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How the Democrats could split Both parties are more fractured than we think

He's probably a populist (JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)


November 17, 2021   5 mins

With states, cities and even neighbourhoods lining up to secede, with all signs of a common culture slowly dissipating, it’s become commonplace to assume that the United States has never been so divided. This is mirrored in the increasing polarisation of the Democrats and Republicans: few are willing to switch their vote from one election to the next.

But the blocs aren’t monolithic. Hairline cracks at the margin of each coalition foreshadow the defections that often decide elections.

That, at least, is the implication of a new report from the Pew Research Center. According to its findings, the Democrats are divided by cultural issues such as critical race theory — look at how many of them flocked to Glenn Youngkin in Virginia — while the GOP are split over economic questions. Indeed, it’s all too easy to forget that an important minority of Democratic voters is patriotic, worried about cancel culture, and wants border control and strong policing. Likewise, a significant bloc of Republican voters is sceptical of banks and large corporations and wants them to pay higher taxes.

These observations echo the analyses of David Shor, Michael Lind, Lee Drutman and others: that the median voter leans Left on the economy and Right on culture. The serious challenge for both parties, then, is whether they can resist influential factions in their respective parties: for the Democrats, that’s the AOC-Elizabeth Warren progressive caucus; for the Republicans, the Paul Ryan-Mitch McConnell corporate tax-cut wing.

Drawing on a large representative sample of Americans, Pew has developed a nine-cluster typology of voters, including four Republican and four Democratic categories, in addition to one in the middle. Clusters group people’s answers to a large number of questions by the degree to which their responses correlate. For example, if people who support Black Lives Matter tend to support higher immigration and higher taxes, then those three questions can be reduced to one measure. If, however, there is a group of people who support the first two but not the third policy, that becomes a separate cluster.

Ignoring the less distinctive middle three clusters of the Pew report yields six groupings: three for each of the two main parties. For Republicans, ‘Faith and Flag Conservatives’ are on the Right of pretty much every question. ‘Committed Conservatives’ are more moderate, with a final category, ‘Populist Right’, who are conservative on immigration, progressivism and race, but moderate on economics and somewhat centrist on religion. ‘Faith and Flag Conservatives’ tend to be older, while ‘Populist Right’ voters are distinguished by lower levels of education and religiosity.

Among Democrats, the ‘Progressive Left’ are very Left-wing on essentially all issues, while the ‘Establishment Liberals’ are a more moderate group. ‘Democratic Mainstays’ are Left-wing on economics, but centrist on cultural issues such as immigration or cancel culture. The ‘Outsider Left’, meanwhile, is largely made up of voters who opted for Biden but are frustrated with the party and its leaders. Of these, the ‘Progressive Left’ make up just 12% of Democratic voters and are the whitest Democratic cluster, at 68%. They are also younger: the share of Progressive Leftists among Democrats under 30 is 18% compared to just 8% among the over 50s.

On the face of it, splitting the two parties into these groupings reveals where the two parties are most strongly united. Across the four Democratic clusters, for example, 75% or more generally support higher taxes for high earners and say big business earns too much profit, while 85% support Black Lives Matter. On the other hand, more than 80% of Republicans oppose BLM; a similar proportion believe that government assistance to the poor does more harm than good, creating welfare dependency. These are the issues which unify each party’s coalition.

More interesting, however, are the fissures that divide them, presenting opportunities for the other party to poach supporters and win the tight contests that mark the current electoral era. This is most clear with the ‘Populist Right’ Republicans and ‘Democratic Mainstay’ Democrats.

Adapted from Pew, ‘Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology’, p. 86

Figure 1, above, adapted from Pew’s report, illustrates the responses to two statements. The first highlights threats to free speech: “People being too easily offended by things others say is a major problem in the country today.” The second concerns hate speech: “People saying things that are very offensive to others is a major problem in the country today.”

Notice that all four Republican groups lie inside the red circle in the top left quadrant. This means that most Republicans, more than three-quarters of most GOP clusters, think there is a problem with free speech while only a minority think there is too much offensive speech.

