Americans Are Progressive, They Just Don’t Know It

lydia madeline
Jun 12 · 11 min read

Every presidential election cycle the mainstream media obsesses over the candidates’ “electability.” Are they too old? Are they too left? Are they too uncharismatic? Can they really appeal to the general electorate? Rarely do they ask if a candidate is too centrist. There’s an assumption that this simply isn’t possible. They assume that the American electorate is so far right that a centrist candidate is the only way to elect a Democrat.

There’s a reason for this obsession with electability, of course. Voting does requires some balance of ideology and strategy. But we’re rarely presented with the data we need to strategize successfully. Nor are we given a clear definition of what “electability” really means.

So when we talk about electability, what are we really saying? Are we talking about the electorate, the electoral college, or voter turnout?

The mainstream media presents the country as horribly divided, with 50% of the country wanting the traditional establishment Democratic platform and the other wanting the Republican’s, but this obscures the truth. Really, the electorate is far left of both the Republican’s and the Democrat’s party platform.

So what does the electorate want in a candidate? Here are some recent survey results from respected organizations such as Pew, Gallup, Yale, and others.

The Environment

According to Pew, 90% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans agree that the country should do “whatever it takes” to protect the environment.

Healthcare

Even abortion, maybe the most divisive of all social issues, is supported by 58% of all Americans in all or most cases, including 58% of all moderate and liberal Republicans.

The Economy

76% of Americans support higher taxes on the wealthy, with “heavy taxes” on the rich favored by 52%.

Financial service regulations are supported by 70% of Americans, and 79% want Wall Street regulated with tougher rules and enforcement.

76% of Americans believe that money exerts a higher influence in politics than ever before, including 76% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans.

82% percent of voters believe Congress should limit the amount of money corporations can spent on elections, and 77% believe that corporations have more control over our political system than average citizens do.

87% of Democrats, 82% of Independents, and 68% of Republicans support an amendment to the Constitution to effectively overturn Citizens United.

A minimum wage increase is supported by 74% of Americans, including 58% of Republicans, to at least $9 an hour. 63% of Americans support tying the minimum wage to inflation.

57% of Americans think that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (commonly called food stamps) are too low, including 40% of Republicans.

Education

Criminal Justice Reform

68% of Americans would be more likely to vote for an elected official if the candidate supported reducing the prison population and using the savings to reinvest in drug treatment and mental health programs, including 65% of Trump voters.

72% of Americans would be more likely to vote for an elected official who supports eliminating mandatory minimum laws.

71% of Americans agree that incarceration is often counterproductive to public safety, since “sending someone to prison for a long sentence increases the chances that he or she will commit another crime when they get out because prison doesn’t do a good job of rehabilitating problems like drug addiction and mental illness.” This includes 68% of Republicans and 65% of Trump voters.

Only about 33% of Americans think that Black people are treated fairly by the criminal justice system.

Marijuana legalization is favored by 60% of Americans, and only 9% said it was more dangerous than sugar.

Immigration

The Military

This is astonishing to me, considering the destructive capacity of the American military machine. I’d like to argue that one can’t be both progressive and in favor of military spending, but to be fair, we have to start somewhere. And really, Americans are progressive on the majority of issues. We support a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, wealth redistribution, campaign finance reform, large scale criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, higher minimum wages and social safety nets, abortion, among other things.

So when we talk about electability, what are we really saying? We’re not talking about majority appeal. The majority of voters are in favor of many progressive reforms. Reforms which are often framed as unelectable positions by the media and establishment politicians.

Are we talking about the electoral college then? The system that prevents us from popular rule. Many of these issues have high, or even majority Republican support, such as a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, wealth redistribution, campaign finance reform, raising social safety net benefits, criminal justice reform, and even abortion. The ultra-red states, like those in the deep south, will probably vote Republican regardless of the platform. But a progressive platform that includes the items we’ve talked about here will help win over purple and swing states. And in our current system, that matters.

So when we talk about electability, what are we really saying? We’re not talking about popular appeal or even the electoral college. Are we talking about low voter turn out then?

The most frequently cited reason by non-voters for not voting in 2016 was that they “did not like candidates or campaign issues.” More Americans would’ve voted in 2016 if the presidential candidates had supported the issues they care about. Remember, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than any other president in American history and during a year of record low voter turnout. Americans preferred Clinton to Trump, just not enough to get her elected. Clearly, enthusiasm is important.

So when we talk about electability, what are we really saying? We’re not talking about popular appeal, the electoral college, or low voter turn out.

No, what we’re really saying is, “who will maintain the status quo as it currently exists?” This definition of “electability” is presented to us by the mainstream media and political elites through their biases and propoganda campaigns.

It’s pretty obvious how the Republican establishment undermines progressive positions, so I won’t spend any time discussing them here. But it’s worth pointing out that the above mentioned polls prove that the Republican political establishment is as unrepresentative of their base as the Democratic establishment is of their own, so don’t let their ultra-conservative rhetoric fool you.

The Democratic establishment, on the other hand, undermines progressive policies with far more finesse. They’ve been forced to operate against progressivism more secretly than Republicans because they want to continue to present themselves as the “liberal” option. One way they’ve done this is through the use of derogatory and minimizing language when discussing important policies like the Green New Deal, which Nancy Pelosi described as the “Green Dream, or whatever they call it.” Her language is important because it suggests to voters that the wildly popular Green New Deal isn’t worth taking seriously, thereby disempowering those who support it.

Behind the scenes dealings are another way that they undermine progressive platforms, such as when a Pelosi aide dismissed Medicare for All as a “distraction,” or told health insurance executives not to worry about the Democrats pushing Medicare for All. Pelosi also defended the rigging of local elections against progressives candidates in Colorado. To be clear, I’m not picking on Pelosi because she’s special, but because she’s such a typical example of the establishment’s behavior and has been for so long.

