A little more than a year ago, I attended the AmericaSpeaks town hall, which was billed as an opportunity for Americans to have their say in the America's budget decisions. I was so impressed by how informed and assertive my fellow Americans
July 18, 2011

A little more than a year ago, I attended the AmericaSpeaks town hall, which was billed as an opportunity for Americans to have their say in the America's budget decisions. I was so impressed by how informed and assertive my fellow Americans were about standing up for other people, and that's what I wrote.

What I didn't say was how curious I was about how and why the event was put together. Yes, I knew that Pete Peterson had funded it, but who was pushing it? Who was this AmericaSpeaks group, anyway?

I talked to a knowledgeable insider (someone who'd worked on the issue for decades), and he told me AmericaSpeaks didn't initiate the project - it came from the White House. In fact, he told me, Austen Goolsbee had been tasked by the White House with bringing public opinion in line with supporting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

I didn't write about it then because my source wasn't willing to go on the record. But under the current circumstances, I thought I'd tell readers, and remind you all to take what you hear about the need to cut these programs with a very large grain of salt.

And by the way? People's opinions on what to cut haven't changed!

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 theirinterests 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.

As predicted, it was only the beginning. But understand: This was a long-term plan, one we shouldn't let the powers that be shove down our throats under the pretext of solving a crisis.

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