I was expecting paeans about unicorns and baby animals playing in meadows full of wildflowers, but it was nothing of the sort. These folks have got their act together. They are doing their homework to focus the progressive political message.
On Wednesday last week I got an invitation from MoveOn to attend something on Sunday they called an American Dream meeting. Out of curiosity, I clicked through to a list of the small group get-togethers available in my area. To my astonishment, they were filling up fast, and the one I probably would have gone to was full up, maxed out at 15 participants. Having only the faintest idea what this event was about, I found the next closest one that still had room and signed up. Whatever this thing was, it was drawing a crowd and I wanted in. For political junkies like me, the prospect of a room full of people willing to subject themselves to my fulminating about politics and social policy was impossible to resist. More importantly, the event name suggested an emphasis on economic matters, or simply put, money. Having studied economics a bit, including a course in economic history, and having a few extra bucks that are not immediately allocated to the sustenance of my modest life style, this was my bailiwick.
Once I was committed to attending, I engaged in a little perfunctory scrutiny of the mail MoveOn had been sending out and their web pages for the event. I skimmed them. They talked about assessing and prioritizing issues, but it still wasn't clear to me what we were going to actually do for two hours. The title given to the event, "American Dream" skewed my expectations toward the notion of financially struggling working class people rambling incoherently about how they wanted to break from being wage slaves in dead end jobs and become wealthy enough to vote Republican through hard work and daring entrepreneurship. For my entire life, I've heard members of the socio-economic underclass mouth the absurd platitudes about wealth fed to them at home, in school, in church and, most importantly, in the corporate-controlled news media. I readied myself to verbally skewer and set straight any unwitting tea-bagger who might wander in and with the foolhardy notion of wasting our time with any of that claptrap.
Republican talking points are ingrained in the minds of Americans. It's noteworthy when you hear someone's description of their vision for the future, their "American dream", that is not a catechistic recitation of utopian capitalist drivel. You never hear anything about the social dynamics of the stratification of wealth or the accumulation of power by an arrogant, greedy corporate elite class, both of which can be best described as "creeping fascism". The phrase "class warfare" has become such a dirty word that even the most liberal speaker will immediately disavow the concept, even though it is an objectively accurate description of contention between the "haves" and "have nots". We are cowed and meek, so terrified of the term "socialist" that we avoid the word "social" as much as possible to forestall being labeled as communists. We can't have that, so we buckle to the corporatist meme and blithely accept its precepts as accepted, common knowledge.
Pandering to the interests of large corporations and the super-rich has become second nature. We have been duped into equating international mega-corporations with the word "business" while envisioning small, mom-and-pop enterprises. The white-picket-fence "real America" fantasized by Republicans is a bunch of comfortably well-off shopkeepers. Most of us like that idea, and want to be one of them, so we think of ourselves as "middle class" to conform to that fictional norm. Only those in a steadily shrinking minority really deserve that label. There are the rich, the top 0.5% who have a net worth that exceeds a million dollars, but even most of these still identify as middle class. The largest class is the "working poor", those with few assets other than a home, and no means of sustaining their life style without their current job. With job loss and "underwater" mortgages, an alarming number have fallen into acute economic distress, the worst since the Great Depression. Yet, around 90% of us cling to the illusion that we are members of the middle class. Captives of the deprived underclass who have no education, skills or talents that could conceivably propel them toward personal prosperity refuse to acknowledge that they are "poor". Have you ever met an American who will cop to that? I haven't. Even the lowest echelons of society aspire to great wealth. In the meantime, while they are waiting for that lottery ticket to pay off, they delude themselves that they are, at least, "lower middle class".
Given this personal experience with phrase "American dream", I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of the eight people who actually showed up for the meeting was disposed toward paying homage to the prevalent economic mythology. They all revealed themselves to be smart and articulate in the introductory round of remarks. There was no opportunity to go off on a tangent about anything, let alone a starry-eyed soliloquy about becoming a millionaire by selling real estate or hawking Amway products. The guy who was hosting the meeting was all business; he scrupulously adhered to the agenda and discussion materials supplied by MoveOn. I pulled out the eight-page tome I had hastily printed out just before departing for the meeting. I changed to my reading glasses and sighed. I had avoided reading the document until the meeting. I shy away from lengthy writing, especially when it is printed on paper, because my eyes aren't what they used to be. (The irony of my subjecting you to my prolix scribblings is not lost on me.)
