AmericaSpeaks: Will The Politicians Listen?

Have any of your friends ever invited you over to his or her house to discuss “a wonderful opportunity”, and it turned out they wanted you to sell Amway? First, they try to win you over with sheer enthusiasm. When that doesn’t work, they tell you how their products protect the environment – and then, if that doesn’t work, you begin to see a delicate sheen of sweat on their upper lip and there’s a growing edge of desperation to all that cheer. See, because their upline manager told them if they can’t sell the product, and then sell their friends on selling the product themselves, the problem is with them. Because their faith is not pure.

That’s what today’s AmericaSpeaks event reminded me of. (That, and a game show, with personable hosts with really good teeth, great special effects and Fabulous Prizes!)

For the first time in a long time, I might have some faith in America. Because no matter how many times the facilitators of this event (which was funded heavily by Pete Peterson, the conservative billionaire who wants to cut Social Security) tried to steer us toward cutting Social Security and Medicare, the 3500 or so people who took part in this national town hall weren’t buying it. Sure, there were Fox News junkies here and there, and some cautious, low-information voters who kinda-sorta disagreed, but the majority who attended seemed to have their own ideas about how to solve the deficit “problem.”

You know what most of them wanted to do? Soak the rich — and cut defense spending. (Are you listening, President Obama?)

I thought maybe it was just my table, but when they tabulated the results, it was pretty much the same throughout the crowded ballroom of several hundred attendees. (Whew!)

And the national tabulation from the 19 cities across the country showed pretty similiar results. In fact, the only places in which it varied from a progressive agenda were on more complex, less familiar topics like the tax deductions businesses take to keep jobs in this country. (“They leave anyway!” my tablemates exclaimed.)

That, in spite of a pretty sophisticated, full-scale marketing push. When you arrived, you were given a glossy information packet and asked to fill out a questionnaire about core values. Now, clearly this approach had been focus-grouped, because the common theme seized on by the moderators was our desire to leave a better world for the next generation. (Apparently they thought this would translate to a spirit of self-sacrifice. Hah!)

When we talked about the economic recovery, I said the deficit had nothing to do with it. “It’s only a ‘crisis’ when the GOP is out of power and they want to cut entitlements,” I said. “The top economists are all saying you don’t worry about the deficit in a major recession, so why would we even accept this premise?” (I think I made our facilitator nervous. So did the guy who said he was worried about a double-dip recession.)

It was also a happy moment when we pointed out that they forgot to include the possibility of cutting the estate tax in their budget estimates. That, and the loud snickers throughout the room when our hosts showed a video starring Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg.)

Even more heartening, though, was how carefully people looked at the questions. You know what else they said? They’d rather see no cuts at all in any social programs than give Congress the go-ahead to slash them. They don’t trust them to look out for the interests of the vulnerable over the corporate interests. (Hell, one guy at my table even quoted Karl Marx! “Shouldn’t matter who said it if it’s a good idea,” he said.)

You know what everyone said they supported instead of Medicare cuts? Medicare for all! In fact, people wanted to spend more money on all social programs!

About the only real non-progressive moment came when a couple of the older participants said they thought they could support raising the age at which you got full Social Security benefits. “Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s actually a benefit cut. If you paid in for all those years expecting to get that, you can’t turn around and take it away.” They hadn’t thought of that.

We talked about personal responsibility vs. government care, but agreed we just didn’t trust Congress to make those decisions.

The facilitator kept saying things like, “Are you keeping in mind future generations, and the young people who aren’t present here today? Are you voting for their interests as well?”

Several of us pointed out that a single-payer system was best for their interests – that it would stimulate the economy and generate more jobs. (Although by the time the sentiment was shown on the conference screen, it said “single-payer option in our healthcare system” or something similarly convoluted. Which, you know, kind of defeats the purpose of single-payer and kills the economic benefits. But whatever!)

One of the guys at my table went off on a rant about Social Security “running out because the politicians stole the money.”

“Hold on, Social Security is not running out,” I said. “It’s completely funded through 2036, and even if we didn’t do a thing, it would still pay out 80% of the benefits. All we have to do is raise the cap on earnings and raise the payroll tax by one percent, and we’d be fine.” (I was in sales. I’m pretty persuasive. Come to think of it, why aren’t progressives holding town hall meetings on Social Security?)

Anyway, there were many, many insidious attempts to reframe the debate. But people were pushing back on just about everything – in the nicest, most polite way. But they definitely pushed back. Despite the little hints from the emcee about “denial” and “making hard choices,” the attendees held their ground.

And politicians did not get the go-ahead signal to go anywhere near Social Security.

Frankly, I was surprised. But in a good way! Now we’ll see just how AmericaSpeaks frames the results. But I want to tell you: Today, Americans did us proud. I hope they keep their guards up.

Because this is only the beginning. Obviously, the plan is to wear down our resistance with more clever infomercials like this one.

P.S. They also asked what we’d like additional meetings like this to cover. Several people suggested we talk about the Afghanistan war. No, America’s not lost – not yet.

More from DDay, who attended the L.A. event, and from Digby, who watched at home. Here’s a good summary from Barbara Burt of the Frances Perkin Center, too.

19 thoughts on “AmericaSpeaks: Will The Politicians Listen?

  1. Exactly what happened out west in the land of the rugged individuals. Many of whom were rugged middle class and now are the (apparently) permanently unemployed.

  2. Could it possibly be that this will blow up in Pete Peterson’s face?

    That would be so divine and to have it all recorded too.

