The Right Opinion

'They Won't Care Till They're Affected'

By Peggy Noonan · Oct. 8, 2011

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 and pushing in a tug of war, but they are dancing on the precipice.


View all comments


J Henry Jr said:

'What do you want Washington to do? From Iowa: "Fix it."'Isn't that part of the problem? Washington never fixes anything, they only create ever widening vicious circles. Washington creates a new problem and then they "fix" it by creating more problems, which then also have to be "fixed." GOOOH has the right idea, it's a shame it isn't really catching on.

Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 12:46 PM

bluecollarbytes said:

So Republicans shall lie down with Democrats and 'the good of the country' shall reign, just like it did in the first couple-o-days after 9/11. naw...

Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 2:14 PM

sleepless in the NW said:

It amazes me that these women put the blame on Wall Street when it was and is the government who writes the rules, creates the tax loop holes and lines their pockets with lobbyists dollars which allows the crony capitalism to continue. If our politicians were not whores to big business, there would be far greater equity across the board. What are the chances of convincing "public servants" in D.C. to stop this practice of selling their political clout to the highest bidder? Probably not great.

Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 11:42 AM

CA Conserative said:

J Henry Jr,I usually agree with your assessment that government can't fix problems but in the big picture they have nearly unlimited ability to do so at this time. Dropping regulations, lowering taxes, eliminating trade barriers, cutting spending, phasing out "entitlements," simplify tax codes, etc. Basically getting out of the way of free enterprise will allow us to solve our own problems.

Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Abu Nudnik said:

Teaching her children to collect aluminum cans? Are you sure you weren't at the zoo?

Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 2:47 PM

Tex Horn said:

"Who are the culprits behind our economic calamity? " Well, for one, I'd say that this bunch of Walmart weenies are part of the culprits. They whine about their circumstances and the state of the economy, all the while shopping at Walmart, one of the largest importers of Chinese goods in the U.S. Walmart is the small business killer in the towns they invade. These "moms" are aiding and abetting the Chinese in ruining our economy, in taking our jobs, and assisting in the Chinese influence in the world. In case you haven't noticed, Walmart-shopping moms, China is our enemy. But, like most Americans, go ahead, sell your souls for the lowest price.

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Ernest Wilson in Maryland said:

I am amazed at the dishonesty that permits this downturn be blamed on the banks & Wallstreet. Does no-one remember the accusations that the banks were racist because they would not make substandard loans? We forget Barney Frank & Chris Dodd assurring everyone that the real estate markets were fine! Were the lower standards required by Fanny Mae and Fredie Mac? Did a democratic government cause this through the Community Reinvestment Act that could have shut down a bank who opposed this idiocy? Did the Bush administration foster it by weak opposition?Did the large money-center banks actually save the system by bailing out people like Country-wide? Have the banks repaid the "bail-out" loans with interest? Government caused this mess not private industry and people as smart as Peggy Noonan know that.

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 12:55 PM

Richard Ryan said:

Tex,when you`re struggling to make ends meet,you have to shop for the cheapest item.Also,WalMart gave my son,who had just graduated from high school, a job in the stock room at a new store here in Lamar,Missouri two weeks before it opened.They let him work his way up from stock boy to eventually become store manager.They have also given several hundred people in this small Missouri town employment. You, and people like you can knock WalMart all you want,but you`re wasting your breath with me. I also remember when we had 5 small family owned grocery stores on our local town square.They were eventually run out of business by guess who.That`s right,super markets owned by out of town people.What goes around,comes around.Times and things change.We now have a global economy,and even though I don`t like it,that`s just the way it is,and it ain`t gonna change.Richard RyanLamar,Missouri - Birthplace of Harry S Truman

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 1:26 PM

nk said:

Just had to get a final barb in at Palin. Peggy, we used to like you.Do you have a link to this video...would like to watch it.

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 2:40 PM

JTG in Indiana said:

Democrats and Republicas thinking alike in unison? Now there's a stretch.

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 3:10 PM

Case Ace said:

Tex, you want to rail at bogeymen in faraway places when the biggest reasons for job loss is non-competive corporate tax rates and regulation which heaps fees and onerous paperwork on top of normal production costs.

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 4:03 PM

Tex Horn said:

@ Richard Ryan: At the risk of wasting my breath, congratulations on your son's advancement at the Chinese store. I'm a man of modest means, and I don't shop at Walmart for the reasons stated, nor will I ever. I can find food and clothing made in the U.S. at prices competitive with Walmart, without searching very hard. I suspect you could too. It may not be convenient like Walmart, where you can find everything you may need at one stop, but it can be done. We all make our choices, and frankly, some of mine are made for political reasons, like this one. You, my friend, have the freedom to make your choice, at least for the time being. Pretty soon the government may dictate that we have to buy Chinese goods, like they dictated Obamacare.@ Case Ace: You make a good point. Perhaps I should have stated that Walmart/Chinese store was ONE of the "bogeymen." There are certainly enough things going on here to ruin our economy, in addition to unfair trading practices with the Chinese. Perhaps one day the Congress will grow some balls deal with the large tariff differences such that we might trade goods "made in America" to the Chinese, who usually only buy up our debt; and, oh yes, buy our companies (along with the jobs).

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 5:10 PM

Greg Welch said:

Peggy LEADING FROM BEHIND is how I would describe you and all the fine editorials you and your friends wrote for OBUMMER in the 2008 campaign. I predicted this JIMY CARTER WANNABE back in 2007. He was ill prepared then and now even more ill prepared. he has isolated himself except for his tiny leftist inner circle. what about the American publics inability to understand the greatness of the man they call The One, the Messiah, the one Dem. president to make Jimy peanuts Carter look good. As Pres. Ronald Reagan used to say back then, " There you go again. "

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 9:55 PM

MZR said:

No one is entirely to blame. The problem is our system which used to be called Capitalism is broken. It is now "Crapitalism. Instead of our cultural values dictating our economics, it is our economics that dictates our cultural values. And because "Profit" is the only thing that matters in "Crapitalism, we are seeing the result of a deterioration of our moral compass.We need to reset the "system".

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 5:14 PM

MZR said:

No one is entirely to blame. The problem is our system which used to be called Capitalism is broken. It is now "Crapitalism. Instead of our cultural values dictating our economics, it is our economics that dictates our cultural values. And because "Profit" is the only thing that matters in "Crapitalism, we are seeing the result of a deterioration of our moral compass.We need to reset the "system".

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 5:24 PM