Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pauses as he speaks during a “Care Not Cuts” rally in July in Covington, Ky. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Donald Trump's presidential nomination and the tea party trend of earlier this decade have led to plenty of thumb-sucking when it comes to the Republican Party's alleged shift toward the political extreme. And there is certainly evidence for that.

But a new Pew Research Center study shows that Democrats are also evolving quickly. And if anything, Democrats have actually shifted more over the past two decades on many key social and philosophical issues, trending relatively quickly toward liberal positions as Republicans have changed more slightly. And the totality of it shows that Democratic voters are actually more polarized than Republicans are.

Pew has been running this study for years, and it's the gold standard when it comes to documenting the nation's political polarization. This chart, in particular, demonstrates why we can't all just get along:


But look closely at that third graph, and you'll notice that Democrats are actually more clustered toward the far left than Republicans are to the far right. The median Democrat is also closer to the extreme than the median Republican.

This is based on Pew's long-running study of many core political issues and attitudes. And you'll notice that on almost all of them, Democrats have shifted significantly and relatively steadily since 1994.


Here are a couple of more issues:

Much of the change undoubtedly owes to the decline of the conservative Southern Democrat — a shift that slowly played out through the 1990s and the 2000s. But the trends have continued even after that political transformation was largely completed around the turn of the decade. And some have even accelerated.

Just look at the second group of charts above.

  • The percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters who think immigrants strengthen the country has risen from 55 percent to 84 percent just since 2011.
  • The percentage who blame racial discrimination for why black people “can't get ahead” has risen from 28 percent in 2010 to 64 percent in seven years.
  • And the percentage who say the government doesn't do enough for poor people has risen from 49 percent in 1994 to an all-time high of 76 percent today.

Democrats are also further to the left than ever before on their preference for diplomacy, on government regulations, on corporate profits and on environmental regulations.

In most of these cases, meanwhile, Republicans haven't changed as much. If you compare where GOP and GOP-leaning voters are now to where they were in 1994 on all 13 graphs above, the average shift is just over 10 points. For Democrats, it's 23 points.

Probably not coincidentally, Democrats have also come to embrace the “liberal” label in ways they never have before, as The Washington Post's Philip Bump notes here and here.


The reason we talk more about the GOP's shift to the right is that it has played out before our eyes in a lot of ways, first when conservative primary challenges were upsetting incumbents and more establishment-oriented candidates. Then came Trump. Democrats just hadn't seen the same internal struggle over a shift to the left — at least until 2016.

But if anything, Democratic officeholders may have just been slower to realize their party's own clamoring for liberalism. These data suggest that the environment on the left is just as ripe for more ideologically extreme candidates, and that helps explain both Bernie Sanders and the apparent race to the left that we're seeing for 2020.