Currently, Republicans essentially dominate every level of governance in the United States. On the federal level, they control the presidency (Executive branch), have majorities in both the House and Senate (Legislative branch) and possess a de-facto majority vote on the Supreme Court (Judicial branch). On the state level, the GOP controls 32 state legislatures, 25 of which are trifectas, where the GOP also has the governorship.
Given the GOP’s dominance in elected office and the fact that we are ostensibly a democracy, one may assume that the US population is deeply conservative—this assumption, while rational, is demonstrably false. The American people consistently poll in favor of a variety of progressive policies, even when their voting record is deeply conservative.
On Monday, Bernie Sanders joined Chris Hayes in McDowell County, West Virginia, for the “Bernie in Trump Country” town hall special (one of the various Bernie-focused events that MSNBC suddenly decided was a good idea…after the Democrats lost the 2016 election). This town hall brought Bernie to discuss various policy issues affecting the local voters—74% of whom supported Trump over Hillary in 2016—and, in doing so, perfectly illustrated how even rural red state voters can get behind progressive policies once partisan identitarianism is removed from the discussion.
Here is a full video of the event:
These red state Trump voters not only were receptive to a variety of progressive policy ideas, but gave overwhelming applause when Bernie pitched his support for “extremely liberal” [in D.C.] policy ideas like healthcare as a universal right, free public education, Medicare for all, and a more equitable system of taxation/redistribution. Throughout the night, these Trump voters were also very supportive for Bernie’s message of increasing worker protections, shifting from coal jobs to renewable energy jobs and even increasing environmental regulations on coal companies.
Ultimately, I think the capstone quote from the night came from a retired coal worker who stood up and thanked Bernie for his support of pro-worker legislation. He stated that “I think it’s kind of ironic that a senator from the northeast takes care of my benefits better than someone like Mitch McConnell [who represents KY in the Senate]”.
Bernie Sanders is not some magical pied-piper who possesses such outstanding oratory skills that he can sway any group to follow his lead. He is simply earnest and speaking a simple message that these voters already agree with, even if they self-identify as conservatives.
In effect, these red state conservatives who overwhelmingly voted for Trump are significantly more progressive in their policy preferences than their voting record and self-identification would indicate. They may vote for the GOP but, on an issue by issue basis, they actually have a great deal of agreement with the most liberal voting blocks in the nation.
This disparity is not an anecdote based upon the responses of this single town hall audience. In a 2014 article for Salon.com, I broke this disparity down in detail using polling data collected by reputable agencies (e.g. Pew, Gallup, Quinnipiac, etc.). Here are just a few examples of widespread agreement on progressive policies indicated in these polls: Up to 80% of Americans believe that the rich should be taxed more, while 59% believe that wealth should be more equally distributed; 71% support increasing the minimum wage; 73% believe in climate change, and 72% believe in stronger carbon regulations.
Ultimately, the fact that many of these red state GOP voters agree with a variety of progressive policies is a very positive fact in a very dark political time. It indicates that progressives don’t actually have to change the established policy preferences of these voters on key issues (which is extremely hard), but simply need to convince these voters that progressives will actually implement the policies that they already support.
There is no reason why these red state voters who cheer for Bernie Sanders cannot be swayed to support the next progressive who runs on a very similar platform (e.g. Tulsi Gabbard). If liberals capitalize upon this common ground between blue and red state voters by running focused campaigns that target these issues, they can make serious inroads into traditionally Republican areas, while solidifying support in more purple states (e.g. Michigan).
That said, if Democrats are successful in winning election using this tactic, they must relentlessly attempt to implement the populist policies that they campaign upon. Working class and poor voters are used to being promised everything during the campaign season, then being rapidly forgotten once election day comes—if progressives who manage to capture populist support from these red state voters continue this pattern of broken promises, they will simply be seen as just more politicians who don’t actually represent a better option.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird