eRobin from Factesque at the Philadelphia AmericaSpeaks town hall yesterday.
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, and not with their overpriced, heavily-hyped product line. It's because their faith is not pure.
That's what yesterday'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 although the lead facilitator told us we couldn't expect the opinions from a Northeast city to be reflected in the national results, the tabulation from the 19 cities across the country showed pretty similiar sentiments. 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 an ultra-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 quickly 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! Guess they haven't noticed we have nothing left.)
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 raising the estate tax in their budget estimates. That, and the loud snickers sprinkled throughout the room when our hosts showed a video starring Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg. Oh, and via Twitter, I learned that the L.A. crowd booed the Peterson Foundation rep.)
Even more heartening, though, was how carefully everyone 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 "those who are still in 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.
Oh, and don't believe the "official" reports that so many attendees supported cuts - it was push polling. (Although certainly the politicians will believe otherwise, in which case, Mission Accomplished!) You can see the worksheet for yourself here.