This week, as President Obama unveiled the federal budget and state legislatures across the country continued heated battles over their own financial crises, we are continuing to hear a single message from Republicans: that people want a smaller government, that they are fed up with public spending and that budgets must be cut.
But there's a big problem with their story: it's not true.
Blanket antigovernment rhetoric may fly with reference to Washington, but when it gets down to the state and local level, where government is closer to people, voters think about it differently. Faced with threats to essential public services, voters feel a common responsibility for the quality of life in their cities, towns and neighborhoods.
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In many parts of the country, such services are indeed under threat. Right-wing governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie are cutting public programs to the bone and using public workers as scapegoats for all their states' financial woes. Across the country, middle-class Americans are fighting back against these threats, voicing their opposition to cuts that threaten their jobs and their communities. But if we're going to be successful in fending off these attacks, we need more than a countermessage – we need solutions.
We can start by looking to one state that has charted a different course: Oregon.
The political experience of Oregon over the past two years illustrates two important points: it demonstrates that people, when offered a choice, are willing to pay for the things that are important to them, and it shows how progressives can run a disciplined campaign to overcome right-wing rhetoric and enact policies that make the wealthy contribute their fair share to preserve essential community services.
Victories in the Pacific Northwest
In recent years, a resilient, labor-based political program that has linked unions and community allies has succeeded in scoring an impressive series of victories in Oregon. In 2009, Democrats in the state legislature, joined by two rural Republicans to form a 60 percent supermajority, enacted measures that would raise taxes on corporations and households earning more than $250,000 per year in order to preserve critical public services. In January 2010, after opponents forced a public referendum on the tax measures, proponents waged a resolute and ultimately successful campaign that allowed lawmakers to keep essential public services off of the chopping block. In May, the Democratic members of the supermajority played a critical role in helping the two Republicans who voted for needed taxes to fend off primary challengers sponsored by the state GOP.
Referring to the January 2010 victory, Arthur Towers, political director of the 45,000-member Oregon Public Employees Union (Service Employees International Union [SEIU], Local 503), explained, “Voters recognize the important role of government services in a recession. Schools, health care and other public services remain important to middle-class families, and it's possible to win public support for raising revenue to fund public priorities by requiring those who are still prospering in today's economy to contribute more.”
Patrick Bresette, of the think-tank Demos, added: “A superficial reading of the outcome might suggest that this vote in favor of taxes on high incomes and corporations is merely an example of populist anger at the wealthy and big business. But the story of success on Tuesday is richer than this analysis…. In the months leading up to the vote … [a deep coalition of] individuals, advocates and organizations made a compelling and affirmative case for the role of government in Oregon. This is the lesson that other states should learn.”
Mobilizing the Majority
Converting popular support for public services into actual policy victories takes smart organizing. In order to get past fear-mongering, antigovernment rhetoric, people have to be mobilized.
In Oregon, the mobilization was rooted in a process that took over a decade. “In the 1990's, politics was an afterthought for us, but that started to change,” Towers says. “In 2000, there was a dramatic shift in understanding how political engagement could be linked to supporting and building strength for workers trying to build a better lives for themselves through their unions. We finally discovered as an international union that organizing and politics had to be two sides of the same coin.”
Union activists reached out to community allies, building a deep coalition that had a vision for progressive change that was bigger than the day-to-day priorities of any one organization. This allowed the groups to collectively engage a much larger constituency than they would have been able to alone.
When they then turned to electoral politics, the activists worked to rethink their model for political action, recreating themselves as both a year-round political force and a partner in governing, rather than as an ATM for candidates who become fair-weather friends during election cycles but then distance themselves from social movements once elected.
SEIU and their allies aspired to engage elected politicians before, during and after they actually made it into office. A big part of this approach was connecting political leaders directly with union members and other community members who were able to speak firsthand about the economic difficulties they face. “We work really hard to exercise power by getting our members in front of elected officials so members can tell their stories,” Towers says. “For first-time candidates, we hold forums where our members run them, and the candidates listen to their stories rather than the other way around.”
Once elected officials take office, an ongoing relationship with grassroots community and labor activists has an important effect. A connection with everyday realities helps prevent political leaders from being seduced by political rhetoric that suggests that the public wants to “starve the beast” of government. Instead, progressive movements create the space for elected officials to be able to vote their consciences, changing the tone in the state legislature and opening the discussion to allow for solutions to tight budgets beyond fixes like brutal austerity.
When it came to the 2010 ballot initiatives, the community-labor coalition pursued this conversation on a broader level. They mobilized thousands of concerned individuals for phone banking and door-knocking, putting volunteers in direct conversation with their neighbors. Think tanks such as Demos augmented the coalition and assisted in developing effective messaging that emphasized the common good. As Bresette states:
“Getting the public to support tax increases requires more than pointing a finger at someone else who should pay. It requires reconnecting taxes to their purposes. The public works team at Demos spent a good deal of time in Oregon in the fall and winter working with a number of key campaign supporters. We helped them think about ways to engage the public in the larger public purposes that were at stake, not just the particulars of the tax package.”
In the end, the result was a decisive margin of victory that placed Oregon lawmakers in a very different position with regard to handling the difficult economy than their counterparts in states where revenue has been slashed and government vilified. Moreover, for activists, the maintenance of a year-round political program has continued to yield results. The same labor-community coalitions played a vital role in securing the margin of difference in Governor John Kitzhaber's extremely narrow (48.7 percent to 48.3 percent) victory over a Republican rival in the November midterms.
Things in Oregon have turned out differently than in many places in the country not because the political climate in that state is exceptional or because conditions there are particularly favorable to progressives. In fact, prior to the 2010 victory, Oregon had a history of antitax votes, with residents capping property taxes and repeatedly rejecting efforts to raise the state income tax or create a sales tax.
Yet, across the nation, polls show that while people may favor reducing government spending in the abstract, when it comes to the actual programs that might be affected, they prioritize public services over deficit reduction. In a recently released survey by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Republicans said that the government should focus on reducing the deficit. Yet when asked about specific programs, a majority of respondents, including Republicans, rejected spending decreases for programs such as education, Social Security, agriculture and roads and bridges. Our challenge is turning the voices that we don't hear regularly in the media into a vocal majority.
When we allow Republicans on the national level to set up the debate as one of saving money versus spending money, we lose. Drawing from the Oregon example, we must approach the discussion in a different way, creating a conversation about what is really worth paying for.
Furthermore, we must deliberately endeavor to learn from our successes, examining and holding up situations like Oregon's. As Towers argues, “Learning needs to be built into the DNA, or our organizations, so that we can learn from others that are enjoying success, and so that we export it to other places. States are laboratories that can be replicated nationally.”
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