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Is Elon Musk Correct When He Says Liberals Have Moved Far to the Left Since 2008?
Short answer? Yes. Long answer? Read the column.
Elon Musk created an enormous amount of controversy by posting this cartoon*:
Naturally, you had conservatives agreeing with it and liberals alternately going, “That’s crazy. Conservatives radicalized, but liberals didn’t change at all!” Or saying something akin to, “Far right-wingers are all evil, while far left-wingers just want to give you free health care!”
A few liberals tried to “prove” that this wasn’t true by posting charts. However, before we even get into the whole, “Are these charts from reliable sources?” question, it’s worth noting that almost none of them addressed the real question, which is whether liberals have moved to the Left. They usually addressed other topics entirely. For example, here’s left-of-center statistics guru Nate Silver addressing one of the charts that was most offered up as “proof”:
Silver also tossed out some other charts which show both parties moving significantly toward the extremes.
However, it is actually difficult to definitively “prove” this answer one way or the other because it’s an extremely complicated question. Why is it complicated? For a lot of reasons. Just as a starting point, the real-world definition (as opposed to the dictionary definition) of what defines a liberal and a conservative has changed quite a bit. By today’s standards, Richard Nixon wasn’t a conservative and John F. Kennedy wasn’t a liberal. Additionally, both parties have populist and moderate wings that emphasize different things. Conservatives are not necessarily in sink with the GOP and liberals aren’t necessarily in step with the Democratic Party.
We can have big arguments about what forces in each party are “fringe” or “mainstream.” The rhetoric used to describe some ideas has changed in ways that may make a position sound more or less radical. Some radical ideas have been around a long time but haven’t necessarily “gone mainstream” until recently.
It’s also even worth noting that some ideas are cyclical. The liberal movement of the sixties was in many ways much more radical than the liberal movement of the early 2000s, while the conservative movement in the sixties was much more undergirded by Libertarianism than it is today. On and on it goes.
So, does that mean the question can’t be answered? Absolutely not. It can be answered correctly, but there just isn’t going to be some chart that neatly reflects an answer here or elsewhere. That means it will be an arguable point.
That being said, I started blogging in 2001 and I’ve done just about everything in the conservative movement since then. I’ve put up signs, worked for candidates including a presidential campaign, worked at a local GOP headquarters, been part of the Tea Party movement, done hundreds of hours as a guest on talk radio, been one of the most popular conservative columnists on the net, built a top 10,000 in the world conservative website, ran a conservative ad network, conferred behind the scenes with congressional aides, and interviewed a vast number of big-name conservatives – you may agree with me or not, but I know what I’m talking about better than 99.9% of the people out there.
With that in mind, let’s start with conservatives. Have they changed since 2008? Yes, but maybe not in the way that most people may think. Since then, as a general rule, conservatives have become more populist (not a surprise), but also, more LIBERAL on social issues. In other words, conservatives have moved TO THE LEFT in some important ways since 2008.
How did I come to that conclusion? Well first of all, since I have been around so long, I can look back at my own writing during that period. For example, here’s a piece I wrote in 2012 called, “Twenty things this conservative believes.” There’s not a single one of those 20 items that I disagree with today.
In fact, after thinking about it for a while, there are only a few areas where my political beliefs have changed in the last two decades. I am still a free trader, but I am much less of an absolutist about it after seeing other nations wiping out industries here by supplementing their own side. I’m much less interested in trying to spread democracy around the world as a result of seeing our success in that area under Reagan turn to failure under Bush. Of course, I still think marriage is extremely important, but I believe the system that served us well for so long is now broken. I’m much more skeptical about Muslim immigrants in particular and immigration on the whole after seeing the number of freeloaders and bad actors we’ve brought here. I’m not entirely sure how to properly address the issue, but after reading Ray Dalio’s book, I am much more concerned about the long-term dangers of income inequality. Those are changes, but not radical ones.
Did conservatives as a whole change? I would argue “yes,” but not in the way most people believe. I think conservatives as a whole MOVED TO THE LEFT a bit on social and cultural issues, in part (but not entirely) because of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Want some examples? In, 2008, conservatives were adamantly against gay marriage. Today, 55% of Republicans support gay marriage. As for Trump, although his legislative agenda was very in line with grassroots conservative values, his behavior led to conservatives shifting to the Left in how they approached some moral and cultural issues.
