Monday, February 28, 2011

Egypt, Wisconsin

The Canadian alt-rock band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet once recorded a zippy little song called “Egypt, Texas”; listening that song recently, I wondered, could the same type of protests that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt and now threaten to drive Gadhafi out of Libya happen in the United States? Far-fetched? Perhaps, but as recently as December 2010, who would have thought that we'd see popular uprisings in some of the Middle East/North Africa's staunchest autocracies? The protests had a common theme: the masses rising up against a government wholly unresponsive to their needs and uncaring about their plight. And though that lens, the ongoing protests in Wisconsin start to look remarkably familiar.

For more than a week, thousands (at times tens of thousands) have rallied in Madison, Wisconsin to speak out against Gov. Scott Walker's plan to impose not only cuts to the salaries and pensions of the state's teachers, but also a plan to essentially strip their union of its collective bargaining rights. Since the union had already agreed to the monetary cuts Walker's attack on collective bargaining rights can only been seen as what it truly is: a naked attempt at union-busting wearing a cloak of fiscal responsibility, a fact that Walker inadvertently confirmed to a journalist posing as one of his primary backers, billionaire businessman Scott Koch, the faux-Koch replied by saying: “Well, I tell you what, Scott: once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time,” to which Walker laughed in reply. Walker is not alone, governors, Republican governors, in New Jersey, Ohio and Indiana to name a few states, have launched their own attacks against the unions, blaming them for their respective states' financial plights (in New Jersey at least, the real culprit is more than a decade of fiscal mismanagement by the state government). It is shaping up as the Republicans final assault in their decades-long War on the Working Class, a war that began in earnest under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – consider for a moment that the average inflation-adjusted wage has not increased since the Reagan era. The roots of this conflict though reach back even further, to the opposition against Franklin Roosevelt's “New Deal” package of social programs, something today's era of conservatives mark as the point from which we “lost” the Constitution (for a concise treatment of the conservative “Constitution in exile” movement, see the current issue of The Week magazine).

Strict conservatives see union rights, the minimum wage, environmental and labor protection laws and a host of other social programs as blatantly unconstitutional; their goal is to repeal them. All of them. In the process, they hope to turn the country back to the glory days of the 90s, the 1890s that is; a time known as the Gilded Age for its ostentatious concentrations of wealth thanks to laissez-faire government policies. Of course the 1890s were also a time of grinding poverty for the majority of Americans, who toiled six or seven days a week (children included) for wages that barely, and often did not, provide a living wage for themselves and their families. Today were seeing many of the same wild concentrations of wealth – today individuals in the top 1% income bracket control 43% of the nation’s wealth, though we still have the labor and environmental protections won over the course of decades in place, for now.

Sadly the Democrats in recent years have offered little in the way of opposition. So effectively have conservative voices dominated the economic debate that the Democrats today largely go out of their way to show they can be just as hard on the poor as their Republican counterparts. Case in point, President Obama's recent cuts to home heating assistance programs, since, he argued, fuel prices have dropped lessening the need for assistance. This may be true of natural gas prices, but in the cold Northeast, many houses are burn heating oil, not natural gas, and heating oil prices have been steadily climbing. It was an act of either utter, or willful, ignorance on the part of the President, but also one that shows how out of touch he is with the needs of the low-income population in his own country.

In short, America is coming to have the same type of out-of-touch government, which focuses its efforts not on meeting the needs of the masses but in serving the desires of the elites that we saw in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, etc. Unfortunately, the only mass movement we've seen in the United States recently has been the faux-populism of the Tea Party: a collection (I think) of well-meaning people suffering with the economic realities of America in the 21st century, who have unfortunately been taken in by a collection of shills for the nation's elites; for example much of the early organization of “Tea Party” events came from Freedom Works, a DC-based lobbying firm run by former House Republican Dick Armey – not much populism there. The hidden hand of the elites behind the Tea Party, working in concert with compliant media outlets like Fox News, have skillfully managed to conflate the concerns of the average citizen involved in Tea Party rallies about the direction of their country is headed with the conservatives “Constitution in exile” agenda: that a cadre of “liberal elitists” is trying to “dismantle” the Constitution and “take their country away from them.” So Tea Party activists fight to dismantle the very protections that insure they at least make a living wage, that they have clean air to breathe and water to drink and that their children are ensured a basic public education. George Orwell would be proud.

That is why it is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the protests going on in Wisconsin, and that have been bubbling up in other states, since this is true populism at work: Americans lobbying their government for redress of issues affecting their lives. So far Gov. Scott Walker has taken the Hosni Mubarak approach of ignoring their demands, while former US Senator Rick Santorum went the Gadhafi route and compared the Wisconsin protesters to drug addicts.

It is quite likely that Gov. Walker's ham-handed, billionaire-fueled attempt at union-busting will prevail in Wisconsin; the only thing preventing it is a boycott by Democratic lawmakers, hardly a sustainable situation. When that happens it will be a setback not only for labor, but for small-“d”-democracy in the country as a whole as tens of thousands of workers will have ample proof that their government does not have their interests at heart. More will become disillusioned, more will turn away from a political system that relies on the participation of its citizens; remember that demos is Greek for “the people”. What we've learned in this winter of protests in the Arab world is that people will live for a long time under oppressive, non-responsive regimes, until one magical day, for one random reason, they do not any longer – the wave of uprisings in the Arab world were all sparked by the suicide of one young fruit vendor in Tunisia. And every day our government grows a little more unresponsive, a little more indifferent to the plight of its people is one more day we move closer to Egypt, Texas; and Egypt, Wisconsin; and Egypt, Ohio...
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