After winning two major electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, the Democrats made the mistake of believing that their majority was permanent and that they would wield power forever—a complacency that contributed to their undoing two months ago.
After their stunning 2016 performance, Republicans might be tempted to indulge in similar fantasies about their enduring strength and their opponents’ fundamental weakness. But a new Gallup poll showing a steady increase in the number of Americans who self-identify as “liberal” is a reminder that such overconfidence is unwarranted.
Even as liberalism ticked upward to its highest reading in the last quarter century, the number of Americans who identify as conservative has stagnated, and actually registered on the low side in 2016. Meanwhile, the “moderate” constituency, while still sizable, has eroded.
Gallup points out that most of the rise of “liberalism” is the result of a leftward shift among Democrats. The ideological composition of the Republican Party, at least according to the “liberal-moderate-conservative” metric, has remained roughly the same.
Overall, then, the long-term trend communicated by Gallup is not the triumph of conservatism nor its collapse, but the shrinkage of the political center and the rise of a more polarized party system. Such an environment is more volatile, and could return either party to office in the blink of an eye.
As Sean Trende has reminded us, there are no permanent majorities in American politics. Parties will always need to fight tirelessly for the chance to wield power, knowing that they will one day lose it again.