Activists need to realize that most Americans actually agree with them

I admit to following the shenanigans of mainstream politicians, so much so that I sometimes slip into their assumptions even though I know I shouldn’t. One of their more seductive assumptions is that U.S. public attitudes over the years have moved to the right, an assumption I often hear echoed even among concerned people on the left.

As a hobby I’ve been collecting public opinion poll numbers to try to stay centered. My sociological training taught me to be skeptical about opinion polls, but the consistent results of polls are actually better than who wins elections for learning what the public thinks about issues. I abruptly encountered that contrast in the 1980s when the Jobs with Peace Campaign was running referenda asking voters if they would like to have tax money taken out of military spending and devoted instead to education, transportation, housing, health care and the like. The referenda were not binding, but they gave people a voice.

In Pennsylvania, we ran some of those referenda when Ronald Reagan sought re-election as president. Reagan had spent his first term shifting the budget from civilian needs to the military sector. However, in every county where we ran our referendum, our ballot question won overwhelmingly even though Reagan also won.

In exit polls we asked voters how they voted and why. The Reagan voters who voted “Yes” to Jobs with Peace typically responded this way: “Well, President Reagan is a wonderful leader for our country, but even fine leaders need guidance on issues and he does have it wrong on prioritizing the military.”

Because votes on candidates tell us far less about public opinion than polls do, finding out what the pollsters are reporting helps to ground my political analysis.

For example, a large majority of Americans, 68 percent, said in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll that our economic system favors the rich rather than the majority. About half of those who said they were Republicans agreed. Economist Joseph Stiglitz has been following opinion research over time and consistently found that the percentages of those who see too much wealth inequality were high among men and women, Democrats and Republicans, people with lower incomes and even those with higher incomes.

Over a 30-year period the Gallup opinion polls have seen a steady majority responding positively to the question: “Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?” The Pew Research Center found 69 percent agreeing that the federal government should do something, or should do a lot to reduce the income gap.

For the past couple of decades elected officials have been cutting taxes for the wealthy, but a Washington Post poll in 2014 showed a majority of people in favor of tax increases. A Gallup poll showed that even among Republicans, 45 percent believed upper income people paid too little in taxes.

In 2014, national polls revealed that a majority of Americans want to address climate change. A year later, the Senate appointed its leading climate denier to be head of the Senate’s committee on the environment.

For decades the airwaves have been full of anti-government rhetoric insisting only private business can be “job creators.” Then a poll in 2014 found almost half those asked wanted the government to provide a job to any citizen who cannot find work in the private sector.

I could go on and on with poll results like these that place the American majority considerably to the left of the Democratic Party on most issues, although there are exceptions. Bottom line, the evidence shows that the political class is wrong to assert that, as it moves rightward, it is “following the American people.”

Billionaire Warren Buffett revealed as long ago as 2006 who the political class is actually following. He told the New York Times, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

What does this mean for us?

Revising our understanding of how much the majority agrees with us has a couple of obvious implications, and also some not so obvious. Knowing what’s really going on helps us challenge our despair, freeing energy for action. I notice I feel better and walk down the street with the body language of openness when I’ve read yet another poll in the daily paper revealing that many of the people on the sidewalk see the world as I do.

A deeper implication arises at the identity level. This is a personal issue for me, and I don’t think I’m alone. In high school I became a chronic differentiator. I fiercely wanted to be an independent thinker rather than to “follow the crowd,” and so I built my identity partly around my ability to emphasize my uniqueness.

Training for Change facilitators often point out that there are two fundamental motions an individual chooses between in social life: to join or to differentiate. We make those choices moment to moment. Coming out of a movie theater with a friend we might join in raving about the sound track and then disagree about the star’s performance. Most of us easily swing back and forth, joining and differentiating depending on how we see the issue at hand: “Do I want a beer? Not really – I’d rather have tea at the moment.”

Some of us, though, get the choice-making wrapped up in our identity. You might lean strongly toward conformity, “going along to get along,” usually joining even at times when, in your heart of hearts, you might prefer to differentiate.

Or, like me, you might lean strongly toward differentiating and have to think twice to realize it really is OK to join. At my worst, I’ve been a “Yes, but…” person, having to agree with someone’s political point but then quickly finding some way to differentiate, as if reassuring myself that I truly am a unique being.

This fundamental joining/differentiating dynamic of social life can operate when we form our political identity. One way to stabilize a set of political values and convictions is to contrast them with some “other,” which originally might be that annoying uncle or teacher. I was brought up by my blue-collar family to differentiate from the Republicans, and I still enjoy doing that. Then, as a young adult, I grew to see how often the Democrats also supported racial and other injustices. That’s when the obvious “other” to contrast myself with became a vague “mainstream” or “majority.” The socialization of graduate school cemented that, encouraging me to believe I was part of an intellectual elite forever “above” the opinions of those who don’t use big words in conversation.

My political life since then has been one long series of opportunities to eat humble pie. Learning that a far higher percentage of Americans who had not finished high school saw through the Vietnam war than did college graduates — that was a big one. Realizing that professors, with graduate degrees, were usually slower to figure out the justice implications of issues and act on them than were undergrads, who in turn had a lot to learn from the service workers on the university staffs — that was another one.

When I woke up to my chronic disposition to differentiate, I began to pay attention to my internal coach, who often needed to say to me at everyday moments of choice, “George, What’s your problem? Join!” I also began to notice the alternative reality reflected in easily available information. The polls I’ve reported in this column are only a small sample of what’s in the daily newspaper and widely-available magazines. Now, at last, I am allowing myself to enjoy holding some of the same convictions as those of a majority of my nation, and to join them. As a radical, I  know I’m unique and not about to fall into mindless conformity — so I can relax about that. I’m therefore free to enjoy the connection with a multitude of strangers with whom I now know how to join.

Freeing ourselves to build mass movements

Jonathan Matthew Smucker keeps urging us to “go beyond the choir.” Letting go of the link between identity and either differentiating or joining makes that possible. Those of us who are activists don’t even need to fixate on the ways our particular group is different from “that other group.” Activists who are chronic conformers can reach for a new degree of independent thinking within the group that we belong to.

We can enjoy a new freedom to make our choices based on the merits, rather than identity; strategizing can become far more interesting because we’re less worried about “what others will think.” Freedom supports creativity, which in turn supports new ways of relating to the tens of millions of people out there who are being oppressed and have ideas about change that we might happen to agree with.

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