America Speaks Will Washington Listen

Terrance Heath

"America has spoken."

It’s a phrase we’ve heard from the right after every election — special election, run-off or midterm — following the 2008 election in which voters sent Barack Obama to the White House and Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress. Though more Americans voted in that election than any that has followed, conservatives would have us believe that Americans did not speak in 2008, but really spoke in the most recent midterm elections. The reality is that Americans did speak in 2008. They’ve been speaking ever since then. The reason the midterm elections turned out as they did is because almost no one in Washington has been listening.

In November 2008, when the air was full of talk about of a "center-right America" sending Barack Obama to the White House and a Democratic majority to Congress, a CAF/Greenberg post-election survey showed that 62% of American voters surveyed said that Obama should focus on reducing unemployment and growing the economy. In May 2009, jobs and the economy were still a priority for Americans, as a CAF/Media Matters report further demonstrated. Among the data sources in that report is a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in which 54% agreed that investment in infrastructure as a more effective way to  stimulate the economy than tax-cuts.

Despite conservative rhetoric to the contrary, survey after survey after survey shows that Americans continue to support investment in jobs and economic growth over the conservative agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and austerity for the rest of us. Maybe Americans have always known what institutions like the Congressional Budget Office and Moody’s Analytics have confirmed:tax cuts don’t create jobs or spark economic growth, because the rich don’t spend tax cuts — they invest them in Wall Street’s latest financial instrument or in emerging markets elsewhere, neither of which creates much needed jobs or recovery at home. Despite the right’s rhetorical efforts, Americans have not changed their minds about what they want since November 2008. Conservative obstruction and Democrats failure to lead on Americans’ top concerns, however, has increased doubts that anyone in Washington is listening and has the political will to even try to deliver.

The president’s deficit commission is perhaps the most recent example. On the one hand, the commission’s co-chairs issued a chairman’s mark that essentially painted a big fat bulls-eye on Social Security. On the other hand, the co-chairs went out of their way to separate Social Security from the mission of the deficit reduction. So, why include Social Security in a deficit reduction plan if Social Security has nothing to do with deficit reduction?

Maybe someone at the commission is half listening to what Americans are saying about Social Security. Numerous polls show a majority of Americans oppose cuts in Social Security — including cuts in benefits and cuts via raising the employment age. Our August 2010 joint poll with Democracy Corps showed that 68% of Americans oppose major cuts in Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit. Additionally, 65% oppose raising the Social Security retirement age. A poll by Social Security Works and Lake Research, conducted between October 31 and November 2, 2010, showed that overall 82% oppose cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit, 63% oppose cutting Social Security benefits, and 69% oppose raising the retirement age. If the deficit commission and the administration were really listening to the American people, they’d take social security off the table.

Again and again, Americans have spoken and said that they want their leaders to focus on creating jobs and fixing the economy. The existence of the deficit commission, let alone its co-chair’s proposals, reflect that few in Washington are listening. Inside the Beltway the focus is on deficits, but a recent CBS News poll showed that 56% of Americans want Congress to focus on the economy and jobs, and only 6% want Congress to focus on deficit reductions and tax cuts. Yet Washington is overrun with 6 Percenters.

Call them the Six Percenters. When Americans were asked which problem Congress should "concentrate on first," 4% said the deficit and 2% said taxes. That’s about one person in twenty. Yet the vast apparatus of state is about to devote most of its attention to this tiny minority and its agenda. The nation’s capitol is already obsessed with the Bowles/Simpson proposal, which calls itself a "deficit reduction" plan but is also focused on a tax overhaul that helps the well-to-do.

Is it surprising that over 70% of Americans are either "dissatisfied" or "angry," according to the CBS poll? The government isn’t even making a serious effort to address what matters to them most — jobs and the economy. Instead, Washington is spending all its time debating deficit reduction and taxes. Worse, many opinion leaders are pushing precisely the wrong approaches to both policies. Those approaches will most Americans while benefiting the prosperous few. Meanwhile these Americans — call them the Silenced Majority – seem destined to sit and watch as their needs go unmet and their concerns go unvoiced.

Washington is lining up behind deficit reduction via cuts that a majority of Americans don’t want. A November 18 CNN poll showed that:

  • 79% want to prevent cuts in Medicare; only 19% support cuts
  • 78% want to prevent cuts in Social Security; only 19% support cuts
  • 65% want to prevent cuts in loans to college students; only 34% support cuts
  • 62% want to prevent cuts in unemployment assistance; only 31% support cuts

Americans want government to be more involved in helping Americans with the challenges they face in this economic crisis. A joint post-election poll by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University showed that 50% support government spending to boost the economy by investing job creation and infrastructure. Six in ten want their representatives to fight for additional government spending in their districts to spur job creation, compared to only 39% that want their representatives to cut spending even if it means fewer local jobs. The numbers suggest that Americans get what Washington’s policymakers seem to work very hard at not getting: that government investment in creating jobs on Main Street is urgently needed if the word "recovery" is to have any real meaning beyond corporate America’s record profits.

