 2018 Pew data, differences over ideological labels are more prevalent among Democrats than differences over the actual issues that a presidential candidate or president might address, making party unity in 2020 much more likely than you might think from the endless discussions of “wings” of the party or “lanes” in the presidential nominating process. And at the same time, the much greater affinity of Republicans for the single ideological label of “conservative” disguises some large differences over what that means in terms of specific issues.

Abramowitz looked at the relative unity of voters (as measured by agreement with the prevailing ideology) in each party over issue positions in six areas: abortion, black rights, gun control, immigration, business regulation, and health care.

With the exception of gun control (on which both parties are pretty strongly united), Democrats are more united on issues than Republicans are. When you look at different self-identified ideological “tribes” of Democrats, issue differences do exist, but they aren’t as large as you might expect, particularly between liberals and moderates (the most divisive issue is immigration, but even liberals are divided significantly on that).

And when you look at levels of issue agreement for Democrats across demographic categories, the party really does begin to seem like one whose differences are more symbolic than substantive. Old folks, for example, are as likely to be “liberal” on issues as under-30s, and racial-ethnic differences aren’t dramatic either.

Republicans, on the other hand, have serious issue differences mostly because the definition of conservative is in serious flux thanks to Donald J. Trump. That’s obviously true on immigration policy but also on some business-regulation-related issues like trade policy, where Trump-era conservatism is almost the polar opposite of its precedents. And on some issues, like abortion, the unanimity of Republican elected officials disguises some pretty sharp differences of opinion among rank-and-file party members.

To test the salience of issues as opposed to ideological labels, Abramowitz also looked at which factor most reliably determines positive and negative attitudes toward Trump’s job performance as president. Those with liberal issue preferences are monolithically opposed to Trump even if they self-identify ideologically as something other than liberal.

Abramowitz concludes, “These findings suggest that the task of uniting Democrats behind the party’s eventual nominee may not be as difficult as some pundits and political observers have suggested.” And perhaps when the subject at hand is policy or attitudes toward the 45th president, rather than abstract questions about the ideological future of the party, Democrats are not really that much in disarray.

Democrats Disagree About Labels, Not Issues