David Brooks argues that despite the fact that Liberals constitute the bulk of the American elite, no one wants to call themselves liberal because
The most important explanation is what you might call the Instrument Problem. Americans may agree with liberal diagnoses, but they don’t trust the instrument the Democrats use to solve problems. They don’t trust the federal government.
A few decades ago they did, but now they don’t. Roughly 10 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing most of the time, according to an October New York Times, CBS News poll.
Why don’t Americans trust their government? It’s not because they dislike individual programs like Medicare. It’s more likely because they think the whole system is rigged. Or to put it in the economists’ language, they believe the government has been captured by rent-seekers.
This doesn’t seem quite right to me.
For one thing a plurality of Americans are Democrats and the growing ranks of Independents are drawn heavily from new voters and former Republicans.
Moreover, I don’t have hard data on this but the demographics should suggest than the ranks of liberals would be falling. A cursory look at America suggests that the liberal fertility rate is well, well, below replacement.
I am very much open to suggestion but my sense is that imbalance between liberal prominence and liberal affiliation probably turns around two related phenomena.
First, the term liberal is heavily associated with the social-sexual mores of the American upper class. Most Americans reject those. And, members of the upper class who are right-of-center on economic issues tend to call themselves fiscal conservatives or libertarians. My baseline sense is because Milton Friedman and his disciples convinced them that this was an acceptable cosmopolitan alternative to the label liberal.
Thus, one has to both embrace upper class social-sexual mores AND be traditionally left-of-center to be comfortable with the term liberal. The term progressive does better precisely because it does not carry that social-sexual baggage.
Second, many racial and ethnic minorities – blacks in particular – are solidly Democratic because they fear white Christian nationalism from the Republican Party. I am not arguing whether such fears are justified but they are undoubtedly real.
This means that when defining the goals and ideals of the liberal establishment, the cultural sentiments of ethnic minorities carry little weight. You are not going to lose the black vote by saying nice things about gays, veganism, or Prague in May.
This allowed Democratic leaders to flaunt their upper class values in a way that Republican leaders could not. Though things are changing for both groups.
Yet, it did not endear blacks to those values and so you still have many black Americans who answer “Conservative Democrat”, when pollsters ask for their affiliation.