  3. Thank you for going there, doing that, and writing it up. I wanted to go to a local meeting but had to take a break from watching children. It seems to me like the thing they’re going to take away from this event is that the progressive word-of-mouth and internet organization had more clout than they assumed, and that they’ll have to hold another “America Speaks” where they pack the jury with their own people.

  4. They may conclude that, but most of the people there were just ordinary citizens. I don’t think they’ll get a different result.

  5. “Hold on, Social Security is not running out,” I said. “It’s completely funded through 2036, and even if we didn’t do a thing, it would still pay out 80% of the benefits. All we have to do is raise the cap on earnings and raise the payroll tax by one percent, and we’d be fine.” (I was in sales. I’m pretty persuasive. Come to think of it, why aren’t progressives holding town hall meetings on Social Security?)

    THIS. Supporters of SS need to be holding these meetings.

  6. Really the cap doesn’t need to be raised because right after the time when SS is not fully funded, it surges in funding as the boomers dies off. In the mean time, the checks keep coming. Frankly, I think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  7. There’s actually some strain on the system from Baby Boomer retirements, but tapers down because Boomers didn’t have as many kids and the demand drops off. Best to build up the reserve to protect it from more political raids.

  8. And the deal that Reagan cut with Tip O’Neill raised payroll taxes exactly to cover the Boomer retirements, so Boomers like me paid not only for our parents retirement, but for our own, which is the money Peterson and the rest of the cat food folks want to loot. So the strain on the system was provided for.

    Now, I don’t think the framing should be that. I think the real framing is what happens to the younger generation when it’s their turn, as it will be. Clearly, Versailles would like to have them die in their own shit, too.

    This really shouldn’t be an intergenerational conflict, much as Versailles would like to make it so.

  9. I say raise the payroll cap (eliminate it) even if social security doesn’t need it. It would serve Peterson and his cronies right for having endangered Social Security in the first place. The only thing these people understand is pain, so I say since they raised the issue, make ’em pay.

    Thanks for this report, Susie. Good show!

  10. Thanks so much for this write-up! I was at the Philadelphia meeting too. I was dreading it, especially after I saw the materials they had prepared for us, but my table was pretty darn great. We pushed back a lot against their framing, and we even submitted blanket critiques questioning their $1.2 trillion number, and pointing out that it was stupid that their fancy booklet took for granted that the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts were going to be extended.

    The low-information voters at my table definitely veered toward believing in the framing. One of them was really excited about reforming the whole tax code and making it simple. I kept quoting actual numbers and examples from my life to help us all visualize things. It worked pretty well.

    It also helped that several people at my table (all three of whom were African-American) expressed a generalized distrust towards glitzy plans to “fix everything” and scare-tactics thinking (I’m paraphrasing). Having a more skeptical mindset around the table certainly helped us avoid getting caught up in the event’s pre-planned agenda.

    Our table facilitator turned out to work for the American Legacy Foundation. Not sure how that connection ties in (she said she got brought in by a friend of hers who had worked with America Speaks on other projects).

    At first, during the demographic section of the program early on, I suspected them of rigging the votes. It would have been easy to do given that we each had a little handheld gadget with the numbers 1-9, and no way to tell if the results from 3500 people around the country were being properly tabulated. But after the stats on self-reported ideology (in which the group scored way more liberal than the comparison stats they had posted), I figured they weren’t.

  11. I am reminded of miz ladybug, i think it was, in an old pogo strip after her children had almost been run over by a bus or a bus failed to stop for them, i don’t remember which – anyway, she more or less said, i’d send you a note if only i could write and only you could read –

  12. Sorry, yes, I do know that the American Legacy Foundation is funded with tobacco-settlement money. I was suspicious because I thought it might be some former Phillip Morris flack, but having checked her bio it seems not.

  13. This line comes directly from the AmericaSpeaks press release on their website:

    “Social Security, including preserving benefits for all Americans served as the spending option most participants agreed must be preserved when balancing the budget.”

    Its pretty hard to spin the fact that most agreed to preserve spending for Social Security even when trying to balance the budget.

  14. I was an observer in Philly and very impressed with the people at my table and the quality of the discussion. Their passion was inspirational and stories brought a rich humanity to the discussion. I do need to take issue with someone who posted incorrect information about the organization I lead. Generations United has never received money from the Peterson Foundation. We have asked for funding from them before so that we could conduct intergenerational dialogues which we think would greatly add to this discussion given the two groups most underrepresented were younger people and Hispanics. If you want to really learn more about us, go to our website, read my blog and sign up for our e alerts. Thank you. Donna

  15. Donna, your foundation partnered in an event whose materials were funded and developed by the Peterson Foundation — which, for practical purposes (i.e. identifying potential bias), is the same thing. But you’re right, it’s not specifically correct:

    Public Agenda, in partnership with Generations United and two colleges, successfully conducted intergenerational dialogues about Social Security, health care and other issues relating to America’s fiscal future, in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania in early April 2009. Each half-day session – which included introductory presentations and small-group discussions, using materials and guides developed by Public Agenda under a grant from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation – brought together 40 to 50 college-age and older Americans through the Intergenerational Urban Institute of Worcester State College and the Penn State Intergenerational Program.

  16. Remember that he who writes the minutes controls the outcome.

    The meeting was only a stage; when they subsequently lie about what the participants said and twist the poll results by omission and selection, and their lies are repeated by Drudge’s subjects and amplified, it will become common knowledge that All of Real America agrees with Pete Peterson and Alan Simpson.

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