A closer look at the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll shows that Americans reject the conservative notion that government should say to Americans "You’re on your own" in an ongoing economic crisis. Asked, "Considering all the problems a big country like this faces today, do you feel it is possible for the federal government to be run well or not?", 79% said it is possible for government to be run well, while only 20% answered in the negative. Americans still believe that government can be effective and take an active role in addressing the challenges the country faces. On issue after issue, Americans want more action from a more effective government, not less from a smaller government:

  • 81% want more government action on reducing poverty; only 17% want less
  • 72% want more government action on regulating Wall Street; only 24% want less
  • 67% want more government action on ensuring access to health care; only 32% want less

Our joint post-election poll with Democracy Corps showed that the majority of American voters, 58%, were dissatisfied with both parties. Again, Americans are not embracing the Tea Party or Republican policies; 26% said they were sending a message to both parties with their vote, while only 20% cited president Obama and 15% cited Democrats in Congress.

  • 58% were more likely to vote for a candidate who promised to "change Washington for the middle class."
  • 57% would support a candidate with a "made-in-America" campaign message.
  • A majority opposes the Republican plan to cut $100 billion from domestic programs while extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
  • 51% agreed the Bush administrations top-end tax cuts should expire and supported Democratic plans to reduce the deficit over time.
  • Majorities support infrastructure investment through an infrastructure bank and a five-year strategy for reviving American manufacturing.

In November 2008, Americans spoke overwhelmingly at the polls, in favor of the transformative agenda promised by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. After a decade of conservative policy and government that turned away from the middle- and working class to serve the interests of wealthiest 1% of Americans, zero job growth, the loss of more than 5 million manufacturing jobs, and increased economic inequality, Americans wanted change. In poll after poll since them, when asked Americans have continued to speak their desire for that change, and mid-term election results make it clear that many have grown tired and angry while waiting for it.

Thus Americans spoke most recently by staying away from the polls during midterm electiona, making nonvoters the majority in 2010.

“It is fair to say that 2010 was the year of older, rich people.” That’s the conclusion of a new research memo from Project Vote, “An Analysis of Who Voted (and Who Didn’t Vote) in the 2010 Election,” by Dr. Lorraine Minnite. It finds that wealthier voters and Americans over the age of 65 surged to the polls in 2010, and increased their support for the Republican party, while young voters and minority voters (who strongly favor Democrats) dropped off at higher rates than in 2006.

Two years ago, African-Americans, lower-income Americans, and young Americans all participated in the 2008 presidential election in decisive numbers, making it the most diverse electorate in history. In 2010, however, these historically underrepresented groups were underrepresented again, as they (in common with most Americans) largely stayed home. Non-voters were the majority in 2010, a fact that “throws cold water on any victor’s claims for a mandate.”

…“Perhaps the most significant point about voter turnout in 2010 is how many voters didn’t vote,” wrote Steven Thomma and William Douglas at McClatchy Newspapers on our study. “Some 38 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2008, and this November, another 33 percent didn’t show up, which means that ‘nonvoters were the majority in 2010.’”

As we know from our recent poll (among others), the electorate as a whole is shifting away from the views and values of these older, wealthier white conservatives who dominated the 2010 election: “As in most midterm elections, the people who voted in 2010 were not really representative of the American people,” says Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote. “This study raises serious questions about which constituencies candidates choose to court and engage as they look ahead to 2012, since the electorate, as a whole, is shifting away from the views and values of the older, wealthier white conservatives who dominated the 2010 election.”

Americans did not deliver a "landslide" — let alone a "mandate" — to the GOP. Many who came out in 2008 stayed home in 2010, because what they’ve seen and heard suggests no one in Washington is listening to them anyway.

When I refer to the supposed change in the composition of the electorate, I do so because the electorate comprises those who actually voted on Election Day, not "The American People" as a whole. According to the United States Elections Project, the estimated turnout among eligible voters for the elections was 41.5 percent.[7] When factoring in those adult Americans who cannot vote, but who are nevertheless affected by legislation and policymaking and presumably hold political opinions, the turnout rate drops to 38.2 percent. And, to add one more layer of complexity, those figures simply represent voters who went to the polls – whether they voted for one, all, or some of the candidates on the ballot is not explicitly clear. In other words, the actual percentage of people who voted for any given race could conceivably be lower than 38.2 percent. Thus, when hearing politicians and pundits proclaim that "The American People" have clearly spoken, one should be thoroughly perplexed. In the best-case scenario, among all Americans of voting age, only 38.2 percent "spoke" on Election Day [8] and, as argued above, their message was anything but clear.

If the midterm elections could be roughly conceived of as ultimately representing a vote between those who saw the elections as important enough to merit casting a vote versus those who did not feel it was important/meaningful/useful enough to participate, then it truly was a "shellacking" – by a margin of roughly 20 percentage points – in favor of the latter. Looking at this meager turnout and making generalizations about "The American People" is, therefore, woefully misleading.

Americans have spoken, and continue to speak: for job creation and a economy that works for all — not just the wealthy and Wall Street. Whether Washington will finally listen remains to be seen. The party or political leaders who do finally listen will be rewarded by citizens whose economic pain has relieved by a recovery that reaches America’s hometowns, and not  increased by an austerity agenda that forces an inequitable distribution of economic pain to to middle- and working-class Americans. The party or political leaders who continue to refuse to listen will imperil not only their political futures, but the economic future of the nation, and the futures of generations of Americans.

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