Most Americans Are Liberal, Even If They Don’t Know It

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Jeff Ploussard waves an American flag during a rally protesting the NRA's annual convention in Atlanta on April 29, 2017.

We are in the midst of what many pundits call the “Trump era,” but in fact most Americans neither like nor agree with President Trump, as Tuesday’s election results strongly suggest. Since June, Trump’s job approval ratings have hovered between 33 percent and 40 percent, according to the Gallup poll. This is lower than any other president’s approval rating at this point in his presidency. Nine months into the “Trump era”, 65 percent of Americans say he has accomplished “not much” or “little or nothing,” according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey.

A national poll conducted in October asked Americans to name the first word that comes to mind when they think of Trump. The most popular words were “strong,” “determined,” and “bold,” followed closely by “arrogant,” “egocentric,” and “narcissist.” The next most popular words were “incompetent” and “unqualified,” with “idiotic,” “ignorant,” and “great” not far behind.   

These words—both positive and negative—focus on Trump’s outsized personality, not his policy ideas. But when it comes to key policy areas, polls show that a vast majority of Americans also depart from Trump by leaning left. That lean isn’t generally reflected in Americans’ self-designations, nor is ideological consistency a notable American trait. A new Pew survey found that about one-third of Americans hold both liberal and conservative views, depending on the specific issue. Another Pew report divides Americans into nine categories based on their political and social views, from core conservatives (13 percent) to solid liberals (16 percent). But even those on the extreme right and left ends of the spectrum share some views in common.

Since Trump’s inauguration in January, much attention has focused on how his racist rhetoric toward immigrants and Muslims, disdain for the rule of law, and hostility toward the free press have polluted the nation’s public discourse and given legitimacy to hate groups associated with the “alt-right.” 

But the focus on division and bigotry can obscure views that most Americans share, especially when it comes to such matters as economic fairness, protecting the environment, and the drift toward plutocracy. The vast majority of Americans are liberal or progressive when it comes to these matters. Even some Trump supporters, Republicans, and people who call themselves “conservatives” have liberal views on many topics.

Americans are generally upset with widening inequality, the political influence of big business, and declining living standards. Public opinion is generally favorable toward greater government activism to address these and other problems, like climate change and health care.

Most Americans worry that government has been captured by the powerful and wealthy. They want a government that serves the common good. They also want to reform government to make it more responsive and accountable.

The figures cited below come from surveys conducted by Gallup, Pew, and other reputable polling organizations on the key issues facing the nation. These are the most recent national polls on each topic. Most of them are from the past year, although a few go back further. Each poll is hyperlinked so readers can look at the original sources.

The Economy

  • 82 percent of Americans think wealthy people have too much power and influence in Washington.
  • 69 percent think large businesses have too much power and influence in Washington.
  • 59 percent—and 72 percent of likely voters—think Wall Street has too much power and influence in Washington.
  • 78 percent of likely voters support stronger rules and enforcement on the financial industry.
  • 65 percent of Americans think our economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests.”
  • 59 percent of Americans—and 43 percent of Republicans—think corporations make “too much profit.”

Inequality

  • 82 percent of Americans think economic inequality is a “very big” (48 percent) or “moderately big” (34 percent) problem. Even 69 percent of Republicans share this view.
  • 66 percent of Americans think money and wealth should be distributed more evenly.
  • 72 percent of Americans say it is “extremely” or “very” important, and 23 percent say it is “somewhat important,” to reduce poverty.
  • 59 percent of registered voters—and 51 percent of Republicans—favor raising the maximum amount that low-wage workers can make and still be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, from $14,820 to $18,000.

Money in Politics

  • 96 percent of Americans—including 96 percent of Republicans—believe money in politics is to blame for the dysfunction of the U.S. political system.
  • 84 percent of Americans—including 80 percent of Republicans—believe money has too much influence in politics.
  • 78 percent of Americans say we need sweeping new laws to reduce the influence of money in politics.
  • 73 percent of registered voters have an unfavorable opinion of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Taxes

  • 80 percent of Americans think some corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
  • 78 percent think some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
  • 76 percent believe the wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes.
  • 60 percent of registered voters believe corporations pay too little in taxes.
  • 87 percent of Americans say it is critical to preserve Social Security, even if it means increasing Social Security taxes paid by wealthy Americans.
  • 67 percent of Americans support lifting the cap to require higher-income workers to pay Social Security taxes on all of their wages.

