The One Issue that Unites Liberals and Conservatives

Everyone supports paid leave—except the Republican Party.

I bet she wishes she had paid sick leave.

Photo by IPGGutenbergUKLtd/Thinkstock

Conventional wisdom holds that 2014 will be a bad year for Democrats nationally. Among Democratic voters, there has been considerably more enthusiasm for would-be candidates in 2016 than actual candidates in the fast-approaching November midterms. But a large survey of 4,507 Americans from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute released Tuesday offers a bit of good news for liberals: The country is feeling relatively progressive.

PRRI’s survey of Americans’ values found that a majority of Americans think inequality unfairly holds people back. Two-thirds of those surveyed (66 percent) would like the government to do more to address the gap between rich and poor, a 6 percentage point rise from 2012. Though there is still a big difference based on party affiliation, a slim majority of Americans (51 percent) think that the best policy to help spur economic growth is government spending on education, infrastructure, and tax increases for the wealthy. The effects of the recession are still keenly felt, and more Americans see themselves as “working class”—a group who would like a bit more help from the state—rather than “middle class” than before.

That’s not to say that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are about to melt away. Though many middle-class Americans say they live with notable levels of economic insecurity, few Republicans feel the same way: They are the only group to mostly report feeling at ease about their future finances.

Still, there is one issue where an overwhelming consensus between both parties can be found. A staggering 81 percent of Americans are in favor of requiring companies to offer paid sick leave, and 78 percent favor offering leave for the arrival of a child.  For sick leave, especially, support is universal, with 90 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Independents, and 76 percent of Republicans in favor. Men and women both think we ought to require that employers offer paid leave for parents.

Promoting this issue would win points with a wide demographic, from urban women (who tend to vote Democrat) to white working-class dads (who tend to vote Republican). Yet it is Democrats who have been almost exclusively at pains to advocate for it. The president has called it “heartbreaking” that some parents must choose between caring for their child and losing their job because of the lack of paid leave. Last week, a panel at the Center for American Progress that included Hillary Clinton, Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi underscored that Democrats want to push their House and Senate colleagues to do more.

Were Republicans to seize on the issue, “it would be a win for them with working whites,” says Robert Jones, an author of the study. But the GOP has instead worked to block sick leave laws. Last year, bills to ban local sick leave legislation backed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council cropped up in Michigan and Mississippi. A measure was signed into law in Florida. Jones couldn’t think of any Republican who has supported sick leave.

Arguably, it could be hard for Republicans to embrace paid leave. Business interests protest that it would be a job-killer (though real-world studies suggest that wouldn’t be the case). But Connecticut and California passed sick leave bills this year, and Massachusetts may become the third state to do so in November. The issue is on a slew of local ballots across the country and recent successes may lead to more statewide votes. (Colorado, Maryland, Illinois, and Vermont are among the states looking to take it up in 2015.) If Democrats keep talking about it, perhaps in two years time, it will help them woo some of those lost white working-class votes back into the fold. And by then Republican politicians may think it’s safe to advocate for something everyone already wants.