Conner Bourque, 19, was set on voting for Donald Trump when he wandered upon a subreddit one day last November. With nearly half a million members, r/SandersForPresident is by far the most populous Bernie Sanders support group on the platform. Out of curiosity, Bourque wrote a short post asking how the Vermont senator plans to pay for his socialist proposals.
Bourque, a college sophomore in a deep-red Gulf State, had never spoken to a Sanders voter and expected to get skewered. “I thought they were going to say, ‘You’re dumb. You don’t know anything,’” he tells Mic. “But the support I got was overwhelming.”
Some responded with official proposals to fund Medicare-for-All and tuition-free public colleges, and an interview Sanders recorded with the comedian Joe Rogan. Others explained his standing with unions and stance on homelessness. Most treated Bourque, a lifelong Republican, like an ally. One person praised Bourque for “coming here in good faith,” given that not many conservatives venture into the community.
Three days later, Bourque made a follow-up post thanking the group for embracing him, and revealed that he’d been converted to a Sanders fan. He even donated a few bucks to the senator’s campaign.
Since the beginning of the 2020 election season, dozens of former Trump voters and Republicans have flocked to the group and shared earnest testimonies of changing allegiances. There are other subreddits where the discussion is similarly cordial and policy-driven, like r/AskAnAmerican or r/YangForPresidentHQ, but neither is as big or reliably engaging as r/SandersForPresident. Noticing the trend, a staunch Sanders supporter named Robin Miller started a post compiling a list of similar stories, some of which boast such dramatic headlines as “Dark Confession” and “Another drop in the rising tide: a Christian Conservative conversion to the party of Bernie Sanders.” In a little more than a month, she’s added more than 80 posts.
Miller, 67, tells Mic that she wanted to “document the existence of the Trump-to-Bernie phenomenon” that she first observed three years ago at a Sanders town hall in West Virginia. A few people in attendance, she recalls, said they had been drawn to both Trump and Sanders in the 2016 election. “I also wanted to help these people feel at home in our group,” she says.
“I still have prejudices I need to work out on my own. To know that now there’s a place in between for people like me makes me happy.”
The parameters of civil discourse have rapidly shifted as our interactions migrate from the physical realm to the digital. In 2018, roughly half of Americans engaged in political discussion or activism on social media, according to a study from Pew Research Center. Yet, two-thirds of users found conversing with those who hold opposing views more stressful than informative. And so echo chambers form.
But in some obscure corners of the internet, political exchanges are marked by warmth rather than judgment. Reddit, in particular, has carved out spaces where people with clashing beliefs can hold honest, policy-driven discussions, undercutting its reputation as merely a cesspool of trolls and radioactive ideologies.
The unusually interactive environment on Reddit stems from its structure, which incentivizes in-depth conversation over knee-jerk reactions. Textboxes aren’t constrained by a word count, and comments often spawn tangents of their own. “It’s a place where you can ask hyper-specific questions and get hyper-specific answers,” Bourque says.
For Bourque, Reddit's format made it easier for him to find common ground with the users of r/SandersForPresident. Like many others in the Sanders group, he doesn’t have health insurance. When he had a mental health crisis five years ago, his parents racked up $4,000 in credit card debt to foot the bill. He came to the realization that single-payer health care was the only plan that made sense. “I’d be able to give my kids a better life if I don’t die of sickness,” he says.
None of this is to say that Reddit is a perfect platform. Threats of physical abuse and doxxing remain prevalent across the site. TechCrunch reported on Reddit's specific problem as a host for the alt-right in 2017, while a teenager wrote for Fast Company last year about how Reddit aided his descent into deeply racist ideology. The community moderation aspect of the site means the vibe in each subreddit can vary wildly; while some communities are more successful at moderating, others may surface dangerous rhetoric for months before site overlords step in.
For a growing number of Americans who have become distrustful of the mainstream media narrative, though, the site has also replaced the likes of CNN and MSNBC as their primary news aggregator. Dash Wieland, a Sanders backer from Indiana, tells Mic that he’ll go to Reddit first if his Republican father-in-law asks a policy question he’s not familiar with. Late last year, he inquired about the fate of insurance industry employees in a single-payer system.
“Reddit posts generate a scattering of data points that I can just comb through and extract the most informative resources,” Wieland explains. “It saves time and effort, and points me to resources I otherwise wouldn’t be aware of.” While no expert would recommend exclusively turning to Reddit for information, as a news aggregator it can help to surface a wider swath of specific and diverse perspectives than could be found in more traditional places.
“Everyone talks about how no one trusts each other anymore. Here no one has to pretend.”
Another draw of Reddit, which Facebook lacks, is anonymity. An acting student from the California Bay Area who goes by her screen name, Charlotte Hale, says that the the ability to post under a made-up username was integral to her political transformation.
Fueled by a spate of negative experiences with Muslim neighbors, Hale initially embraced Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration and voted for him in 2016. As time went by, though, she grew weary of his xenophobic rhetoric and began to see failings in her own thinking. But when she tried to share her story in class, she was met with scorn. She now avoids mentioning politics on Facebook or Instagram out of fear that her past anti-Muslim views might get her fired.