Furthermore, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) prohibited the organization from working with political vendors who support primary challengers to Democratic incumbents, another example of behind the scenes dealings meant to undermine progressive platforms. This is no doubt in response to the surprise success of progressive incumbent challengers in 2018, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, among others. Candidates, even grassroots ones, rely on the help of experienced vendors for all sorts of campaign issues, so this ban effectively ends the success of grassroots progressive candidates.

But the most important way they undermine progressive positions is through media collusion, by spreading their establishment propoganda to readers and viewers. The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) shenanigans, confirmed by WikiLeaks in 2016, included extensive media collusion between the DNC, the Clinton campaign (a very status quo candidate), and many major media outlets. The DNC’s lawyers later argued successfully that the DNC has the right to rig the primary election however they please.

The Democratic establishment has made it very clear that they want the status quo to remain the same. And why wouldn’t they? It’s the system that brought them into power and continues to enrich them. That’s why they’re pushing for an establishment candidate all over again. It would be naive for us to think that the media isn’t bias in Biden’s favor when they showed such willingness to collude with the establishment Clinton campaign in 2016.

Joe Biden is currently leading in the polls, even though his voting history is wildly more conservative than many of the electorate’s Republicans. Mainstream media outlets have declared him the candidate to beat and the presumed front-runner, despite that there hasn’t been a single debate yet. Their coverage shows a huge amount of selection bias in his favor, thereby encouraging his ascendancy through name repetition. The majority of critical coverage has focused on his bad but relatively minor sexual harassment history, ignoring the deeply racist, classist, agist, sexist, and authoritarian policies he’s supported. He’s consistently endorsed expanding the prison population, opposed Medicare for All, supported the continued use of fossil fuels, among other conservative positions. In 2006, Biden railed against “illegals” and proudly endorsed building a southern border fence.

Ah, I see. There it is. Now I know the difference between the Republican and Democratic political establishments. One of them wants a border wall and the other wants a fence!

Clearly, Biden is an entrenched status quo Democrat just as Hilary Clinton was, and there’s little reason to hope that he’ll beat Donald Trump when she was unable to. But mainstream media bias isn’t just about the disproportionate amount of airtime they give to Biden, or even the generally supportive framing with which they do it. It’s deeper than that. It’s also about framing Republican voters as ultra-conservative and deplorable, all as racist, sexist Trump supporters. By doing this, they’re suggesting to viewers that progressive positions are destined to fail in federal elections. They’re keeping the electorate divided to further their own goal of maintaining the status quo as it currently exists. Available data show that even Trump supports want mass incarceration reform, an issue typically framed by the media as something only Black Americans and their white allies care about, if they mention it at all. Republican voters support a slew of other progressive reforms too, as we discussed earlier.

Although Biden’s leading in the polls now, including against Donald Trump in some states, we need to remember that Clinton had been too. The 2016 results, and the results from many years before that, have proven that polls are not reliable enough to gauge electability for us. They’re riddled with unrepresentative samples and wide margins of error, among other issues. We can’t allow ourselves to fall asleep at the wheel, letting poll results do our thinking for us.

Instead of focusing on the names and personalities of individual candidates, let’s gauge their electability based on their histories and policies. Let’s raise voter enthusiasm by giving people what they want — a progressive politician, instead of more establishment Democrats that are further right then most of the electorate’s Republicans. Bipartisan voter enthusiasm is the closest thing we can get to a guarantee of beating Trump in 2020, and studies suggest that progressive policies are a necessary and bipartisan way to do that.

There is one reason to look at the polls, of course. But instead of obsessing over who is first, second, third, etc., we need to see polling results as binary. We should use polls to indicate who’s a real contender, and then use our critical thinking skills from there.

For example, I think Mike Gravel is the best candidate in the primaries, but to vote for him would be a waste, he’s not a real contender. He just doesn’t have the name recognition he needs to win, and his anti-war policies aren’t popular enough among the electorate. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is. The candidate who best represents America’s political opinions, as shown by countless studies, is Bernie Sanders, and he may very well have the popularity to win. He has a much longer history of supporting progressive policies than any other contender, and history is the most important factor in gauging the trustworthiness of a candidate. It’s easy enough to say one thing and then do another, or to change your rhetoric just a year before announcing a presidential bid to feign integrity, but those tactics don’t indicate a candidate’s willingness to fight. In fact, they suggest the opposite — that the candidate is only a career oriented opportunist. The second best progressive contender is Elizabeth Warren, but personally, I’m disturbed by her lack of progressive leadership and her pro-war policies, which are far worse and more recent than Sanders’, though his are imperfect too.

That’s my reasoning anyway, and you can take from that what you will. I’m not here to convince you to support one progressive candidate over the other. Let’s save that debate for another time, because before we can start debating the merits of various progressives, first we need to recognize that any progressive contender is far more electable than Joe Biden or any of the other establishment candidates. And we need to change our definition of “electability” to reflect that. We need to stop letting “electability” be defined for us, especially by the mainstream media and by politicians who are incentivized to keep the status quo as it currently exists, despite the wishes of voters.

An “electable” candidate should reflect the electorate’s political desires, such as a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, wealth redistribution, campaign finance reform, raising social safety net benefits, criminal justice reform, and even abortion.

To accurately define electability, we have to weigh candidates’ voting records and policies. We have to question the narrative that the mainstream media and status quo politicians feed us. We have to define electability as what will get our bipartisan electorate the most excited, and a truly progressive candidate is the only way to do that. Otherwise, we’re guaranteeing a Trump victory in 2020.

lydia madeline

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data scientist and writer studying the best evidence-based ways of supporting social and environmental justice