Saturday, March 12, 2011

Walker's War on Wisconsin (UPDATES below)

What can one say about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker? He's shown himself to be a preening, self-important peddler of poppycock, a wannabe Mussolini of the Midwest whose efforts to centralize an extraordinary amount of government power in his own hands have made him a rock star on the Republican right. That last only sounds paradoxical to those who don't pay attention.

Walker came to power alongside a rubber-stamp Republican majority in the state legislature, and he opened his administration in January by pressing through the body a series of fiscally ruinous policies, including huge tax cuts for the wealthy and for big business. Having added hundreds of millions of dollars worth of red ink to the state's finances, he then asserted that looming red ink meant the state faced a financial "crisis," and insisted it called for drastic and immediate measures to combat.

As it turned out, of course, the major aspects of his "Budget Repair Bill" didn't have much to do with the state's finances. It was mostly just about centralizing a great deal of power in Walker's hands. Among other things, it would have empowered him to sell off state-owned energy facilities to his Big Money cronies at will, without even any competitive bidding, and would have exempted such decisions from laws regarding public interest considerations. It would have removed from the legislature control over Medicaid, granting Walker's administration the dictatorial authority to raise premiums, limit program eligibility, and change reimbursement rates at will (Dennis Smith, Walker's appointee to head the agency charged with administering Medicaid, is an advocate for states leaving the program entirely). Most notoriously, it would break the state's contracts with public employee unions, cut their benefits, and strip from most of them their collective bargaining rights.

This last item caused quite a furor. Walker badly underestimated how unpopular it would prove to be, but he definitely knew he had a stinker on his hands, and he and the Republicans initially tried to jam it through with minimal debate before anyone noticed. He unveiled the bill, there was a single public hearing regarding it, a single committee meeting, and the Republican majority would have passed the bill the next day in a matter of minutes, except 14 Democratic legislators literally left the state in order to prevent them from having the Senate quorum necessary to do so.

The result was a stand-off that went on for weeks.

Walker was unyielding. Every time the absent senators would try to negotiate any sort of deal with him, his response was to call a press conference and insult them, while launching petty vindictive attacks on them through the legislature--trying to take away their parking, their pay, and their office expenses. More seriously, he and the Repubs tried to have them arrested for "contempt," in direct violation of the state constitution.

Walker insisted that the anti-union elements of his bill were absolutely necessary to deal with the state's fiscal "crisis." It became a mantra. It was a matter of public record that Wisconsin's future projected budget shortfalls--the portions not attributable to Walker's own policies--had nothing to do with the unions' benefits. They were a consequence of several items, primarily projected Medicaid expenses. Still, Walker repeated his mantra, and apparently hoped people would pay little attention to details. The unions had immediately agreed to the actual fiscal elements of Walker's proposal--the cuts in their benefits. Still, Walker repeated his mantra. Those concessions were always on the table, and at any point in this protracted drama, Walker could have simply taken them and declared victory. He refused to take "yes" for an answer because his purpose, contrary to his mantra, was to bust the unions, and he had no intention of accepting a negotiated settlement that left them their rights. Republicans in over a dozen states, in fact, suddenly simultaneously decided they also needed to go after their state's unions in the same way. Still, Walker repeated his mantra, apparently expecting us to accept this as merely an incredible coincidence.

The public didn't bite.

Instead, waves of protesters filled the state capitol. The demonstrations were scrupulously peaceful, but Walker ordered the capitol locked down anyway. A court ordered his administration to reopen it; Walker simply ignored the order, and circulated false stories in the press about the protesters causing millions of dollars in damage (in reality, there had been no real damage).

In order to finally pass the portion of the bill stripping the unions of their collective bargaining rights, the Repubs--after all that mantra repetition--finally had to admit it wasn't a fiscal measure at all, which had the benefit of removing the need for a senate quorum. They held a brief meeting with only two hours notice--an apparent violation of Wisconsin law--and passed the measure a few minutes later, inadvertently offering up the perfect footnote to the whole sordid affair by immediately arranging to attend a high-dollar fundraising dinner being thrown in their honor by lobbyists in Washington D.C..

To bask in the presence of their purchased puppets, these corrupt lobbyists will offer up a minimum $1,000 donation just to get in the door; lots of love, with lots of zeroes attached. The reaction of the larger public, however, has been quite different. After only two months in office, Walker's approval rating is in free-fall--down around 40%. Big majorities are now telling pollsters that, if the 2010 election was held again today, they'd vote against him, and by this time next year, he will--courtesy of Wisconsin's recall laws--most likely be reduced to a very-highly-paid Fox News special commentator, touring the brain-dead hemisphere of the talking-head circuit as a right-wing martyr to mean ol' labor unions, while a lot of the Repubs who backed him in the legislature will be unemployed. That may be the happiest ending Wisconsin can manage.

Meanwhile, the national Republican party has embraced the Mussolini of the Midwest as a hero, and seem to have decided they want what he's done to Wisconsin to be both their model and the public face of their party. Repubs, in legislatures across the country, continue their efforts to centralize power and destroy democratic--and Democratic--institutions.

Stay tuned.



UPDATE (12 March, 2011) -- I've always found, in the various theories of liberal democracy, much merit in the notion that, when a government is elected, it earns the right to enact its program. In spite of what the Scott Walkers of the world believe, we don't elect dictatorships in the U.S., and the minority should get some concessions along the way, roughly equivalent to its size, but democracy has no meaning if a majority is prevented from governing at all. We've seen this at the federal level. Democrats won the White House and huge majorities in congress in 2008, but were effectively prevented from governing by a Republican minority that systematically abused the process and, in essence, completely nullified that entire election.

