More than half of Democrats now identify as liberal, suggesting that the long-vilified “L-word” may be losing its potency as political kryptonite.
A generation of Democratic presidential contenders, from Michael Dukakis to Bill Clinton, ducked the liberal brand. Republicans disparaged liberals as weak-willed softies. Democratic candidates faced perennial accusations of closet liberalism.
In the millennial era, the L-word seems to be shedding its stigma. The share of avowed Democrats who describe themselves as liberal has more than doubled since 1994, reaching 54 percent in 2022, according to Gallup polling.
“When you look at the way conservatives brand Democrats, they’ve gone way past ‘liberal,’” said Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Now, it’s ‘socialist.’”
Presidents Obama and Biden both fended off the socialist tag. In 2021, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other conservatives mockingly referred to Biden’s economic recovery plan as “Build Back Socialist.”
The L-word has taken a circuitous journey through the annals of American politics. From FDR through JFK, liberalism “was a positive term, politically,” said Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
Liberals and liberalism “helped save the country from the Great Depression,” Dallek said. “Liberal internationalists helped save the world from Nazi fascism.”
In the 1960s, conservatives William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater helped redefine liberalism as a philosophy of big government and overspending. By the Reagan 1980s, Republican strategists had painted the liberal as “a lover of bureaucracy and criminals, whose hobbies are raising taxes, flag burning and gay marriage,” Michael Kinsley wrote in a 1992 column.
In the 1988 campaign, Republican candidate George H.W. Bush branded his Democratic opponent, Dukakis, a “card-carrying liberal,” clearly implying that was bad. Dukakis waved off the label until the final days of the election, which he lost.
In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich and GOPAC instructed conservative candidates to wield “liberal,” “welfare” and “taxes” as defining terms against their opponents.
“He had this list of words: ‘These are the words that you should use to describe Democrats,’” said Alan Abramowitz, professor emeritus of political science at Emory University.
In the 1992 campaign, Clinton deflected the L-word by portraying himself as a centrist. Many rank-and-file Democrats followed suit. Gallup polls from that era show more than 40 percent of Democrats identifying as moderate, with smaller groups claiming to be conservative or liberal.
Over the next two decades, liberals gradually supplanted moderates as the largest group of Democrats. The conservative camp shrank away: 10 percent of all Democrats identified as conservative in 2022.
Both parties, it seems, have drifted toward the ideological poles. The share of Republicans identifying as conservative rose from 58 percent in 1994 to 72 percent in 2022. Most of that increase has come at the expense of moderates, who dwindled from 33 percent to 22 percent of Republicans in those years.
For Democratic politicians, some of the L-word stigma endures. Older pols may never forget the once-ubiquitous putdowns “bleeding-heart liberal,” “tax-and-spend liberal” and “limousine liberal” that invoke liberal clichés.
“If you reviewed most of the advertising running from Democrats in the midterm elections or Joe Biden’s campaign, I don’t think you’d find any touting themselves as liberal,” Dallek said.
Left-leaning Democrats of the Biden era populate the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group formed in 1991, near the high-water mark of Republican attacks on liberalism.
“It’s the Progressive Caucus,” Abramowitz said. “It’s not the liberal caucus.”
The term “progressive” carries mostly positive connotations, at least to the Left, political scientists say. Bernie Sanders, the Independent Vermont senator, famously denies being a liberal but embraces the progressive label.
“I would say most Democrats who fall more on the left end of the spectrum probably describe themselves as progressives now,” said Mike Freiberg, a Democratic state representative in Minnesota. “There are Democrats who self-identify as socialist now.”
Research by Pew has uncovered an ideological split within the left. One group, “Establishment Liberals,” makes up roughly 23 percent of the Democratic tribe. Another group, the “Progressive Left,” represents 12 percent.
The groups agree on nearly every issue, from gun control to climate change to racial justice to abortion. But progressives “support far-reaching changes” to the establishment to effect those policies, Pew reports. Establishment liberals do not.
“The term ‘liberal’ is still associated kind of with ‘the Establishment,’ in quotation marks,” said Dru Dunn, 19, a sophomore at American University and president of the College Democrats.
“The ‘Establishment Liberal’: It means you’re kind of OK with how things are running right now.”