On the other hand, the blue circle includes clusters in both right-hand quadrants; they are less closely aligned. Indeed, despite what a number of progressive politicians would have you think, some 81% of the ‘Democratic Mainstay’ cluster believe people are too easily offended, aligning them with Republican opinion. Nor is this a small minority: this group makes up 28% of the Democratic coalition — and is older, less educated and relatively Black and Hispanic. It voted heavily for Biden in the primaries, but is much cooler toward candidates like Sanders or Warren.

It represents, therefore, an important target group for the Republicans. As Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia revealed, culture war issues can act as an important wedge issue for the GOP, making it imperative for the Democrats to put distance between themselves and unpopular progressive causes. And the ‘Democratic Mainstay’ group diverges from the small ‘Progressive Left’ wing in more ways than one. On increasing legal immigration, 63% of Progressive Leftists agree, but only 28% of Democratic Mainstays do; 71% of the first group think American institutions are systematically biased and must be rebuilt, but only 38% of the latter agree.

Meanwhile, the Right is also riven with its own divisions. The biggest outlier is the ‘Populist Right’ cluster which makes up a sizeable 23% of Republican voters. Its members were more likely to say Trump was the best president in recent times rather than Reagan, whereas other Republican clusters either split or favoured Reagan. 87% of this relatively less educated and less religious group say “the economic system in this country unfairly favours powerful interests”, and more than half want higher taxes on people earning over $400,000 a year.

Crucially, this puts them at odds with most Republican voters — and in the company of most Democrats. Here, then, lies an opportunity for the Democrats: if they can peel away populist Right-wing voters turned off by country-club Republicanism, they can split the GOP and flip some Trump voters while uniting their own ranks.

Similarly, the relatively old and evangelical ‘Faith and Flag Conservatives’ cluster is also distinct in its religious Americanism. Among its members, 75% say the “Government should support religious values and beliefs”, whereas fewer than 30% of Republicans outside this cluster agree. On same-sex marriage and abortion this group is more than 20 points more socially conservative than other Republican groups.

So if Republicans shift too far toward religious conservatism, they will open an opportunity for Democrats. But while Pew’s findings reveal that the Republicans are more fragmented than many would expect, it is still the case that the Democrats should be more concerned. For ultimately, Pew’s research reinforces the conclusions of More in Common’s recent Hidden Tribes report. Using data from 2018, Hidden Tribes identified a heavily white 8% ‘Progressive Activist’ segment of the population that was Left-wing on identity issues, unconcerned with free speech and highly active on social media. Pew’s report finds a similar segment: the 6% ‘Progressive Left’ group, who share the same elite, young and white social profile that David Shor and James Carville warn is too dominant among Democratic staffers.

In both surveys, a much larger group of moderate Left-wing voters — often non-white, older and less educated — reject the activists’ progressive politics. And since cultural issues in recent western elections appear to be more important in motivating voters to switch than economic questions, the activist Left could prove a distinct electoral liability. This was the story told by recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Seattle. And as long as the Democrats fail to realise this, it’s only a matter of time before more of its support base is lured across the political aisle.


Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and author of Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press, 4 July).

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Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

Insightful article. It does make me wonder though why neither Ted Cruz (son of a Cuban migrant), nor Jeb Bush (Spanish speaker with a latina wife) came close to winning the Republican primaries in the 2016 election. It would’ve been interesting to know the presidential candidate choices of all these identified groups.
This also doesn’t explain how woke progressives nearly ended up selecting Bernie Sanders in the same 2016 primaries if they only make up 6-8% of the Democrats. This of all things may have pushed the establishment liberals towards woke progressive ideological positions.
I think there was a big appetite for change back in 2016 in US politics where the youthful extreme wings of both parties dominated. Change was Barack Obama’s headline promise to deliver, and his biggest failure in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis.
That financial crisis was the genesis of the populist movements left and right, where the “technocratic elite” lost immense credibility. In my view, this gets less attention in these analyses than it deserves as this is where it started to go wrong (along with the Iraq War) for US.
On other news, Max Boot made an appeal on WaPo to repudiate Di Angelo’s “White Fragility” and in general woke progressive politics, fearful that Democrats are on track to lose the election if they continue their current path.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

