In 1933, Chico Marx quipped: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

In 2010 the same applies to Americans’ experience of government. While 61% are satisfied in our personal experiences of government, two-thirds of us have little or no confidence in government. We believe memes, not our own eyes. (More)

What Americans Want, Part III – Sharing with Fred

This week Morning Feature considers a July report by the Center for American Progress titled What Americans Want. Thursday we looked at Americans’ confidence in government to solve problems. Yesterday we examine “Doing What Works,” CAP’s strategies for reform. Today we discuss how to share these ideas with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Chico Marx’s line from the film Duck Soup is often misattributed to Groucho – perhaps because Chico was dressed as Groucho in that scene – and often misquoted as “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?” Like most classic quips, its humor lies in a kernel of truth. Just as we may falsely generalize from our own experience, we may also falsely dismiss our experience when it conflicts with a dominant cultural narrative of The Way Things Are.

At BPI and in Morning Feature we talk a lot about Fred Whispering: face-to-face progressive advocacy with friends, neighbors, coworkers, people in checkout lines and waiting rooms, and other personal conversations. Advertisers call it buzz, and encourage companies to recruit “buzz leaders” to talk up their products. It works because we’re more prone to trust information we receive from someone we know or at least someone with whom we can converse and ask questions. Fred Whispering is buzz leading for progressive values, issues, and policies.

Does our government work?

The Reagan era mantra – “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” – has become a dominant cultural narrative in the U.S. Reinforced by endless stories of government flaws and mistakes, rarely contradicted except to extol the virtues of law enforcement and the military, it created the widely-accepted meme that the only thing government can do well is protect us from “evil doers.” With our economy sputtering and so many people hurting, I was not surprised by CAP’s finding that two-thirds of Americans have “just a little” or “no” confidence in government.

But I was surprised by their finding that 61% of us were satisfied in our own recent experiences with government. I’ve usually been satisfied by my own experiences with government. When I’ve sought help, I’ve usually received courteous responses and found the help I was seeking. If the first person I spoke with couldn’t help directly, he or she could and usually did help me find someone who would. I thought my personal experiences were exceptional, but the CAP survey suggests they were typical.

How do we reconcile CAP’s findings that 61% of us are satisfied in our personal experiences with government, yet 65% of us have “just a little” or “no” confidence that government can help solve problems? In part the answers may lie in another finding of the CAP study: most of us want government to do more on problems like renewable energy, education, poverty, and health care. Some of the “government can’t” response may reflect “government isn’t (yet).” And some may have been the specific wording of the CAP question:

When the government in Washington decides to solve a problem, how much confidence do you have that the problem actually will be solved—a lot, some, just a little, or none at all?

The question implies a complete solution. For example, President Johnson’s Great Society programs were intended to fight poverty. Yet poverty still exists. Ergo, the government didn’t solve the problem. Except the Great Society programs did cut the poverty rate in half, from its historical norm of 25% to an average 13% since 1970. “We could do more” is not the same as “We have done nothing.”

But much of the disconnect is probably that Fred feels as I did: satisfied with his or her personal experience of government, yet convinced that personal experience is an exception to the media meme that “government is the problem.”

“Maybe the media should listen to you.”

That offers a useful starting point in Fred Whispering: ask Fred about his or her own recent experience with government. If the CAP findings are correct, more often than not Fred’s response will be positive.

“So the government person you spoke with was courteous?” Yes.

“And you found answers to your questions?” Yes.

“Then maybe the media are wrong about government. Maybe the media should listen to you.”

Fred Whispering begins with identifying shared values. One of the core values we discuss at BPI is “We need good government,” policies that help us solve problems or at least don’t make our problems worse. Another basic human value is the need to be heard, and that’s why Fred Whispering starts with active listening. Fred’s personal experience does matter, especially when most Americans share it. “Government can do better” is not the same as “government has done nothing well.

We should listen to Fred. So should the media. And we should tell Fred that, and build on Fred’s personal experience of government doing well.

Ultimately, that’s what most Americans want.

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Happy Saturday!