Distrust of government is down and the public is clearly looking for an
expanded governmental role in a vast range of areas related to the September 11
attacks. How else can we explain the big debate on airline safety? The U.S.
Senate wants to federalize security workers and the U.S. House wants to subject
them to intense regulation independent of the airlines. Federalize or regulate?
This is a Democratic dream.
But the opportunity for Democrats goes well beyond the public's support for a
more expansive government. During the two months following the attacks, my
associates and I listened to people in 23 focus groups all across the country.
The emerging mood and values in this new period--with a strong emphasis on unity,
coming together, community, seriousness of purpose, freedom of choice, and
tolerance--reflect the instinctive impulses of Democrats surely more than they do
Republicans'. Indeed, the short-term and consumerist perspective inherent in the
Republicans' aggressive tax-cut initiative seems oddly out of sync with the
The Post-September 11 Mood and Values
The first pattern in the emerging mood is the pride taken in
the country's unity. People think the United States is headed in the right
direction because Americans have come together as one in the face of adversity:
As people affirmed repeatedly in the group discussions, "United we stand." After
sadness or heroism, this pride in unity is almost the first thing participants
talked about: "To me, it has brought people in our country together"; "United
States of America, again behind the government"; "the country seems to have
banded together for the first time since World War II or Korea."
Participants explicitly noted that this is no Vietnam--a time when the
country was divided and thereby weakened itself. In fact, people were reluctant
to get into the blame game. As one participant said, there is "a lot of blame to
go around." That would divide the country, they believe, and we cannot afford
This unity has consequences that affect the current political terrain. First,
the unity is all-encompassing; politicians of all stripes are seen as part of the
unified national response. In some respects, then, the "security issue" has been
neutralized by popular request. When we asked whether Democrats are as patriotic
as Republicans, respondents said yes without qualification.
The second pattern of thinking--a newly evident consciousness of community--is
closely related to unity. People were proud that in the aftermath of the
tragedies Americans are working together, thinking about one another, and helping
others. They noted: "Everybody [is] bonding together"; "I just feel we have more
in common with people, knowing they feel bad too"; "[It's been] a long time since
we pulled together to help each other.... We're going to help each other whether
it's our neighbor or a stranger across the country."
This emerging sense of community contains within it the notion that, at this
moment, individual desires should give way to the needs of community and country.
Some see young people as the barometers of this new climate. Young people are
"into themselves," said one respondent. "They're going to have a chance to see
what it means to be an American."
The third pattern is a new sense of seriousness, in both private and public
purpose. Even two months after the attacks, the events of September 11 led many
to say that they "need to figure out what is really important," as one person put
it. "I think it's darn time that finally this country got back to caring about
what's important, which is, you know, your family and home and self, and you
know, stop being quite so materialistic."
The perceived need to refocus our priorities as individuals extends to the
public level: We are at "a point in our history [where] we have some very
important things to do," one of the participants asserted. While people talked
about dealing with many issues--"animal rights," for example--they suggested we
have "bigger things to think about right now." One person summed up with the
simple instruction: "Prioritize. We need healing and we need each other.... Turn
your attention to helping our nation."
The final pattern of thinking that has emerged centers on the freedom to
choose. We asked people in the focus groups what it means to be an American and
why America is under attack. The great bulk of the responses raised the concept
of "freedom." In the face of the attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, people are
defining freedom as "the freedom to choose." In America, we have "options."
"We're free here. We all make our choice."
Many people think that this freedom of choice is central to our way of
life--and that it is now under attack. They consider this concept of choice to be
missing from those societies that would impose traditional patterns on the
individual, the family, and women. The focus group participants were ready to
You know...you choose who you're going to marry, and you choose
if you're going to have children, and you choose if you're going to go to school,
and you choose to move out of state to get a better job, and you choose whether
you get on a plane. And that's why a lot of people want to come here...because
there's a lot of choices.
You could choose your religion; you don't have to be one thing or another. If
you're a woman, you can walk down the street; you don't have to hide under a
But also under attack are freedom of religion and the concept of religious
pluralism: the ability of many religions to co-exist in the same society without
dividing it. "We tolerate others' religion"; "we have a mix and nobody seems to
care what you are or what your faith is." In fact, someone said, "that is what
drives them nuts...the fact we can show respect. You're a Buddhist, fine. As long
as you don't harm me or force your religion onto me, let me make my choices--they
can't stand it over there."
The central importance that Americans accord to freedom of choice,
particularly concerning life choices and religion, was reflected in the fairly
tolerant attitude toward Muslims in America expressed in all of the focus groups.
Respondents clearly favored tighter border controls and limiting the number of
immigrants, views that are also reflected in the polls. But it is striking that
during the many weeks of focus-group discussions, hostile comments from
participants toward foreigners and Muslims were few and isolated. The events of
September 11 did not unleash expressions of pent-up prejudice.
In fact, freedom of choice is at the heart of what Americans are defending,
and that is apparently elevating the value of tolerance in our country. The
concept of freedom that Americans are fighting to preserve, moreover, poses
problems for the fundamentalist religious forces in the United States that have
sought to bring religion more forcefully into politics. Writing in the November 5
Weekly Standard, David Brooks gingerly raised the idea that this may not
be the best moment for "faith-based initiatives and religion in the public
square." No wonder Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham seem so off
balance in the current environment.