For example, in 2008, many of the same conservatives chanting “Let’s go Brandon!” or “F*** Joe Biden!” today would have told you that it was very important to show respect for the office of the presidency. A candidate that cheated on a pregnant wife with a stripper in 2008? That wouldn’t have flown with conservatives. Today, it does. Even the sort of loud, “This election was rigged!” protesting we saw from Trump has always been more of a liberal thing than a conservative thing. For good or ill, conservatives used to be much more concerned than liberals about potentially undermining faith in the electoral system.
Now, most conservatives didn’t look at those things as “being more liberal,” they looked at them as “fighting fire with fire,” but the fire in question was liberal attitudes and tactics. Even the Jan 6 riot at the Capitol, which has been widely condemned on the Right, is nothing more than a copy of the tactics liberals used all across the country throughout 2020.
Once you get beyond that sort of thing, Trump’s agenda was essentially mainstream conservatism with a populist tilt. Granted, George W. Bush and Trump would have disagreed on some agenda items (like immigration), but that has more to do with the populist vs. Country Club Republican battle in the GOP than a change in conservative beliefs.
So, what about liberals? Have they changed? Liberals would say, “No.” I would say, “Hell, yes.”
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Just as a beginning point, when Barack Obama was first elected, he was against gay marriage. Certainly, they didn’t mean it, but back then liberals at least claimed that they wanted to secure the border and be tough on crime. That’s a far cry from Joe Biden doing everything possible to increase the number of illegal aliens coming into the United States. We’ve also had numerous liberal districts defunding the police and refusing to prosecute many criminals. Granted, liberals have always been soft on crime, but you could make a decent argument that’s an escalation from where they’ve been in the past. Unquestionably, it’s a huge step to the Left from where they were in 2008.
Similarly, liberals have always romanticized rioting and domestic terrorism for left-wing causes (for example, see the Black Panthers and Bill Ayers). However again, the level of rioting and destruction that was simply allowed to occur in liberal cities with minimal interference from the authorities seems like a huge escalation from 2008, although arguably it would be more of a lateral move from what liberals were winking at in the sixties.
Cancel culture? That may have been a thing on some college campuses in 2008, but liberals used to take pride in being pro-free speech, even if they didn’t live up to those ideals. Today, outright censorship is a mainstream liberal value.
Additionally, there were certainly some liberals in 2008 pushing a pro-trans agenda, but the idea that biological men would be allowed in women’s bathrooms and playing women’s sports was considered ludicrous back then, even among most of the Left. That goes double for the idea that everyone else had to be forced to pretend all of that was completely normal if they didn’t want to be accused of committing a hate crime. Along similar lines, even liberals might have rioted if someone tried to take their kid to a drag queen story hour in 2008.
The idea that the president would declare America to be systemically racist, that white kids should be taught to hate themselves because of the color of their skin, or that children could pick their genders were certainly not mainstream ideas on the Left back then either.
Similarly, although both sides criticized each other, liberals back then saved most of their criticism for prominent people on the other side and weren’t just declaring anyone that voted for the other side had to be doing it because they were a Nazi or White Supremacist.
Corporations? They dabbled in politics, but the idea that the NFL, Coca-Cola, Nike, or Disney would get publicly involved in issues that had nothing to do with their businesses just to cater to the Left would have been considered loony. That’s partially because the Left didn’t insist on EVERYTHING being a political issue in 2008.
Along similar lines, the press was an arm of the Democratic Party, even back then, but they at least liked to keep up the pretense that they were trying to be fair. Today, it’s impossible to be an ethical mainstream journalist because simple neutrality is considered to be beyond the pale among reporters.
When people like Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, JK Rowling, Dave Chapelle, or even Bill FREAKING Maher complain that liberals have dramatically moved to the Left, this isn’t hyperbole. It’s based on things that have happened in the real world. If liberals want to pretend otherwise, they can, but as you can see from what Musk said, they’re not even fooling each other, much less everyone else.
* Someone wrote me to let me know that the cartoon Elon Musk tweeted was actually created by Colin Wright. He did some really great work there and I’m glad I could give it some more attention. In fact, if you really like the cartoon, you can buy the coffee mug here.