Why Big Bird Matters

FILE - This Aug. 30, 2009 file photo shows Big Bird, of the children's television show Sesame Street, in Los Angeles. Big Bir
FILE - This Aug. 30, 2009 file photo shows Big Bird, of the children's television show Sesame Street, in Los Angeles. Big Bird is endangered. Jim Lehrer lost control. And Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama. Those were the judgments rendered across Twitter and Facebook Wednesday during the first debate of the 2012 presidential contest. While millions turned on their televisions to watch the 90-minute showdown, a smaller but highly engaged subset took to social networks to discuss and score the debate as it unspooled in real time. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

Here's some good news for Obama: a new Zogby poll released October 9 showed that 55 percent of voters oppose cuts in spending on public television. In other words, Big Bird is a winner.

Many of my liberal friends have groused about this situation. They want to go back to talking about dull, numerical, substantive issues like the wealth gap or the Romney tax cut. They're wrong. This symbol is a winner for Democrats, both in particular and in general. Big Bird is exactly the conversation we should be having.

First, there's that 55 percent. Voters may still overestimate how much that spending really matters -- public television accounts for 0.00014 percent of the national budget; if your household income is $100,000, it would be like spending 14 bucks a year. Nonetheless, yesterday's poll found, they support it -- not just PBS, but also the government funding of it.

More generally, though, Big Bird is a potent symbol for a larger discussion about the role of government, one which points to a much more important opinion gap between the Republican party and mainstream Americans. For 30 years now, conservative think tanks (CTT's, in beltway-speak) like the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and Heritage Foundation have created an entire counter-discourse of arch-conservative political theory. This enterprise, funded by the usual coterie of corporations and billionaires, has been wildly successful. The output of CTT's has shaped environmental policy, tax policy, and military policy.

But no one asked mainstream America what it thinks of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and libertarian ideals. Of course, few Americans even know who these people are -- but when their ideas are translated into everyday language, poll after poll rejects them. Yes, Americans believe in "live and let live," and in eternal verities like hard work and an honest day's pay. But they don't believe in shredding the social safety net, or hanging our seniors and veterans -- who make up half of the 47 percent -- out to dry.

This is why, for the last two decades, Republicans have had to hide their conservative wolves in liberal sheep's clothing. "Compassionate conservatism," it used to be called: the idea that Mitt Romney actually cares more about the poor than Barack Obama does, which is why he wants a smaller government and lower taxes. As a factual matter, this is outrageous -- but as a rhetorical game, it works quite well. It dovetails with the Republicans' conservative social message -- guns, God, and gays -- and it works.

Until it comes to the details. When the rubber hits the road, mainstream Americans -- not Rush Limbaugh's fans, but the Reagan Democrats, soccer moms, and other swing voters -- don't actually like the consequences of CTT/Beltway libertarianism. They appreciate some basic environmental regulation (Republicans have had to greenwash themselves here too), they want good teachers (hence Romney's about-face), and they like Big Bird. They don't agree with conservatives who say that this is "welfare" -- they think it's the kind of collective endeavor that government should be involved in.

Big Bird is the symbol for a government that actually helps. For conservatives, this is pure heresy. Government is evil, squelching innovation and taxing us to death. For liberals, this is obvious; if anything, liberals propose too many governmental solutions, rather than too few. But for moderates, this is a vague, diaphanous belief that only becomes visible under certain circumstances. Sesame Street is one of them.

And think about it for a moment: who needs Sesame Street? Not upper-class elites who can send their kids to private pre-school, but a whole host of others: two-career families who depend on TV to occupy their kids, and who are grateful that not all of it rots their brains; immigrant families whose kids learn English from Big Bird; regular, middle class families for whom Big Bird is as American as apple pie.

Which brings me to my final point, which is Big Bird's importance as a symbol. For the last several years, conservatives, rather than liberals, have benefited from big, broad symbols. The stars and stripes, yellow ribbons supporting our troops -- Republicans have done a better job in associating themselves with the symbols of America, and it has served them well. They practically own the notion of patriotism.

But amid candidate Obama's many stumbles, there has also been a rhetoric of a new patriotism, or a new notion of citizenship, that involves some degree of caring for one another. Substantively, this is more about health care than public broadcasting. But symbolically, Big Bird is the symbol for this alternate notion of patriotism that the Obama campaign is trying to communicate. It (he? she?) is as American as apple pie -- and that's the point. A citizenship of caring about one another is actually more American than CTT libertarianism.

Let's not run away from Big Bird. Let's have the conversation about what kind of society we really want to live in, and let our yellow, avian friend be the focus for it. The numbers are on our side, justice is on our side, and just imagine: this campaign might be about what matters after all.