That financial crisis was the genesis of the populist movements left and right, where the “technocratic elite” lost immense credibility. In my view, this gets less attention in these analyses than it deserves as this is where it started to go wrong (along with the Iraq War) for US.
Agreed. Another Unherd article reported that woke culture is most popular among Millennials (age 25-40). Not surprising since that generation are the ones struggling to establish a career, buy a house and start a family.
Progressivism is an opportunistic infection among those who’ve lost all faith in the current social and economic systems.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think that is a bit of an oversimplification. Between an unstable economy, shameless offshoring, rampant monopolization, shady trade deals, destroyed industry, stagnant wages, ruined careers, corporate scandals, blatant cronyism, banking collapses, housing market breakdowns, massive wage gaps, and now rampant inflation, I think it is safe to say that the American economy has been a disaster for the last three decades. At some point people are going to ask why they should even listen anymore to the technocrats who ran things. The skepticism of our “nothing to see here, everything is fine” elites is not just limited to the Left.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Agree with all of that. But is it also a fact that social media and 24×7 news has amplified a lot of things to feel as if they are more prevalent now? Look at the wall to wall Trump Derangement Syndrome, and Brexit Derangement Syndrome. So much noise. Or is it that globalisation has allowed those abuses to be perpetrated on a global scale, concentrating more and more power into fewer and fewer hands in a way never seen before? I just don’t think the human brain is designed to handle such information overload.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Or they just want to feel ‘special’ and they don’t feel special enough.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Only a very young person would posit that this all started with the financial crisis of 2008. The real genesis of the change started in the 1960’s.
Many of us make the logical error in thinking the world began when we were born. That is why an understanding of history is so vital, and why the Left is so insistent on changing it.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I don’t think it would really be possible to put a date on where it all started to go wrong in general – luckily that wasn’t my intention. The lineage I’m trying to trace is when did populism take a hold of America. I can’t think of another time in living memory Americans were ready to elect a self-declared socialist or an obvious nepotist populist such as Trump (some quote the Jacksonian era as the last example).

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Try this: populist movements begin when a large cohort of a nation becomes convinced its future is in danger and that the people who rule the country either don’t care about the large cohort’s peril or are actually responsible for the danger.

In 1960 the US was 90% white.

In 2020 the US is 57% white.

White minority status is now predicted for 2042.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Ted Cruz was a great candidate and was my first choice. He just didn’t have enough personality to create the buzz needed to go up against someone like Hillary who had almost all of the news and entertainment industries, along with Wall Street, backing her. That’s no fault of his own, just the personality he was born with. His positions, and his willingness to defend them, were excellent. I’m still hopeful he’ll have another go at it someday.
Jeb Bush could go nowhere because no one trusted him. He was a classic RINO. His brother’s memory was too recent: run on the Republican ticket, but spend your term in office trying to keep the Democrats happy. Not a good deal if you want a conservative president. Plus, at least on those occasions when George W. talked conservative ideas, he came across like he believed them, even if his actions in office indicated otherwise. Whenever Jeb talked conservative principles, you were left wondering if there was someone just off camera pointing a gun at him and forcing him to say these things. It had the feel of a hostage video. Definitely not someone to trust. And he had the personality of a decaying fish on a riverbank.
So no principles (that we can believe) and no personality. What’s his pitch for president then? It almost seemed like it was “If you liked my brother, I’m more of the same.” But Dems didn’t like his brother because he didn’t officially identify as a Dem, and Republicans didn’t like him because he pretended he was a Dem. In other words, Jeb took the approach of “Appeal to no one, hope to somehow win anyway.” It didn’t work.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

This was very interesting to read. Cruz may indeed end up being the face of a new multi ethnic working class Republican party.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Unfortunately he can’t. He is the wrong party for that. We saw that clearly in the 2018 Texas senator election. Paddy O’Malley….excuse me…Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, a dorky Irishman who looks exactly like what he is, was declared by the media to the be the true Hispanic candidate to represent the state’s vast Hispanic population. On the other hand, the media declared Rafael “Ted” Cruz, as you noted the son of a Cuban refugee, the very face of northern European white supremacy in the race. And that is what he will always be unless the current media titans vanish, which seems unlikely. The good news is that Texas voters disagree with the media. And in fact the media has an astonishingly low trust rate with the population at large. It should be noted that Cruz easily won in 2018, even though the money pouring into Fauxspanic O’Rourke’s coffers made it the most expensive senate race in history up to that point.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

I’m so tired of “journalists” asking the wrong questions or reporting on the wrong questions. They repeatedly ask if we are in favor of immigration or not. But the real question is if we are in favor of ILLEGAL immigration or not. I am all for legal immigration and totally against breaking the law. That doesn’t make me a racist.
The same goes for climate change. I wholeheartedly agree that the climate is changing, as it has done for eons, yet I don’t believe that there is anything we mere humans can do about it. That doesn’t make me a dreaded “climate denier”.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Nah. A lot of Disillusioned Democrats just voted for Trump in 2020. It still staggers me that Biden managed to get 80 million votes. MSM Trump Derangement Syndrome really worked.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Sure he did.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

A bunch of corporate, Bush era neocons are leaving the Republican party to join the Democrat party. The woke Twitter crowd is too out of it to notice, but I guarantee you much of their traditional base sees exactly what is going on. The party leadership (neoliberals) are basically inviting in their base’s most despised group of politicians with friendly smiles and warm pats on the back. Not to mention tensions between the Democrat base and the neoliberal leadership are already high. They are banking on traditional liberals (American) and anti-corporate progressives being too stupid, weak, or apathetic to do or say anything about it. I would personally not take that bet if I were them. If you thought the civil war within the Republican party got a bit heated, you have not seen anything yet.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The corporates might be decamping but the people are going the other way. Their instincts are spot on. Same thing has happened in the UK with the Red Wall voting for the Tories while corporates and middle class liberals are falling over themselves to be ‘woke’ socialists (fake ones)

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Bang on.

Last edited 2 years ago by Karl Francis
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Just follow the money. Spineless, selfish, greedy elitists clamoring to stay in the club. They sell their souls to keep their membership.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

This research looks to me like the authors were determined to find like-for-like problems and weaknesses in both parties. Since academics are almost 100% leftist, that implies they’re worried about a populist Republican surge.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

You don’t like balanced reporting then? You’d rather a one sided hit job that simply attacks your political opponents, rather than an insightful piece showing the different divisions (and overlaps) between the two major parties?

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

OK, we’ll take it slowly.
1-“Balanced” doesn’t mean you find equal good and bad in each side, whether the good and bad IS actually equal or not.
2- when you deliberately go out of your way to create false equivalence where the two side are not equivalent, that’s not balance, that’s disingenuousness (at best).

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

So you’re suggesting there’s no difference of opinion between the Trumpists, the Evangelicals and the more traditional elements (Reagan) of the Republican Party, as there is between the AOC led factions and more centrist Biden groupings within the Democrats?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The big parties are in it for power. They have that in common. The battle is between the elites and the workers, the somewheres versus the anywheres, not left and right.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Yup!

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Blacks have been in the US for longer than any group besides the English and the Dutch. Most can trace their lineages so far back they run out of written records. They possess little generational wealth. They are predominantly workers and are archetypal “Somewheres”

They vote 9 to 1 for the party run by capital and the Anywheres.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Hickey
James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

