The New Left: Like the Old Left, Just More Selfish

Today's soft left reflects Democratic orthodoxy on most issues. It just doesn't care much for programs to help the poor.
The new Democrat.

If you don't like social welfare programs, take heart: Democrats may hesitate to expand the safety net anytime soon. And the reason isn't Republican opposition, but centrist indifference.

A Pew Research Center report released today shows that about one-third of registered U.S. voters are people who lean Democratic, but don't reliably vote that way, or even vote at all. In most ways, they look a lot like the Democratic Party's liberal base, with one important difference: They don't much care for programs to help the poor.

Pew's survey, "Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology," looks at the views of Americans who are neither consistently liberal nor consistently conservative. It defined two groups of centrist voters who would tend to lean Democratic. The first is what it calls the next-generation left: younger, well-off and socially liberal, and more interested in science and technology than politics. (The group overlaps heavily with millennials.) The second is what Pew calls the faith-and-family left: socially conservative, religious and racially diverse.

Together, these two groups make up 29 percent of registered voters, compared with the 17 percent that Pew describes as solidly liberal. The Democrats' ability to win elections depends on their success at courting these voters. And that means paying attention to what they want.

(Pew found a third group it calls "Hard-Pressed Skeptics," which lean Democratic by a smaller margin than the next-generation left or the faith-and-family left, yet more closely reflects traditional liberals' support for the social safety net.)

On most issues, that doesn't require Democratic candidates to depart from its long-standing policies. Both groups align with liberals on their support for immigration, regulating businesses, environmental protection and support for government in general.

However, the steadfast Democratic voters Pew calls The "Solid Liberals" and the Democratic-leaning centrists diverge sharply on the question of whether the government should do more to help the needy: 83 percent of solid liberals said it should, compared with 58 percent of the faith-and-family left and just 39 percent of the next-generation left.

Part of that gap stems from different underlying views about the causes of poverty. Asked whether "most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard," fewer than one in three solid liberals said yes, compared with three-quarters of the next-generation left and four-fifths of the faith-and-family left.

Those groups were also far more likely to agree that the poor "have it easy," receiving benefits without doing anything to earn them. And they were more likely to say that government aid to the poor does more harm than good, a statement that almost all solid liberals rejected.

The disparity of views of the social safety net is mirrored by divergent views on federal spending. A majority of the next-generation left said the government can't afford to do much more for the poor, along with more than a third of the faith-and-family left. Just 12 percent of the solid liberals said they felt the same way. If Alex P. Keaton were a millennial, he may have wound up among the next-generation left.

How you interpret these findings depends on what you consider the biggest challenges facing the country. If you think the main problem with Democrats is their reluctance to cut entitlement spending, this report is welcome news. It means that even if Republicans' opposition to immigration reform keeps Democrats in the White House, the next president will think twice before expanding the safety net.

But if you're concerned that income inequality, stagnant wages and economic immobility risk creating a permanent underclass of Americans, Pew's findings may hold a different message. You may worry that Democrats -- not the boldest group as it is -- will become even less likely to push subsidized family leave, or more generous retirement programs, or better access to higher education for students from low-income families.

And if you're a Democratic leader, you may read this report and wonder how your party has failed to persuade more of its base that expanding the safety net is worthwhile.

Meanwhile, if you don't like Obamacare, here's one take-away from this report: Democrats may not try anything else like it for a long, long time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.