Home Editor's Picks Why Bernie’s Progressive Narrative Appeals Across Partisan Lines

Why Bernie’s Progressive Narrative Appeals Across Partisan Lines

Image Source: John Locher/AP

This article is a follow up to one I published last week, explaining how many working class red state voters hold policy views that are considerably more liberal than their voting choices.

Since Bernie Sanders entered the Democratic party primary last year, he has been the most visible and well-known advocate for an ambitious progressive agenda—he ran his campaign on key progressives issues, including government-funded healthcare, free public college, infrastructure investment, progressive tax reform, pro-worker trade policies, and environmental protection. In addition to his policy platform, Bernie advocated for campaign finance reform and funded his campaign entirely through small donations rather than money from high-dollar donors and corporations (which has become the norm).

Republicans and Hillary supporters alike have tried to argue that Bernie is just too liberal for our nation and that his policies aren’t really what the American people want. Ironically, this argument was made while both of them adopted some of the most popular aspects of his agenda; Hillary paid lip service to his education plan while Trump adopted many of his talking points on trade, money in politics, and infrastructure investment.

Despite losing the primary to Hillary, Bernie has only grown in popularity as he uses his national platform to push a progressive agenda. A recent Fox poll found that 61% of Americans hold a favorable opinion of Bernie Sanders, while only 32% hold negative opinions of him (+29%). To put Bernie’s popularity into perspective, the same poll found that only 44% of Americans approve of Trump (with 53% disapproval, this means he is -9% favorable), while a recent Suffolk University poll found that only 35% of Americans approve of Hillary (with 55% disapproval, this means that she is -20% favorable).

Bernie’s persistent and broad-based popularity is an interesting political phenomenon, and one that I posit is a product of his focus on issues where Americans are progressive. He spends his time championing progressive policies that millions of Americans—Democrat, Republican, and Independent—agree on, and thus has the opportunity to garner support from groups that otherwise would be on the opposite side of the partisan aisle.

Reporters who have attended Trump events and interviewed Trump supporters find a variety of views on display. While many Trump supporters are belligerently anti-immigrant and enormously uninformed, there are many who have been convinced that Trump supports some of the progressive policies he shares with Bernie.


For example, here is a video by Truth Against the Machine reporter Taralei Griffin, where she interviews numerous Trump supporters, who are under the impression that Trump will improve their circumstances. This is a long video and often hard to watch due to the extremism of some Trump acolytes, but you can follow this link to a section of the video where she interviews a more rational Trump supporter, who thinks that Trump will protect workers by removing global trade deals and is a good candidate because he isn’t bought by big-money interests.

Simply looking at anecdotal interviews at Trump events is interesting and informative, but it needs to be backed up by systemic polling. Fortunately, a number of highly reputable polling agencies have polled the American people on a variety of issues. This polling helps us understand both how Bernie has grown in popularity as people hear his message, and how many Americans were tricked into supporting Trump based on his progressive rhetoric on key issues.

Protecting and Expanding Social Security

There is overwhelming agreement among American voters that Social Security should not be cut under any circumstance. On the Democratic side, Bernie has long supported expanding Social Security benefits by removing the upper cap on contributions, and Hillary was pulled from supporting Obama’s planned chained CPI shift (that would cut benefits), to agree with Bernie’s position during the 2016 race. On the Republican side, Trump broke from the GOP orthodoxy during the 2016 campaign and promised to protect Social Security from any cuts, although his word is highly suspect and he may break this promise at any time.

According to the National Academy of Social Insurance, 81% of Americans—including 87% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans—support Social Security and consider it a vital program. 77% of those polled want to protect Social Security benefits, even if doing so would require tax increases on all workers. As Social Security is one of the great progressive policy victories of the last century, this polling indicates that even Republicans are progressive on this issue.

Sadly, this is one issue where the establishment political parties do not appear to care about the views of the voters. Virtually every Republican leader other than Trump (e.g. Ryan and McConnell) supports cutting Social Security, either through reducing benefits or increasing the eligibility age, while Democratic leaders have flirted with more subtle cuts (i.e. using chained CPI to reduce cost of living growth).

Money in Politics

Bernie and Trump ran fairly unique campaigns in that they publically fought against the current big-money paradigm for campaign finance, while excoriating the system for its legalized corruption. While there were many similarities in their rhetoric on this issue, it is important to note that Bernie practices what he preaches on this issue by running a true grassroots fundraising network, while Trump actually takes money from the very groups he has attacked in the public eye.

Americans hate corruption and appear to instinctually understand that money corrupts. Polling by the NYTimes indicates that 84% of Americans believe that money has too much influence in politics, while only 10% are content with the current system. The partisan divide on this issue is minimal, with 90% of Democrats, 80% of Republicans, and 84% of independents sharing the view that money has corrupted the system.

Opposition to moneyed corruption—whether real or perceived—is a potent political weapon that both Bernie and Trump share. Bernie used his low-dollar fundraising to draw a key distinction between himself and Hillary, while Trump bludgeoned Hillary during the general election with insinuations of corruption.

Just like with protecting Social Security, moneyed corruption is an issue where the establishment political classes of both parties breaks sharply from public opinion. Money has so completely infiltrated both parties that only tiny minorities of both parties are willing to address this issue head on.

