Look, we are in a remarkable moment and I’m not sure we’re noticing it in the day-to-day of politics and media. Last week I wrote of the new patriotism that I see taking hold of the American establishment, if that’s the right word—business leaders, doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, journalists and lawyers who find themselves feeling a great, deep yearning to help save their country. That public-spiritedness is waiting to be harnessed and led by good men and women who, in words I’ll explain in a moment, have passion not for themselves but for America.
What’s behind it is fear. The economy is tanking and can take a whole world with it. But what’s interesting—and new—is that the fear is not finding its expression (again, among those loosely described as the establishment) in rage, or in deeper partisan antagonism. Democrats could be feeling bitter and snarky: President Obama didn’t work, and they’re not in love with him anyway, so why not bash Republicans just for fun? Republicans could be feeling mindlessly triumphant: We’re on the verge of a major victory, make way for your new rulers. But that’s not what I’m seeing. What I’m seeing is a new convergence of thought among Democrats and Republicans who are not in Washington and not part of the political matrix. They are in new agreement about our essential problems and priorities: that the economy comes first, all other crises (in foreign affairs, in our culture) come second, because they cannot be helped without an economy that is healthy and growing. They all agree—no one really argues about this anymore—the government is going bankrupt. They all agree the entitlement system has to be reformed. Heck, they all respect Paul Ryan, for his seriousness. They all want grown-ups to come forward with ideas that maybe each party wouldn’t love but that might do the country some good.
That is what I see in every business and professional meeting, in conversations with Democrats and Republicans: a new convergence of thought among the thoughtful.
Which makes this a promising moment. For once everyone knows what time it is. It’s not like 2008, ‘04 and ‘00, when establishments were polarized.
But here’s the most remarkable thing I saw this week. I watched, by computer, two focus groups of so-called Wal-Mart moms—middle- and working-class women who’d shopped at least once the past month at Wal-Marts. The polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, assembled the groups, 10 women in Orlando, Fla., and 10 in Des Moines, Iowa. In Orlando they were mothers in their 20s and 30s; in Des Moines in their 40s and 50s.
They were spirited women, genial—there was laughter—and grateful for what they had, especially their families. But they were tired too, and scared.
In Orlando they were asked to describe in a word or two how things are going in the country. The responses: “Depressing,” “different,” “discouraged,” “sour” and “bad.” Any positive words to describe our country right now? Silence. How, asked the moderator, do you see our economic troubles in your life? “I see it every day in my job,” one woman said. Two weeks ago her company put up a posting for a position. Two hundred fifty applicants responded, “all overqualified.”
Another: “Most houses in my neighborhood are under foreclosure or for sale.” Another: “If I had the financial stability I think I’d just get out of here.”
They don’t say “unemployment,” they said “laid off,” and they all had stories of a husband, a father, themselves. One woman’s husband left her, so she took the kids to live with her parents. Then her father was laid off, then her brother-in-law.
They’re all trying to save money however they can—juggling credit cards, couponing, not eating out, no vacations, changing where they shop, buying the cheapest food in bulk. One woman spoke of donating blood. Another said she wasn’t raising her boys for college so much as to be “self-sufficient.” She was teaching them how to collect aluminum cans.
How does this time compare with a few years ago when the recession started? “I feel like it’s getting worse.” Were things better for you in 2008? “Oh yeah,” they said, heads nodding. What is your immediate fear? “Saving money for Christmas—that we won’t be able to buy Christmas presents.” “Losing my job. That’s my fear every day.” “That my parents are going through all their savings.”
They all think the government is lying about the jobless numbers. It’s worse than the official reports.
Who are the culprits behind our economic calamity? “The banks and the people who took the loans.” But more the banks, because they had, as one woman put it, “the authority.” When they gave out the loans, people thought “it must have been OK.” People were “lured in” by the banks—don’t worry, home values will keep going up—which pocketed the fees and kept walking.
People lampoon the Occupy Wall Street movement as a bunch of marginal freaks, but these women from the heart of the country shared a basic resentment: The banks got bailed out, everyone else was left holding the bag.
How do they feel about Mr. Obama? Silence. Then “indifferent,” “disappointed,” “great speaker.” A woman in Iowa said, “Lukewarm.” No one railed against him, there was no anger. There was a lot of “He tried.” “He hasn’t done the stuff that he said he would,” said one woman.
Both groups were feistier about Congress. “They’re playing a game.” “What have they done? They wasted a lot of time.” In Iowa the words they used were “Dysfunctional,” “sides,” “defensive,” “childish” and “can’t work together.” Are Democrats more to blame or the Republicans? “The same,” said a woman, and everyone nodded.
Republican contenders for the presidency haven’t registered in Orlando, but Iowa, with caucuses coming, is paying attention. Herman Cain was catching on, Michele Bachmann was not. Any reaction to Sarah Palin not running? “Good!” said an Iowa woman, to laughter. Anyone disappointed? “No,” they said.
What do they want in a political leader? Someone who cares about “Jane Doe on Main Street that can’t pay her electric bill.” Someone “with passion not for himself but for America.”
Do elected officials in Washington know how you live? In Orlando there was a chorus of noes: “They have a bunch of chefs cook for them.” “They’re more privileged.” “They’re compensated above and beyond their salaries. They have health care.”
Do they care about you? “No, not so much.” “They won’t care till they’re affected.”
What do you want Washington to do? From Iowa: “Fix it.” “Start looking at the big picture.”
What do you want from leaders. From Iowa: “Someone who isn’t hollow.”
They all said they care about 2012. They all said they’d vote.
We are in a remarkable moment. Everyone understands the stakes. Everyone wants action. From comfortable professionals to people barely scraping by, everyone wants both parties to work together, to think of our country and not themselves.
And of course everyone really gets this except Washington, which says it gets it and doesn’t.
But those who think 2012 is just a clash of big parties had better wake up. They think they’re pulling in a tug of war, but they are dancing on the precipice.