Holy mackerel! They really had this thing nailed down. There were four categories of topics with ten liberal/progressive talking points each. We were required to rate each of the ten issues on each issue's page as movie critics rate films, with one to five stars. The outlines of the stars were on the right and we were instructed to "fill in the stars", with one corresponding to "OK", three to "Average" and five indicating "Great Idea". (There was no mention of the meaning of two or four stars, but I know that psychologists tell us that people prefer five-level rating systems.) After that, we each had to pick the top three in the category, a choice that was presumably consistent with the rating each of us had given the talking point. Next, we took turns identifying our top three issues and explaining our rationale. Finally, the host/moderator polled us individually to indicate our top three choices again to allow for a change of heart after hearing others speak. He tallied the choices, without regard to order, to accumulate a group consensus of the top three issues for each of the four top-level topics. These would be duly relayed to MoveOn to formulate a list of the top priority issues and talking points for MoveOn to promote.
Given all this structure, and the lack of any opportunity to inject unlisted issues into discussion, there was little wasted time. We plowed through this tedious exercise in just over three hours. It was supposed to be two, but no one could talk that fast, unless perhaps if the group were composed of taciturn people prone to to terse, monosyllabic replies. One lady had to leave at the end of the third hour, so the group picture requested by MoveOn was taken without her. All loose ends were tied up. Some of us exchanged email addresses, we had cake and coffee, we thanked the hosts, said goodbye and left. I saw the picture taken at the meeting the next day on the MoveOn site.
The meeting had been a great success as far as I could tell from others' reactions. I thought so and expressed that opinion. What impressed me the most about the process mandated by MoveOn, which I at first thought was absurdly complex and overly detailed, was that it forced us to prioritize and focus on the most pressing issues of the day. These were hard choices for me as I found myself rating all forty of the issues with three, four or five stars. I gave five stars to all ten issues on one of the pages, feeling that none was less important than any of the nine others and thereby meriting fewer stars. Picking the top three issues was agonizing. How do you choose between ending American interventionism abroad and universal health care?
It seemed odd that such choices would come up, but that was the inevitable result of the structure of the top-level issues and the ten bullet points enumerated under each of them. There four major topics boiled down to these.
- Equitable taxation
- Health care, education and social infrastructure
- Progressive political strategy
The intent of those drafting these lists of issues slowly became clear. By providing lots of overlap, that is, by presenting several slightly different takes on the same thing, they were attempting to fine tune their talking points. The angle with the most cachet with participants might be given the most play by MoveOn.
Their description of the event said something of that sort, but it wasn't clear at first how this rating-and-choosing procedure would give us more information than we get from the plethora of polls about hot-button issues. Since Sunday, I've been rolling this around in my mind and have a theory. If you ask Americans what the top issue is for them, the overwhelming majority say, "Jobs". Tea-bag-sucking cranks will say, "Taxes," but they are just parroting their corporate masters in demanding lower taxes for the rich and for corporations rather the realistic remedy to the deficit crisis of raising greater revenue by increasing taxation on the upper income brackets and corporations. They are idiots who would just as easily say, "Homosexuals and lesbians marrying," if that were being promoted as an alarming prospect. Oh, wait. They are doing that on Fox. Teachers and a few intellectuals might say, "Education," but that is an artifact of professional focus. An alarming few will say, "Health care," because, like it or not, in and of itself, that is not the most pressing issue on people's minds. Given a choice of one thing, it's almost always employment.
People cite jobs most often because earning money is the only mechanism available to them to address the desperate struggle they are waging against hunger, homelessness, disability, war-weariness and lack of opportunity. People have been unemployed for years and are overwhelming the food banks. They've lost their homes or owe more than the dwelling is worth. They are sick and can't work, can't get, much less afford, health insurance and are heartsick about dying sooner for want of the level of health care they would get in Canada, but their main concern is the mountain of bills they are leaving for their heirs. They can't afford higher education and are resigned to menial, dead-end jobs, feeling fortunate when they can get them. Their sons and daughters are coming back from places they can't find on a map in aluminum boxes, or horribly maimed. Half of them, including those physically unscathed, have some emotional damage, of which we might not know the full extent for decades.
People care about all of these issues, but the panacea is perceived to be full employment because having more money will do a lot to address all of these issues. With enough money, you have plenty to eat, a nice home, all the health care you need and your kids can go to any school where you can afford the tuition. Rich people's children don't need to weasel out of the draft to avoid serving in the all-volunteer armed forces, so very few of them die or have limbs blown off by IEDs. Even veterans, disabled or not, think jobs are the answer because in our consumerist, fee-for-service economy, money cures all ills.