“As soon as I tell people I supported Trump, there’s no coming back,” Hale says. Shrouded from personal identification on Reddit, she says, she felt comfortable describing the evolution in her thinking in a way she wouldn't have in person.
There has been substantial research done on how anonymous posting might lead people on the internet to say far meaner or more objectionable things than they might in real life, if their name and face were attached to their statements. But for Hale, the anonymity was a gift. In her confession post, which included a screenshot of a ballot with Sanders's name bubbled in, Hale admitted that Trump had initially won her over with his xenophobic statements, which she'd slowly learned to disavow. She ultimately switched to Sanders because of his stance on climate change.
The post received a single negative comment out of dozens. “Confronting our biases is one of the hardest things in life to do,” one member answered. “I still have prejudices I need to work out on my own,” Hale says. “To know that now there’s a place in between for people like me makes me happy.”
“It’s a neoliberal idea that we must always take responsibility for our own actions,” says Lisa Kruse, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse who has studied how political discourse unfolds on social media. The surveillance society we inhabit requires that we be both vigilant and genuine, which can be disorienting. In that context, anonymity can be liberating, as it creates the illusion that we can speak our minds without consequence. While that can be dangerous when it enables trolls to spew racist, misogynistic, or hateful things at random, for Hale this freedom opened her to a new way of thinking.
After 2016, one oft-repeated line was that both Trump and Sanders were channeling a certain populist energy, and that in this way their supporters had one fundamental thing in common. Chris, a Hispanic medical student living in Nevada, tells Mic that he has in fact found it easier to build rapport with former Trump voters than with centrist Democrats. To more moderate Democrats, he says, “I can’t publicly say I support [Sanders] because I might as well be wearing a MAGA hat.”
r/SandersForPresident attracts users of many political orientations because it’s so policy-focused, Chris continues, and features like upvotes, downvotes, and karma points foster a level of trust that can be difficult to attain in real life. On top of that, moderators work hard to weed out trolls and toxic content. “Everyone talks about how no one trusts each other anymore,” he says. “Here no one has to pretend.” (Chris requested that only his first name be used in this story, as political outspokenness could jeopardize his residency and future jobs.)
In 2016, 12% of Americans who voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary defected to Trump in the general election. Prominent conservative pundits have pointed to Sanders as the biggest threat to Trump’s re-election. There’s no data on the political orientation of members in specific subreddits, but most of the former Trump voters interviewed for this article identified as independents who’d back no other Democrat. Should Sanders fail to win the nomination, they said, they’d either write in his name or abstain entirely from the general election.
The cross-party appeal of populist candidates makes sense given the increasingly murky definition of populism. “It’s a political expression or language that can be used by different social forces and politicians,” says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and the author of The Populist Persuasion.
“Left populists believe all people have something in common, which is they’re exploited by the economic elite at the top,” Kazin says. While right-leaning populists generally agree with that premise, he continues, they speak more to “people in the middle of society”: working people, farmers, some white-collar workers. And there are always scapegoats: the so-called “deep state,” immigrants, and “welfare queens.”
“I have some ‘progressive’ folks in a group who have trouble with and insist their Republican families won’t abide Bernie’s approach. Any insights are welcomed!”
Algorithms, which drive interactions in online spaces, can obscure such overlaps in experiences and beliefs between people on different sides of the political spectrum. Compared to Facebook and Twitter, Reddit has a much smaller sample size that skews young, male, and white. It’s difficult to see that same degree of civility hold up in groups with more representative demographics. In fact, discussions in r/politics, the largest political subreddit with nearly 6 million members, are far more hostile than those in candidate-specific threads.
It makes sense that places where more diverse crowds gather would surface more diversity of opinion, and it tracks just as logically that those places would thus be more contentious. That's why Reddit is a mixed bag: In its more problematic forms, it can be a breeding ground for some horrendous things. But in enabling one or two people at a time to dip their toes into a small community founded on a common way of thinking, it can make the transition to a new perspective a little easier.
Certain Facebook groups mirror the cordial, interactive dynamic of subs, though discourse doesn’t flow quite as freely. “Republicans for Bernie Sanders,” a private Facebook page with just over 500 followers, is a mix of the converted and non-Republicans seeking advice about how to convert friends or relatives. Membership growth is slow and the moderator is often absent, but substantive policy discussions do occur between a torrent of memes. “May I ask what helped y'all to be okay with the term socialist?” one member asked there recently. “I have some ‘progressive’ folks in a group who have trouble with and insist their Republican families won’t abide Bernie’s approach. Any insights are welcomed!”
Brenda Brown, a lifelong Democrat, and her husband Bryan, a lifelong Republican, joined the group in 2015 to better understand each other’s perspectives. “I like to keep an eye on what things about Bernie might interest people like Bryan,” Brenda says. As a fiscal conservative, Bryan was drawn to the idea of auditing the Federal Reserve and breaking up of big banks, she says, which are different from issues that led her to support Sanders. (Both have since become independents.)
Though the group is small and not always conducive to deep policy discussions, she continues, it gives her hope that people can accept and learn from each other on the internet. “Most groups I’m in are echo chambers,” she says. “It’s rare when I find one that helps me expand my perspectives.”