Minimum Wage

  • 66 percent of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
  • 59 percent favor raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • 48 percent support raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. (A  survey of registered voters found that 54 percent favored a $15 minimum wage.)
  • 63 percent of registered voters think the minimum wage should be adjusted each year by the rate of inflation.

Workers’ Rights

  • 61 percent of Americans—including 42 percent of Republicans—approve of labor unions.
  • 74 percent of registered voters—including 71 percent of Republicans—support requiring employers to offer paid parental and medical leave.
  • 78 percent of likely voters favor establishing a national fund that offers all workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

Health Care

  • 60 percent of Americans believe “it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage.”
  • 60 percent of registered voters favor “expanding Medicare to provide health insurance to every American.”
  • 58 percent of the public favors replacing Obamacare with “a federally funded healthcare program providing insurance for all Americans.”
  • 64 percent of registered voters favor their state accepting the Obamacare plan for expanding Medicaid in their state.

Education

  • 63 percent of registered voters—including 47 percent of Republicans—of Americans favor making four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free.
  • 59 percent of Americans favor free early-childhood education.

Climate Change and the Environment

  • 76 percent of voters are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change.
  • 68 percent of voters think it is possible to protect the environment and protect jobs.
  • 72 percent of voters think it is a “bad idea” to cut funding for scientific research on the environment and climate change.
  • 59 percent of voters say more needs to be done to address climate change.

Gun Safety

  • 84 percent of Americans support requiring background checks for all gun buyers.
  • 77 percent of gun owners support requiring background checks for all gun buyers.

Criminal Justice

  • 57 percent of Americans believe police officers generally treat blacks and other minorities differently than they treat whites.
  • 60 percent of Americans believe the recent killings of black men by police are part of a broader pattern of how police treat black Americans (compared with 39 percent who believe they are isolated incidents).

Immigration

  • 68 percent of Americans—including 48 percent of Republicans—believe the country’s openness to people from around the world “is essential to who we are as a nation.” Just 29 percent say that “if America is too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation.”
  • 65 percent of Americans—including 42 percent of Republicans—say immigrants strengthen the country “because of their hard work and talents.” Just 26 percent say immigrants are a burden “because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”
  • 64 percent of Americans think an increasing number of people from different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities makes the country a better place to live. Only 5 percent say it makes the United States a worse place to live, and 29 percent say it makes no difference.
  • 76 percent of registered voters—including 69 percent of Republicans—support allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children (Dreamers) to stay in the country. 58 percent think Dreamers should be allowed to stay and become citizens if they meet certain requirements. Another 18 percent think they should be allowed to stay and become legal residents, but not citizens. Only 15 percent think they should be removed or deported from the country.

Abortion and Women’s Health

  • 58 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
  • 68 percent of Americans—including 54 percent of Republicans—support the requirement for private health insurance plans to cover the full cost of birth control.

Same-Sex Marriage

  • 62 percent of Americans—including 70 percent of independents and 40 percent of Republicans—support same-sex marriage.
  • 74 percent of millennials (born after 1981) support same-sex marriage.

All this should be good news for Democrats. Although public opinion on these issues varies by geography, many voters in GOP-leaning states and House districts share these liberal and progressive views.

Of course, public opinion on its own doesn’t translate into public policy. It has to be mobilized. For example, a vast majority of Americans—and even a majority of gun owners—support background checks for gun purchasers. But the National Rifle Association, of which only 5 percent of all gun owners are members, is better organized, and more passionate and vocal, than the supporters of background checks.

These survey findings should compel Democrats running for Congress and governor next year, and for president in 2020, to promote a bolder progressive policy agenda. To have credibility with voters, Democratic candidates can’t be close to Wall Street. And candidates must be able to explain how these policy ideas translate into improving voters’ lives. Democratic candidates will need to draw a sharp contrast between their views and their GOP opponents’, linking them with the unpopular Trump. 

Few Americans call themselves “progressive,” or think they share similar views with citizens of social democracies like Canada, Denmark, and Germany. But on most major issues, Americans lean left. Although Trump, the corporate plutocracy, and the so-called alt-right may think otherwise, the United States is a more decent and democratic society than we give it credit for.

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