New polling data from Reuters reveals something a bit shocking, even for those us who believe we have the winning formula: the Left’s flagship policy demands are extremely popular.
Poll respondents were asked whether they supported Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and abolishing ICE. Popular support for these demands was substantial — really substantial, especially given their relative novelty in the political mainstream.
Seventy percent of Americans said they support a single-payer or Medicare for All health insurance system — including 85 percent of registered Democrats and 52 percent of registered Republicans. Compare these numbers to 2014, when only 21 percent of Americans thought we should have a single-payer system.
The number of Americans who want to eliminate the private insurance industry and replace it with a single universal public program has more than tripled in just four years.
Activists have been pushing for single-payer for decades, but it seemed hopeless until very recently. Democrats, feeling secure in light of what seemed to be public opinion, and beholden to donors in the health care industry, long refused to even entertain the notion. In 2009, establishment Democrats mercilessly killed the public option, which isn’t even halfway to a single-payer system.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton said single-payer will “never, ever come to pass.” It was Bernie Sanders who shattered the consensus by insisting on the campaign trail that Americans need Medicare for All, that we deserve it, and that we can have it — if only we can locate the political will to put people’s health over insurance companies’ profits.
This message resonated with ordinary people who experience crushing out-of-pocket healthcare costs, arbitrary claims denials, terrifying gaps in coverage, disorienting changes in provider networks, and the constant compulsion to calculate big life decisions — like whether to get divorced or change jobs — around the availability and quality of health insurance. It turned out that while only 21 percent said they supported Medicare for All, another 49 percent of Americans were waiting for permission to think it was possible. Now that they have that permission, they’re all in.
Similarly, according to the Reuters poll, 79 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans say they support tuition-free college, amounting to 60 percent overall. It’s hard to find earlier polling data on this subject because it wasn’t even a widely discussed political topic prior to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign — despite the fact that college tuition has more than doubled in the last 30 years, and the student debt crisis has consequently spiraled out of control.
Sanders’s campaign put the idea on the map. Hillary Clinton responded to this pressure from her left by drafting a watered-down version of Bernie’s universal proposal. But the cat was out of the bag, despite establishment Democrats’ best efforts to shove it back in. Now a majority of Americans believe that we should have free public education.
This poses a substantial challenge to a decades-long trend of shifting the financial burden for public higher education away from the wealthy bosses and corporations that benefit from an educated workforce and onto individual students and their families.
Finally, the Reuters poll shows that 32 percent of Americans support abolishing ICE, including 44 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of Republicans. The demand to abolish ICE became a rallying cry just a few months ago, when the Trump administration’s family separation policy brought the horrors of the detention and deportation machine to national attention.
In this case, Sanders didn’t lead the charge — the demand arose organically from protest movements, online campaigns, and left-wing politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Subsequently, Cynthia Nixon and Bernie Sanders moved to adopt it, popularizing it further.
Support levels for abolishing ICE don’t match those for Medicare for All or tuition-free college, but its growth in popularity is arguably even more impressive: this demand was basically nonexistent six months ago, and now a third of Americans support it. The speed with which left-wing demands are moving from fringe pipe-dream to serious mainstream proposal is like nothing we’ve seen in decades.
To my mind, the main lesson we should take away is this: don’t stop.
Even when centrists ridicule us for testing the boundaries of the possible, and when right wingers attempt to whip up hysteria against us, we should keep clearly articulating our demands for a fairer, more egalitarian, less oppressive society. The Left should assert these demands on as big a stage as possible. By running on these issues in big-ticket elections or putting them center-stage in protests that garner national media attention, we can expose the democratic, redistributive logic of those demands to millions of people.
We have more room to politically maneuver than we realize, and certainly more than moderates insist. We should be optimistic and bold in proposing policies that will benefit the working-class majority. (Housing for All? Why not.)
And as some of this progressive energy boils over into socialist curiosity, we should welcome recruits warmly and with open arms. We should organize new socialists into independent political groups that can hit the ground hard for these demands — and for the dozens of others that have yet to be articulated.
The Left is winning the battle of ideas right now. Overwhelming majorities of people have come around to some of our major policy proposals in incredibly short amounts of time. Let’s keep pushing.