Universal Healthcare

According to Gallup (2016), 58% of Americans support a single payer healthcare program that ensures universal access to affordable care, while only 37% are opposed to this option. It is unsurprising that Democratic support for single payer—the most progressive healthcare reform under discussion—is overwhelming (73% in favor, 22% opposed), but what may surprise some is that 41% of Republicans also support this option (55% oppose).  

A perfect example of how even the most conservative Americans will support single payer came from the McDowell County town hall. Bernie engaged with two conservative, Trump-voting, coal miners who clearly recognized that single payer was the best option for healthcare reform in the USA (link to video) and admitted that part of the reason why they voted for Trump was a belief that he could improve the current healthcare system.

Bernie is the only presidential candidate to support single payer, and among the only legislative leaders to make this a central issue of his campaigns. Trump has issued several incoherent comments that suggest support for some sort of universal healthcare (and even admit his past support for single payer), but these are only really interpreted positively by those who are predisposed to support him. Similarly, Hillary Clinton infamously flip-flopped on this issue, when she attacked Obama in 2008 for questioning her support for single payer, then attacked Bernie in 2016 for proposing a single payer program that will “never, ever, come to pass”.

Jobs and Infrastructure

Polling by Pew Research indicates that the top issue for American voters is economic policy (84% consider the economy “very important” to their vote). Unsurprisingly, the majority of Americans across voter demographics want better jobs, more infrastructure investment, and more money in their pockets.

A study by Gallup breaks down support for individual policy proposals aimed at improving the economy, and found strong support for targeted tax cuts, infrastructure spending and even direct government employment programs, across all partisan groups.

Trump, Bernie and Hillary all supported infrastructure investments during the 2016 campaign, but only Bernie and Hillary advocated for federal jobs bills, and only Trump and Hillary advocated for tax cuts for manufacturers.

Free Public Universities

While there is some variation based upon how the question is asked, numerous polls indicate that Americans support free public universities. A 2015 YouGov poll found that 62% of Americans (82% of Democrats; 58% of Independents; and 38% of Republicans) support debt-free public colleges. This poll aligns with a 2016 Bankrate/CNBC poll that also found that 62% of Americans support making public colleges free to attend, and a 2015 Progressive Change Institute poll which found that 63% of Americans support free community colleges.

Bernie advocated for free public colleges during the 2016 Democratic primary, while Hillary argued for a debt-free model that incorporated work study, tuition assistance, and debt forgiveness to reduce the economic burden of attending school. After the primary, Hillary adopted Bernie’s more progressive free public college model for the general election, and to contrast with Trump’s absolute lack of policy specifics on this issue.

Tax Fairness

Polls of the American people consistently find that a majority believe that the tax system is unfair. According to Pew polling, approximately 61% of Americans believe that the rich pay too little in taxes, while only 21% believe that they pay a fair amount. While the partisan divide on this issue is large, with 75% of Democrats and only 45% of Republicans holding this view, 45% is still a significant minority within the GOP.

This same tracking poll by Pew found that a consistent and bipartisan majority of Americans (59% currently) also believe that the current distribution of wealth is unfairly weighted towards the rich.

At the Intersection of Popular Progressive Ideals

The wide-reaching popularity of Bernie Sanders may be unusual, but it isn’t surprising given what he is advocating. He has spent an entire career pushing solutions that match up remarkably well with the policy preferences of a bipartisan cross section of the American people. Once the American people are exposed to his policy proposals, they can find a great deal to agree with, even if they find the Democratic label to be anathema.

Replicating the success of Bernie Sanders may be as simple as running candidates who credibly argue in favor of these massively popular progressive ideals, while refusing to take money from big donors. Anybody going up against this type of candidate must resort to lies, distortions, identity politics (e.g. race, religion, gender, culture, etc.) and character attacks, as real policy discussions are likely to just reinforce the idea that their opponent holds views that are widely popular.

The success of both Trump and Bernie suggests that this could be a double edged sword. While Democrats can appeal to conservative voters without compromising their principles and becoming socially-moderate Republicans with a D next to their name (looking at you Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp and Corey Booker), Republicans can also shave off purple-state moderates by tricking them into thinking that they agree on these progressive policies (how Trump did so well in Michigan and Wisconsin).

Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird 


  1. (I will post this everywhere I can until it becomes a common thought.)
    1.There are more INDEPENDENT voters than either Republican or Democrat, right?
    2.The Democratic Primary is RIGGED by “Super-delegates”, so there’s really no chance of changing them, Right?
    3. The biggest threat to our country RIGHT NOW is the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, AND TRUMP in the White House, RIGHT?
    YES! If all independents and progressives VOTE IN THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARIES, WE CAN..
    A. ELECT PROGRESSIVE CANDIDATES (that WE choose) in the Republican primary, THEN elect them in the General Election.
    B. WE will EVISCERATE the Republican Party at the same time!
    C. The Republican voters will have no EXTREMIST CANDIDATES to vote into Congress, so they will have only OUR CHOICES to vote for in order to NOT elect Democrats!
    WE kill THREE BIRDS with ONE VOTE!

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