The Wisconsin situation isn't even close to being analogous to this, because Democrats, there, were objecting to items in a single bill, rather than to everything the Republicans had proposed, and Walker was refusing a reasonable compromise that fully addressed the concerns he feigned in public regarding state finances while pushing for a measure to which the public was overwhelmingly opposed

Still, the Democratic legislators' exit from the state in order to prevent that bill from going forward is a use of process to foil an elected majority, and merits some scrutiny.


UPDATE (8 April, 2011) -- The potential violation of Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law in passing the union-busting bill resulted in a court injunction against publishing or enforcing the law. Wisconsin law requires that the Secretary of State publish any law in the official newspaper before it can be enforced. Walker and Republican Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald decided they could just ignore this law and the injunction, as well; they had the law published by the Legislative Reference Bureau, then publicly declared it had been legally published, was in effect, and that it would now be enforced. Rather than simply holding these clowns in contempt, the judge in the case issued a second order tersely reemphasizing that publication and enforcement of the law has been enjoined. Walker finally backed down, but the entire incident is emblematic of his behavior throughout this ordeal.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Setting the Record Straight on "Jack-Booted Thugs"

I'm still not really up to writing much, or well, but an item over at Media Matters caught my eye tonight, and I felt compelled to offer some thoughts on it.

Adam Shah of Media Matters For America offers this as his set-up:
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre is the last person a responsible media outlet should have on its airwaves to comment on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). That's because LaPierre once referred to ATF agents as "jack-booted government thugs" and reportedly called for "lifting the assault weapons ban to even the odds in the struggle between ordinary citizens and 'jack-booted government thugs.'"
Shah's framing can be read in such a way as to suggest that anyone who would call government agents "jack-booted government thugs" is inherently nuts. The gripe I have with this is that government agents frequently are jack-booted thugs. That LaPierre said so isn't why his comments were problematic.

LaPierre is a reactionary who deals in the nuttiest sort of black-helicopter conspiracism. His rhetoric, offered in the 1990s, is indistinguishable from that of the militia movement that grew like a cancer in that same period, and it's this context that elevated his "jack-booted government thugs" comment from a truism to an eye-raiser.

But it takes some space to explain why.

The right is not, in fact, "anti-government." As much as the press and some liberal commentators love to use that phrase as shorthand, it's difficult to imagine a characterization that could more grossly misrepresent the politics of contemporary conservatism. There are many "schools" of conservatism in the U.S., of course, but the core of the conservative base, at present, is made up of what may fairly be described as self-obsessed authoritarians. They're very opposed to government that taxes them. They're very opposed to the small "d" democratic elements of government, those responsive to the public. When it comes to pursuing their own cherished goals, though--which usually involve maintaining the aristocratic prerogatives of The Powers That Be, aggressive militarism, and enforcing social homogeneity--no amount of government ever proves to be enough.

This conservative core isn't opposed to jack-booted thuggery on the part of government. Those on the right have, in fact, always supported such thuggery, nurtured it, enabled it, even demanded it, for the simple reason that government thuggery has, historically, almost always been aimed at the left or at other groups despised by the right (immigrants, racial minorities, etc.), and the conservatives have been (and are) its enthusiastic advocates as long as that's the case.

When LaPierre made his comments, on the other hand, the right was out of power, and the narrative had shifted. Suddenly, the story peddled to the nuts was that a democratic--and, more importantly, Democratic--government was out to get white, right-wing rednecks. This was a handy way of inflaming the bumpkins against the other party, but reflected no genuine concern about government abuses.[*] During the just-concluded Bush administration, when a real thug was running the government and asserting the power to ignore the law and the constitution at will, kidnap, torture, and even murder American citizens with no pretense of due process, and so on, the conservatives virtually worshiped government power and their Maximal Leader, and the militia culture and movement, which had made such a pretense of being centrally concerned about government abuses in the '90s (when abuses were relatively minor), all but disappeared. When Democrats rolled over Republicans in the 2008 elections, though, the right went back to criticizing government again, and the militia culture was suddenly back again with a vengeance.

Back in the 1990s, the federal action against the Koresh cult in Texas became the central organizing cause for militant reactionaries. The broad narrative of the event that evolved on the nut right was that the cult was merely an unthreatening church that was attacked and besieged by the government for no real reason, then, at the end, was maliciously burned alive for refusing to submit. None of this had much of a relationship to the truth, but it made for a nifty organizing tool for years.

LaPierre was opportunistically playing to this sentiment when he made his "jack-booted government thugs" comment. In the same letter in which he wrote those words, he even made explicit reference to the action against the Koresh cult, and, further, added

"Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens. Not today."

Of course, such a thing hadn't been "unthinkable" to left-wing political parties, the civil rights movement, radical groups, labor unions, anti-war groups, and more other non-conservative and anti-conservative groups than can be named--they'd been on the receiving end of government violence for over a century, by that point. It was only "unthinkable" to white Christian conservative good ol' boys who had never been subjected to it. LaPierre was part of a cadre of reactionaries who, for purposes of political expediency, was trying to make it thinkable to them. The world learned how thinkable some of them found it when a fertilizer bomb went off in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds.

I realize that's more of a mouthful, as explanations go, but the implication that condemning government thuggery is what makes LaPierre's comments reprehensible shouldn't be allowed to stand. They're reprehensible for entirely different reasons. Real government thuggery should always be condemned by every American worthy of the name.



[*] Back in the 1990s when LaPierre made his comment, the NRA was, in fact, trying to reinvent itself as a crime-fighting organization, circulating false "statistics" about how "soft on crime" America was, and advocating a "get tough" approach. In a word, thuggery.