There is a lot of confusion about whether we’re seeing significant ideological change in the United States. With Trump and the re-appearance of white nationalism in the public spotlight, many people are wondering if conservative (right-wing) ideology is on the rise. One can find many influential outlets endorsing this notion. CBS, BBC, Vox, and certainly others have all run articles suggesting this. On the other hand, many conservatives believe that “liberal” (left-wing in America) ideology is on the rise. There are good reasons for people to be confused, because the dynamics of ideology in the United States are confusing. To help clear up some of the confusion, I’ve written this guide to some of the basics of what political scientists know about the long-term historical dynamics of ideology in the United States. And how they shed light on what is happening, or not happening, right now.
If there is one substantial ideological shift in American public opinion in the post-war period, it is the dramatic and near-universal increase in social liberalism since the 1950s. There has not been a general shift to the left or right because economic conservatism has not changed much (although it has polarized on the left and right). There has been some cyclical, “thermostatic” movement in opinion (which is normal). There have been changes in symbolism (“liberalism” became stigmatized in the 1960s). And there have been some dramatic shifts in party identification (a pretty massive Republican resurgence with Reagan). Otherwise, one cannot say the American public has moved to the right or left as a whole, in any significant way, in the long-run or recently, except that it has become more socially liberal. There have been some interesting and substantial ideological shifts within groups, but that would need to be another post.
There is currently no good evidence I am aware of that overt racism or white nationalism is growing.1 It likely appears larger than it is, especially to progressives, precisely because it has never been less common in American history. This says nothing about how such stupid and malicious groups should be dealt with.
This is my interpretation based on what we know about long-term ideological dynamics in the United States. For a more detailed tour of that data, see the post on my personal blog, “Are Americans becoming more conservative or liberal (right or left)?”
- The only exception I have found is the data on the number of “hate groups” collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which reveals an upward climb since 1999. I am not going to say it’s wrong in a dismissive footnote, because it would deserve more attention than that. But I am excluding it from consideration here for a few reasons. First, it includes a wide variety of groups well beyond explicitly racist or white nationalist groups, including black separatist groups. So in this sense it does not reflect what I am considering in this post. But also the SPLC has come under fire for being increasingly politicized and untrustworthy as a data source. See this article from Politico, for instance. My personal view is that there has been a tendency in recent years for progressive groups to lower their bar for what counts as a hate group, and at least a few cases on the SPLC’s list suggest to me this has occurred there, at least to some degree.