What Can a Marginalized Majority Do?

Universal health care is favored by most Americans, but proposing to create it is deemed politically foolish. Restoring value to the minimum wage would meet with approval from the vast majority of us, but politicians who make it a priority are considered a little flakey. Investing in public schools is one of our top priorities, but we’re told the money’s just not there and that we should focus on offering children other choices — we have to be practical. Most of the money that isn’t there has gone to corporations in the form of tax cuts and sweetheart contracts, because we need to boost the economy, but the result is longer hours and less job security. Is it me, or is something a little bit funny going on?

Time and again popular opinion is stymied in our democracy. Important majority opinions are shut out of the debate. And yet we long for someone with the “integrity” to do what he or she believes regardless of popular opinion. We support workers’ rights and environmental protections. We don’t want multinational corporations forcing our government to turn our public water supply private, and yet the trade officials discussing the latest treaties seem more reasonable than the violent kids in the street with black eye liner and multiple nose piercings. What are we to think about a democracy where the majority is marginal, and what can we do about it anyway?

We could figure out exactly what we want, organize it in a neat platform, put it on a poster, and stand out on the corner shouting. But people who tell us we have the power to change things usually seem to be mistaken or intentionally dishonest.

Personally, I think we do have the potential to change things, but only if we’re willing to face without flinching what it is that’s been going so wrong. It’s not pretty to look at. And as soon as you stop and look at it and start pointing things out and talking about it you sound like you’re exaggerating, and you feel you’re about to be called a conspiracy theorist. And yet some explanation is needed for why a democracy would fight a war based on lies, or pass endless tax cuts for millionaires when most of us have a hard time reaching our parents’ living standard and many of us who work fulltime cannot afford a house.

How can we explain that people who value fairness and equal rights are frittering them away? We have to explain it without fear of being called extremist, secure in the knowledge that we’ll all be called extremists together, the whole country minus a handful of corrupt CEOs, lobbyists, and other suffering souls.

A large percentage of Americans believe that Iraq caused 9-11, that national health care would give us Stalinist Russia, that labor unions are a thing of the past, that the estate tax caused families to lose their farms, and that global warming is “just a theory.” They don’t believe these things because they’re stupid, but because the news media tells them these lies and others like them every day. Not everyone has time to do their own research to verify whether what they see on the news is true.

Sometimes lies dominate news reports because those who know better fail to make their case effectively. Other times, the best PR work by people on our side of the matter is no match for the fact that some of the largest corporations in the country own the media. We talk about how the public owns the airwaves, and it does say that on a piece of paper somewhere in Washington, but companies like Viacom and Clear Channel have complete control over what goes out on “our” airwaves. They are no longer required to devote even token time to important public issues or fair representation of differing viewpoints. The corporate media has become a cancer in our democracy. We must focus our efforts on reforming it and on building our own media in order to talk around it.

Controlling our own media allows us to think differently about current events and begin to see how strangely we usually talk about them. If you were creating a newspaper, would you call job losses and lowered wages a “recovery”? Would you ever use the phrase “jobless recovery”? If you were writing about our tax system, would you focus exclusively on the rising cost of things people find useful, like Social Security, education, and health care, and say nothing about weapons systems that don’t work but drain billions of dollars? Would you call the political party that always boosts spending, shifts the tax burden onto working families, and puts the nation into debt “conservative”? Would you call the party that traditionally has been most willing to restrain the biggest area of spending (the military) and to tax the biggest earners (corporations) “liberal”?

If you try thinking as if you are the millionaire anchorman with the makeup and the pretend notes on your desk, but that you are going to break all conventions that impinge on straightforward honesty, a sharp clarity can come to you. You can begin to cut through the manufactured fear and false patriotism that drive so much media discourse. But then, you should realize, as well, that you are not the only one who can do this, that most of your fellow citizens are as insightful as you are.

Majority rule would not be the rule of fools but the rule of those who, like you, want to live in a just society, earn a living wage and a secure retirement, and contribute to a country that will be at least as good for our grandchildren as what our grandparents left us. Majority rule would shift taxes toward investors and away from people who work for a living. Majority rule would probably have spared us the PATRIOT Act and the current war. With majority rule, you would never have to deal with an HMO again.

But why don’t we have majority rule? What prevents it, other than unfair and imbalanced media? Part of the explanation has to be our undemocratic election system. We make people jump through hoops to get registered to vote. We don’t make Election Day a holiday or require that employers give workers time off to vote. We elect our President through an electoral college that gives voters in some states more say than those in others but voters in all states little reason to vote for any candidate not likely to win the entire state. We don’t allow voters to mark their first choice, second choice, and third choice, so that if their first choice is not a contender their vote can still shape the outcome. And we allow an elaborate system of legalized bribery to shut out of elections anyone who is not fabulously wealthy or willing to do the bidding of those who are.

The candidates who succeed in this system have been moving further and further into what used to be called an extreme position, but which we now call central because the center is wherever those in power have moved. These candidates want to gamble Social Security on the stock market, amputate sections of the Bill of Rights, push the Middle East toward all-out war, legalize torture, and drive the cost of health care further out of reach. We’re afraid to call these plunderers of public wealth by name. We treat their positions with respect and offer our disagreements on technical grounds. We’re then labeled both leftist and wishy-washy. Instead we should be rejecting the rip-offs of war-mongering robber barons without pulling any punches.

The road we have to travel cannot possibly be smooth. On August 23, 2004, Bush pushed through the biggest pay cut in U.S. history by changing overtime rules to remove the right to time-and-a-half pay for overtime from at least 6 million people. Lots of well organized groups and PR professionals tried to pull back the curtain on this scheme and the lies being used to promote it. The rally held in protest could have been much bigger. But after the largest peace, women’s rights, fair trade, and immigrants’ rights rallies ever held failed to move Bush an inch, it’s not clear what the impact would have been. The major media buried the story.

And yet, people found out by other means and successfully pressured both houses of Congress to reverse the pay cut. (Whether the bill gets out of conference committee intact and Bush backs off his promise to veto it remains to be seen.) The important fact is that despite it all, popular opinion went its own way, not that of the Department of Labor or of the media. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Single-payer health care, a system in which the government covers everyone for less than we now waste on private insurance bureaucracies, is completely off the media’s radar screen. And yet it is favored by a majority of Americans in recent polls. We’re much smarter and better informed than we’re given credit for. That is the source of the power we do possess and need to recognize.

And we’re much more serious than we’re described. We care about more than celebrity scandals. When we’re thrown a tiny tax cut followed by huge budget cuts in schools, fire and rescue, workplace safety, and parks and recreation, and then our state and local taxes go up and our job goes off to China, we know that we’ve been had.

When things get tough it’s tempting to blame somebody. Increasingly, we’re smart enough to blame the elected officials who enacted the harmful policies. They may ask us to blame gay people or feminists or terrorists. They may tell us that if we blame those in power then we ourselves will be supporting terrorists. They may warn us that if we oppose them then terrorists will attack us. To that threat we respond as follows:

The American people will not negotiate with anyone threatening terror. We have a new world to build, and if you want to keep dragging us back into the old one we’re going to have to ask you to kindly get out of the way.