What Are “Passive Liberals”?

What Are “Passive Liberals”?

Posted on May. 12, 2020

To win in November, Democrats need to motivate a substantial increase in voter turnout. While the behavior of swing voters who voted for Trump in 2016 is important, the election outcome may hinge on people who have some affinity to Democratic positions or candidates but have not traditionally voted or are not ready to vote this year.

A study by the Knight foundation found that about 15% of the voting age population consists of “passive liberals” or “sympathetic nonvoters.” They are progressive on issues but rarely engage in the political process. Some come from marginalized communities and can be cynical about how politics will affect their lives. Young adults (ages 18-29) are another large group that historically has had low turnout.

An important segment is politically engaged but distrusts the party establishment’s commitment to progressive policies. For example, in a recent article in ZORA, a publication for women of color, the author says, “I understand where the ‘vote blue no matter who’ mantra comes from because I supported it [in 2016] but … I can’t blame my friends for their decisions [not to vote] because no one should have to compromise their morals for a system that has never fought for them.”

The demographic and attitudinal diversity among “passive liberals” pose challenges for political campaigns. Mass communication techniques and messages are unlikely to work, especially if they’re perceived as coming from the party establishment. What might be a more effective approach?

It is well known that voting is a social act. People are more influenced to vote by people they know within their community and who share their experience than by party elites. In the New York Times, Christine Neumann-Ortiz writes that “person-to-person organizing leveraging these relationships increases voter turnout more than mass outreach methods or contacts from a stranger.” This strategy increased Latino turnout in the 2018 Wisconsin election by 33% over the previous midterm election.

Ken Karnofsky