I really don’t like this guy or his writing. Cue the commentators to rubbish me! He’s an academic writes like an academic, and his use of statistics is meaningless. Second cue for the commentators. For example, X% of Americans support BLM. Really? I don’t believe it. Many people support the concept that black lives matter (Unherd wants to capitalize this, what’s up with that?), but would not support the organization if they bothered to look at the website and see what BLM stands for. Are you a Marxist? Do you hate America? Do you want to abolish whiteness? Do you want to destroy the nuclear family? Do you think saying white lives matter too is racist? Do you believe white America today owes black America reparations? Would you like to wash the feet of black Americans in a public, religious ceremony to atone for your sins?
The point is that BLM has huge perceived support from white people who don’t want to appear racist.
Americans are being defined less and less by the 2 party system, so “reaching across the aisle” does not mean what it once did. If 40% of Americans were Ds and 40% were Rs, then 20% were some form of third party/independent. But what if now 20% are Ds, 20% are Rs, doesn’t that mean 60% are something else? Isn’t 60% a majority?
The worst number of political parties for a country to have is one. But the close second worst number is 2. I’m a Trump voter (my 2020 vote from abroad didn’t count, but that’s another story), not because he’s a R but because of his mostly excellent policies. I still don’t believe that Trump is a real R–and I hate real Rs only a bit less than Ds, mostly because Rs don’t hate straight white people.
I think your comment is spot on. Academics are almost 100% hard left and even those who are not are not on side.
Let’s go Brandon!

Last edited 2 years ago by James Joyce
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Seeing as Black Lives Matter is the name of the group it should be capitalised, the same as Labour, Conservative, Democrat and Republican. However if you’re using as a statement that you believe black lives matter, then it wouldn’t be.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I agree but the computer didn’t get it at first.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

Well they should be. We’ve got plans for them.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

Both parties always were and always have been coalitions. That’s how parties in FPTP operate to win power. It’s not so different in PR only there the ideologies coalesce into coalitions at governmental level. At least FPTP gets it out the way early. To a certain extent, either way, representative democracy is and always has been a game of finding a coalition of views broad enough to win elections.

Rob Hiney-Saunders
Rob Hiney-Saunders
2 years ago

interesting article but a.bit weird to use an infographic that places the right on the left hand side and the left on the right hand side.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

LOL, you’re right, I hadn’t caught that!

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

The only meaningful battle at this point is people who still desire freedom and liberty and those that want to embrace a totalitarian medical/climate change state. Everything else doesn’t matter. Either there will still be some degree of freedom in the world if enough people resist or we will all live under a totalitarian state. All else is the same divide and conquer nonsense they always pull. We are ruled by propaganda. It is the single most effective tool in the elite’s arsenal against the greater humanity. The sane left and the right need to understand this and join forces or we are screwed.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“‘Faith and Flag Conservatives’” hahaa, not stereotypical at all…..

And their opposite, as named by this impartial poll:

“‘Progressive Left’”

Or as the guys doing the Poll, and making meaning of it would call them, if no one was listening: ‘The Good guys and the Bad Guys’….and the top one would be the bad guys…..ï»ż

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

What description would you use for the groups then, with names that clearly state their political leanings?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Are you assuming that the term “Faith and Flag” is somehow insulting? I don’t see why you should, it seems to broadly describe a particular sector on the Right. I also believe those to whom it applies would be proud to be classified thus. However, I do agree that the term “progressive” is problematical, but I don’t know how it can be reclaimed from this particular grouping as they consider what they are doing as progressive, of course, they are in a minority in this belief. It’s an example of redefining language and terminology, and it’s not just the Left that does this.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

But the Left has perfected it.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

Well, a disease can progress too, so IMO to say that you are progressive can be something other than a compliment. But too much commentary assumes that progress is invariably beneficial, that is true. The challenge seems to me to be to take back the word from those who see it as always for the good.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Krehbiel
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

On the highway to hell being a progressive is not a smart move.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

‘Of these, the ‘Progressive Left’ make up just 12% of Democratic voters and are the whitest Democratic cluster, at 68%.’ A bunch of White people telling Blacks and Latin@s what they should want.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

Please notice that no mention is made of any of the 3 Republican groups’ racial makeups — because they are all 90% white or better.

Although whites still make up about 74% of the voting electorate, not only are they the only swing voters, they also have the largest bloc of non-voters. As Peter Franklin pointed out in an article on a Jacobin Magazine/YouGov poll, those missing voters are not progressives.

Non-college educated and not interested in politics, that cohort is waiting to be motivated by a smart right-winger with the right “cultural” message.

And the zealous young white leftists who now control the Democratic Party and who worship at the shrine of George Floyd are likely to hand it to that smart right-winger.