When five Lincoln residents gathered for the latest NET News Voter Voices discussion, it wasn’t difficult to get a wide range of opinions. These were all regular patrons of the Lincoln City Libraries, and they came ready to discuss what issues they felt needed additional discussion in the congressional and presidential campaigns.
What surprised us was how quickly the groups focus turned to foreign policy and America’s role in the world. It’s not a forgotten issue nationally. Polling done this fall by the Pew Research Center showed while the vast majority of Americans place the economy as their first choice on the list of essential issues, six out of every ten voters also feel foreign policy will influence their votes.
Topics in our Voter Voices discussion ranged from trade policy to military spending.
Anne Callahan, a 93-year-old former globe-trotting PanAm stewardess, arrived with a bold-faced Romney-Ryan button pinned to her sweater. She felt strongly the days of America’s generous foreign aid payments should end.
“We need to look at how much money we are giving to these countries. We are giving money to 158 countries,” Callahan said. “Some of them are okay to give money to and some are not.”
That got a quick reaction from 25-year-old Charles Holm, seated to her left. Holm is a graduate student in history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and former union organizer. He told the group the United States should be admired for its humanitarian aid but it needed to stop spending as much on overseas military actions in the war on terror.
“We are constantly drone-attacking countries like Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and we have continuing military aid support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and that is billions and billions of dollars,” Holm said. He added those expenditures “far exceed the amounts of money we send to countries in Africa to give them HIV medication and research money, so I think the concentration should be on our military funding.”
The recent flare-up in the Middle East also concerned longtime Lincoln resident Dau Nguyen. He felt policymakers have been overlooking the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Nguyen, an immigrant from Vietnam, maintains a strong interest in our policies in Asia and China specifically.
“The relationship between the United States and China has to be looked into very carefully, otherwise someday we will wake up and China will take over,” Nguyen said.
China, he stated, not only is a military threat but its global economic power needs to be kept in check. He sees symptoms in low-cost goods manufactured in China and readily available in American stores.
“Right now a lot of Chinese goods come into the United States (and they) carry poison,” Nguyen said. He and his family won’t buy some Chinese imports. “If you go to Wal-Mart, you go to other stores, they sell the Chinese products, and we try to stay away from them because it’s very dangerous to your health.”
Wayne Anderson sat across from Nguyen and nodded. Anderson is retired and since the last presidential election switched his voter registration from the Democrat Party to independent.
“Aren’t you talking about multi-nationals who hire the cheap labor? They are essentially slaves in China,” Anderson said. “Wal-Mart was just designed to bring the cheap junk over. You could almost call Wal-Mart 'China-Mart.'”
Even with so many goods coming from China, Anderson said he feels the United States has “a productive capacity here that is unbelievable, still.”
“But we don’t have the jobs, do we?” Anne Callahan quickly responded.
“The jobs are going to China,” Anderson replied.
According to Callahan the blame for those lost jobs doesn’t lie with China or the multi-national corporations, but with organized labor.
“A lot of our companies have gone over there because labor is cheaper,” Callahan said. “I think a lot of the Unions have a lot to do with this. Our people have to have so much more money to make these products so they have taken their companies overseas because labor is cheaper.”
That got a quick response from Charles Holm, the former union organizer.
“It’s not the Chinese workers who took our jobs, it’s the American business owners who shipped them over there,” Holm said. “They didn’t want a well-paid, middle-class, unionized work force producing those same goods here and then they try to rally up hate in the American workforce against the Chinese worker who is not to blame for this problem."
Listening intently to the exchange was Katherine Flattery. She assists refugees relocating to Lincoln through Catholic Social Services. The sharp exchanges heard during the discussion reminded her in the two election cycles she’s voted in she’s only heard “very black and white” debates over issues causing her to look for alternatives beyond the Republican and Democratic parties.
“I know a lot of people I have talked with are looking for different parties, third parties or the Green Party, because they feel a disconnect with the American people,” Flattery said. “There is less gravitation to that moderate group. I don’t think either side has been very good about being that middle ground for voters.”
With such a range of opinions and backgrounds we also asked where this group got information about the candidates and issues this year.
“ABC. NBC. Fox. It’s all garbage,” said Wayne Anderson. He collects information from a variety of blogs and websites not operated by traditional media outlets.
Anne Callahan used to be a regular subscriber to print newspapers, but these days she only reads it once a week when she donates plasma at the blood bank. The rest of the time she told the group she gets her news from Fox News, “because they tell us the truth.”
An entire range of traditional and non-traditional media interests Flattery, an avid user of Twitter.
“I follow the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BBC, and Fox and NBC and the conglomerates, so I am probably over-informed” using their 144 character bulletins.
“You can click through to the articles so if there is something that gets my attention I can go look at it.”
History student Chris Holm supplements what he reads online with his own research.
“I go to the library,” Holm said. “You can get newspapers, periodicals, journals and really if you want to understand what is happening today, you need to read books. History, political commentaries.”
This was the one, Anne, his political opposite, agreed with him. “There are a lot of good political books out these days,” she said.
The Voter Voices panelist who relied the most on traditional media was Dau Nguyen. “I read the Lincoln Journal Star every day. I watch the internet, and I watch TV once in a while,” he said.
He was also the only person in the group who, in a unique way becomes a source of information in the community. Nguyen hosts a weekly program on non-commercial radio station KZUM in his native Vietnamese language. He distills the news from the English language media which he believes is important to his listeners.
Katherine Flattery, a social worker in Lincoln, Neb., shared her opinions as part of the NET News "Voter Voices" project. Her video was recorded at Lincoln’s Bennett Martin Library.