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Yet More Evidence That Americans Aren't a Bunch of Social Darwinists

David Callahan

Watching conservatives in Congress beat up on the poor is enough to shake your faith in the American people. They elected this crew after all, and while gerrymandering may explain some of what's going on, there's no doubt that the House majority speaks for a fair number of people.  

Still, that doesn't mean that even those Americans are nearly as cold-hearted as the conservative leaders they have empowered. Consider a new poll just out on unemployment insurance, which Republicans have been trying to cut for the past few years despite an economy that remains so bad that three unemployed people compete for every job. Starting January 1, conservatives will finally get their way, and 1.3 million people will be booted off long-term unemployment. 

So what does the American public think about this? According to the new poll, by Public Policy Polling, "surveys in 4 key swing Congressional districts (CA-31, CO-6, IL-13 and MI-1), as well as Speaker John Boehner’s home district, find overwhelming bipartisan opposition to cutting off extended unemployment benefits at the end of this year." Two thirds of voters support continuing extended benefits, including a slim majority of Republicans and a solid majority of Independents. 

This isn't the first poll that has found opposition to cutting long-term benefits. And while another recent poll found less opposition to such cuts, it's clear that a majority of Americans don't share the tough worldview that blames the unemployed for their own problems. For instance, the other new poll found that just 35 percent respondents thought that most unemployed people could find jobs if they wanted to. Only 27 percent thought that people who'd been unemployed for over 6 months shouldn't get jobless benefits. 

And you have to wonder about even these numbers: Would a third of Americans still blame the unemployed if they turned off Fox News and learned that, statistically, there just aren't enough jobs to go around? Hopefully not.

There is no doubt that Americans have harsher views about economic life than people anywhere else in the advanced world. That's a product of our past legacy of being a frontier society and a place enthralled by the myth of boundless opportunity for any individual who works hard. It's also a product of our racial heritage, and a deep resistance of white America to join in social solidarity with non-whites -- a resistance that's made creating a modern social welfare state here very difficult. 

But even we Americans have limits to our harshness. A majority of us simply don't want to cut lifelines for those most desperate. And, who knows, just maybe that majority will be heard more clearly in the not-so-distant electoral future. As the Public Policy Polling report states: 

Representatives who vote to cut off extended unemployment benefits could pay a price at the polls next year. In all four of the swing districts we looked at voters say they would be less likely to vote for the Republican incumbent by at least a 9 point margin next year if they cast such a vote. Additionally the independent voters who are so key to these Congressmen’s survival say in each district that they would consider a vote to cut off unemployment a reason to vote for someone else next year.
This would be a case of democracy working as it should: to express the will of the people.