The general perception is correct, that having money will solve problems that become acute only when adequate funds are not available. However, the preeminence of having a job overshadows the other important issues so much that many mistakenly think that other issues, like health care, equitable taxation and peace, are not really important issues at all. They are very important, and the MoveOn questionnaire forced us to think about more than one thing at a time and see that. The ten specific issues for each topic had links to many different general issues, so one had to, for example, weigh the consequences of maintaining the global military empire against providing health care, education and economic stimuli to a flagging economy.
The big surprise to me was how single-payer health care was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Everyone there had a horror story of some kind to illustrate why we have to do this as soon as possible. Not having adequate health care for the citizenry at large affects everything else adversely. Four of eight people, small business owners, explained how the cost of providing health insurance for their employees had driven them out of business. We agreed in our discussions that universal health care would spark entrepreneurship and free all workers from being chained to dead-end jobs for fear of losing their health insurance. We agreed that the cost savings of cutting out health insurance companies who rake 30% off the top would ameliorate the budget crisis. Even the issue of caring for injured veterans would be completely fixed by providing health care for everyone. It was a slam dunk. If we had been asked at the end of the meeting to name the single issue of overriding importance to the nation, it would have been health care.
As important as health care was revealed to be, as a single issue it was still overshadowed by jobs. We all agreed that education was important, too, and that anyone who was qualified for higher education should be able to receive it. Education allows people to get good jobs that pay more money, but the goal is to get a job. Thus, education as a single issue gets trumped by the all-encompassing rubric of "jobs". We agreed that NAFTA and other insane trade policies are bad because they kill jobs here and enrich corporations, but a choice between "jobs" and fair trade always tilts toward jobs in general, even though that is a false choice. We can't solve the debt crisis without reviving the economy, which means getting closer to full employment. We all agreed that that makes sense, yet we know that "jobs" is seen as much more important than balancing the federal budget. No one seems to know how to create these "jobs", out of nothing, without health care, education, a thriving economy or a solvent government, but everyone agrees that "jobs" is the number one issue.
Herein lies the explanation why the ridiculous, counter-intuitive prescription by the Republicans for prosperity has gotten so much traction with low-information people. If you prevent people from thinking about the real issues that contribute to their not having a job, a home, health care, education or any prospect for having a better life, you can convince a large number of them that the quick fix is to give tax breaks to the rich (the "job creators"), brutalize foreigners trying to work in this country, keep people of the same gender from marrying, destroy Social Security and Medicare and stop women from aborting fetuses.
If everyone were required to go through the exercise of assessing the MoveOn issues, we might have a mass epiphany about what's really important. I've long considered universal, free, public health care to be the one thing we could do that would have the most impact in improving the quality of life in this country. I want to bring the troops home, stop meddling in the Middle East and Latin America, have free public education supported by general taxation from preschool through graduate school, reform taxation so the rich and corporations pay their fair share, reform trade policy to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and restore the international balance of payments (export/import ratio), stop the war on workers (union busting), end the phony war on drugs, and to elect leaders who labor solely in the interest of all the people rather than just a select few large contributors. I want all that stuff, but I want my health care first.
I'm a single-issue voter now because I'm old, a little sick and damned tired of waiting for the kind of health care they have been providing in Great Britain since 1948, the year of my birth. I've watched my mother die at 31 because we don't provide adequate health care. My father and I got by on what he could pay for out of pocket, which was next to nothing. We had no health insurance most of the time I was growing up. He finally qualified for Medicare, which served him well for the rest of his life, while I was in the Army. I was covered while on active duty, but had no health insurance while attending graduate school. I had health insurance most of the time for the next 24 years while working as a regular employee of established firms. For three years, while unemployed, I had no health insurance. For the next three years, working as a temp, I had crappy, sporadic coverage for myself, but none for my children because the cost was prohibitive. Since I quit working three years ago, I can't get health insurance at a reasonable cost, so I have none. Now, the Republicans want to, and President Obama appears to be allowing them to, cut back on Social Security and Medicare now that I'm nearing the age where I qualify for these programs. All the years I've worked and paid taxes, including military service in time of war, mean nothing. It's still cash on the barrel head for me. Jobs? Taxes? Trade? Education? Deficit? To hell with all of them! Let's have universal health care now. It won't fix everything, but it will fix a lot of what's wrong with America. That's my American dream, MoveOn.