Presented by John Russonello
January 27, 2008
Last year, in St. Louis, I reported to you that the mood of the country had turned from disappointed to downright disgruntled. This year I'm having a heck of a time coming up with a description. How do you describe an American public on the negative side of disgruntled? The latest Harris polls show that confidence in Congress stands at 14%, just below HMO's. Confidence in the military, the White House, and the Supreme Court are all significantly below pre-9/11 levels.
CBS/NYT polls show that 75% of the public believe members of Congress are more interested in serving special interest groups than the people they represent, and 68% say most members of Congress don't understand the needs of people like themselves.
In focus groups this past month around the U.S., the overwhelming view among voters has been — the government is not listening to us — on the war, on the need for health care, on what the country stands for.
But, despite all the disappointments in politics, government, and the country's leadership — people are not giving up. I'm not saying they are hopeful — but it's not quite despair.
In Colorado recently for the ACLU, we heard voters say they want government to act to help them, not crowd them. For the first time since the NBC/WSJ poll has asked this question, a majority of 52% of Americans say that government should do more to help meet the needs of the people compared to 40% who say that government is doing too many things best left to businesses and individuals. Ten years ago, those numbers were flipped.
All of this unhappiness will mean record numbers of Americans will turn out for the 2008 elections — because when voters are mad at government, they turn out even more than when they are satisfied.
Today Americans are searching for some institution bigger than themselves to listen to them… some person or entity to reflect their values and concerns.
When it comes to civil liberties, the ACLU is that institution for one primary reason. You are viewed as uncompromising — your admirers describe you as lions: protective and ferocious when provoked. Others have said, indelicately, that you are downright pig-headed.
Well, for the millions of progressive people and many others in this country who are fed up with looking at our political leaders and seeing only sheep, lions and pigs are a welcome sight.
They've seen the value in being pig-headed when you have taken a stand against torture, against Guantanamo, against government eavesdropping on its citizens, against the PATRIOT Act, against racial profiling, against public school teachers proselytizing religious beliefs in the classroom, and slowly they are beginning to see the value in standing against the denial of due process to immigrants --- because when you stand against these actions by government, you are making a statement about what you are for. About what kind of country you want to live in, and ultimately, what kind of people we are.
All of our research points to the need for you never to forget that what you are against is really about what you are for, and that you help your cause by making it explicit.
From the work we have done this past year on race relations, crime, and immigration, and the death penalty, we have recommended that you remind your audience…
In America, we believe in fairness and equal justice, so we do not tolerate a justice system that treats people differently because of the color of their skin.
In America, we all benefit by inclusion not exclusion — by helping people contribute, become part of the system, rather than by dividing, and deporting.
In America, we believe in due process for everyone, not because we are necessarily sympathetic to people the government suspects are wrong-doers, but because when we take away due process, we lose who we are, we lose our Americanness.
In all of these cases, Americans are becoming more and more startled that our government does not reflect our values. In a landscape surrounded by sheep, they value the lion. Even if you lose, it is okay, being a lion among sheep makes you a winner for trying.
I have both the good and bad fortune of living in Washington, D.C. for the past thirty-two years. In Washington, the conventional wisdom is that Americans do not care about the war anymore, they think the surge worked, and now they are focused on the economy, so let's give them a tax cut. The voices I hear across the country say they have always been concerned about the weak economy and what it means to communities that are hurting, the war and health care continue to be top priorities, and like 2001, people would rather have a chance of a job than 600 dollars.
Even the Democratic candidates for president are not listening to where the nation is on some of these and other issues. They are in the pasture, playing it safe.
The more they play it safe, the more people will look to an institution that will stand up, if you are able to articulate a positive message of why you are standing up.
So my advice is familiar to all of you:
Never doubt for a moment that your values represent America.
But take time to listen to others who approach issues from a different point of view, whether it is on abortion, gay rights, or prayer in school, or issues of security.
The mood and the task for liberals and many others across America is best summed up in a new Bruce Springsteen song, when a father tells his son: “You see that flag flying over the courthouse, means some things are set in stone. It stands for who we are, what we'll do and what we won't…it's gonna be a long walk home.”
The ACLU has been part of the American story over the past six years since 9/11, reminding the country what we stand for, and what we do not stand for.
After a period of shock and fear, the public is beginning to understand America has lost its way and we need to get back on track.
The ACLU's task is to stay true to your mission, point the way home, and give your fellow Americans the confidence that it is worth the walk.
John Russonello is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.