Unity and togetherness; bonding and community; family and country over
materialism and selfishness; freedom to choose in life and religion--these are
the elements that form the public consciousness during this period. Small wonder
that voters are having trouble understanding the Republicans' tax-cut approach at
a time when the country faces so many challenges.
Compared to the GOP, the Democrats seem more aligned with this emerging
consciousness--above all, because of the centrality of community. British Prime
Minister Tony Blair understood this when he gave his speech on the "power of
community" to a Labour Party conference. The attacks, he said, left us with a
renewed respect for the public services because they represent our capacity to
act together. After September 11, we dare not think that each individual and each
country can go it alone. The power of community, said Blair, infuses our "modern
The public's renewed interest in government is a symptom of the powerful
impulse to act together and protect our freedoms.
Tax Cuts and the New Politics
The Republican House and President Bush have made tax cuts
their central proposition for addressing the economy and meeting the country's
domestic needs. But this position is at odds with the emerging national mood
after the September catastrophe. While voters clearly want tax cuts as part of an
overall approach, they oppose an aggressive program of tax cuts because the
country faces other financial needs, because such cuts endanger the budget and
economy, and because they are at odds with the emerging commitment to community
Given a choice, voters have other priorities. They would delay the large tax
cuts passed last year and use the money to fund Social Security, rebuild after
the terrorist attacks, help the unemployed, and increase support for education.
In a poll of 1,000 likely voters commissioned by Democracy Corps and conducted by
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research from October 30 through November 1, voters
greatly preferred this choice (54 percent to 39 percent) to the Republican one
that offers expanding tax cuts to get the economy moving, help businesses invest,
and create jobs.
At a moment when the country is looking for seriousness of purpose, Americans
see Republicans' big tax cuts as irresponsible. The aggressive cuts President
Bush supports clash with Americans' worries about federal budget deficits and the
economy; many fear that the cuts may plunge the country into red ink again--and
into long-term financial uncertainty. For some participants, the connection and
the risks are very clear.
[The] biggest thing for me is the economy. As far as the tax
cuts and things, I thought he [Bush] is going overboard on that. My biggest
concern is the deficit....We are paying so much interest on the deficit
itself....We were on a great path to get this knocked down to a reasonable level,
if not eliminate the damn thing altogether.
While there is some understanding that a broad economic program might include
tax cuts, we found particular public discomfort with tax cuts that are
individualistic and indulgent. The tax rebate for those who did not receive tax
cuts in the first round has a progressive purpose and has been championed by both
Democrats and Republicans. Yet Americans wonder whether even this rebate proposal
comports with their new sense of seriousness.
In fact, voters do not currently bring a strong partisan filter to the various
economic proposals being considered by Congress. Nonetheless, when given a list
of individual Democratic proposals, a large majority of respondents support each
one. Two-thirds favor every Democratic proposal but one (the tax rebate). The
strongest support is for providing unemployment benefits to the newly unemployed;
delaying tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent in order to fund post-September 11
rebuilding and Social Security; funding infrastructure projects such as airport
improvements and school construction to create jobs; accelerating the broad,
middle-class tax cuts that are already scheduled; including the newly unemployed
under COBRA health insurance ; and offering tax incentives to businesses--if
clearly linked to new investment. The backing for construction of public
projects--which wins the support of 85 percent of likely voters (more than for
any other proposal except extending unemployment benefits, which also garners 85
percent support)--is a particularly notable expression of the current public
Overall, the Democrats' proposals poll better than the
Republicans'--particularly those Republican brainstorms that have already become
part of the public debate, like retroactively eliminating the "alternative
minimum tax" on corporations. One person in a focus group observed, to the
agreement of many: "We've got the deficit, we've got increased spending, we've
got military action going on, and don't really need to keep handing out money
right now." That $600 may not add up to much for the individual, another
elaborated, "but all our $600s would" add up to a lot of public funds--
and right now we need a lot of money. We're spending tons of
money right now. And as far as I'm concerned, if it's there, if the government's
expensive and it's not breaking us, leave it alone. It don't make any sense to
keep sending it back and we go further in the hole. Because we're going to be the
ones that's going to pay the taxes to make it up.
Voters talk about a tax rebate as "nice" but see it as an option that
conflicts with their thinking about the emergent challenges for the country. The
tax cut, they say, offers small immediate benefits at the expense of the future:
"It's nice to get your little rebate back. Enjoy it now. I do have concerns about
the future." Another called it "a dumb thing" and continued: "I can't understand
why they did that. It was in my benefit, it was in anybody's benefit. But in the
future, it's not."
The argument that tax cuts spur spending and therefore help the economy also
clashes with what some voters think should be the proper emphasis--community and
country. What the president is calling for, one suggested, is for people "to go
on a shopping spree," but if "he would have said education, that's important." We
are missing the opportunity to invest in the country:
What did we do with the money after I got my little check? I
didn't run down and buy stock or reinvest it in the country. I just absorbed
it.... Did it go back into the country...or did...[we] just go out and buy
something like a TV or something?
Another participant, reflecting on past wars, recalled that people bought
bonds and were asked "to do something for the entire country. So, [by contrast,]
Bush has asked us to lead our lives."
All across the country, what people told us is that the tax cut seems
short-term, diminished, individualistic, and consumerist at a time when citizens
are looking for something more for the nation. People are thinking about
community needs, government, and the future.
A season for Democrats.