America Pushes Back

One of the great things about our democracy is that you can't fool people for long. The leadership of the extreme right had a good run for a few months, but now it's over. During the health care debate, they pretended to be backers of Medicare. Later, during the mid-term elections, some on the right used the word jobs enough in speeches and vacuous TV ads to temporarily convince Americans that they were champions for working people (all the while taking massive contributions from big corporate interests.) But American democracy has a way of correcting itself. The right's agenda of attacking the middle class is now facing a backlash.

Many House freshmen who voted for a budget that would essentially end Medicare and subject the elderly to thousands of dollars in new costs are now facing very angry voters. You can see it in the town halls. You can see it in extraordinary polling data which shows that even Tea Party voters oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. You can see it in the reactions of regular people on the street as they learn about the proposed cuts.

You can see it in the town halls where members of Congress are facing angry constituents who are demanding answers from those who voted to end Medicare. In Missouri, organizers from Grassroots Organizing (GRO) have collected over 700 letters in the last three weeks to Sen. Claire McCaskill. Their experience is telling; people on the street have not been irritated or rushed as they passed the group's table, instead they are stopping in unprecedented numbers. They are taking time to write long personal letters about the difference these programs have made in their families' lives.

The responses to proposed changes to Social Security have been similar. Around the country there have been events sending Congress a message on Social Security: Don't make us work 'till we die. By threatening Social Security, the right is now gathering the ire of everyone who cares about retirement, to whit nearly every American, regardless of political persuasion.

To begin to understand Americans' hostile reaction, one need look no further than a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which indicated the GOP plan would "produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history, while increasing poverty and inequality more than any measure in recent times and possibly in the nation's history." This idea has turned out to be not just unpopular but historically so. Americans perceive the current Congress (GOP took over the House in January) much more negatively than they have perceived any new Congress for which polling data is available. At 17 percent and falling, Speaker John Boehner's Congress' popularity is almost twice as low as the lowest recorded (30 percent).

One other sign of Americans' backlash against the right wing's anti-middle class, anti-retiree, anti-worker agenda is worth noting: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who waged an all-out war against public workers and their right to bargain collectively, would now soundly lose a hypothetical do-over election against the candidate he beat last year, Democrat Tom Barrett.

Pundits around America are now noting and commenting on this strong rejection of the right-wing agenda. Yet, there is something larger missing from this discussion - values. What's going on is not just about constituencies and the self-interest of voters it's about what the country stands for and the values that run deep in our communities.

Robbing from the poor and middle class to fund tax breaks for corporations and the rich strikes at the heart of this nation's fundamental values. Consequently, Americans are plainly rejecting the implicit "everyone for themselves" mentality contained in these proposals. As a nation, we don't accept the notion that the elderly and the poor should simply be left at the mercy of private insurance companies and the large vagaries of the market.

It is true that most Americans view individual responsibility as vitally important for improving one's life. But this is not the "everyone for themselves" individualism of the Tea Party movement. According to values polling we (Center for Community Change) conducted with the Ms. Foundation for Women, individual responsibility cannot be separated from responsibility toward one's family, community and the economy as a whole. Nine out of 10 agree that government and corporations should join with individuals to place the common good above greed. When given a choice of values they want the economy to reward, they ranked "everyone for themselves" last. Unfortunately, they also said that value best describes the economy today.

Thus, it's no surprise that an agenda of balancing the budget on the backs of low-income children, seniors and people with disabilities meets with severe opposition. It's simply not what America is about.

The current political environment is challenging for everyone who cares about the future of the country and the shared prosperity that most American believe we should be building.

Still, we can take some solace in the strength of our nation's fundamental values of inclusion and mutual responsibility. It's heartening to see Americans standing up for those values against a well-funded opposition.