Occupy Wall Street focused attention on one conception of class conflict-the super wealthy against the 99%. As successful as OWS was in spreading its message, almost no legislative agenda emerged.
The Tea Party focused its attention on the tax burdens faced by the middle classes and the upper middle classes. The villain for the Tea Party is not the .5% who earn over $3 Million every year, but the firefighters and policemen and teachers who protect us and educate our children. The battle the Tea Party is fighting is against a vision of big government that is part reality and part fantasy.
The Tea Party’s battle goes to the heart of who we are as a nation and it is less a battle between rich and poor than between progressives and conservatives. The Tea Party has given laser-like focus to what will now be a defining battle of the decade: Is the government going to continue to play a leading role in providing our health care, protecting the environment, and supporting our industries.
After Tuesday, one must face the facts that the Tea Party is winning in the democratic forum. Four votes Tuesday make this clear.
•Scott Walker’s victory in the recall election in Wisconsin proves that even in democratic states with a historically pro-union electorate, the anger against public unions is palpable.
•Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved referendum that not only cut future pension benefits for public workers but more radically cut pensions for current workers as well.
•The City Council in Stockton, California granted the City Manager authority to declare bankruptcy—Stockton would be the largest city ever in the US to have done so.
It is important to note that the battle is not over welfare or even over healthcare. Scratch beneath the surface and the Tea Party is not anti-welfare. In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, Harvard scholars who have interviewed adherents of the new insurgency in different regions of the country, report that:
83% of South Dakota Tea Party supporters said they would prefer to “leave alone” or “increase” Social Security benefits, while 78% opposed cuts to Medicare prescription drug coverage, and 79% opposed cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals…. 56% of the Tea Party supporters surveyed did express support for “raising income taxes by 5% for everyone whose income is over a million dollars a year.
While the Tea Party activists are eager to shrink government, they do not seem to welcome a decimation of the welfare state. If the battle is not over a minimal welfare state, it is a battle over public sector unions.
Why are public sector unions so important?
My colleague and Arendt Center friend, Walter Russell Mead, articulates an answer. At the core of the democratic left for decades has been the “belief in a strong, well-funded state.” The many diverse environmentalists, egalitarians, and progressives have various agendas, but all depend on a vibrant bureaucracy to guide and rationalize public and private life. Some want government to fund schools and universities; other want government to save the environment; another group wants government to guarantee racial, sexual, gender, and religious equality; many want government to provide universal healthcare or guarantee a college education to anyone who wants it. In all these cases, what progressives want, in Mead’s words:
Is control of the progressive, bureaucratic government machinery of the 21st century [which] is both the prize for whose control they struggle and the agent they hope will make their dreams real.
Mead encapsulates why the battle over public sector unions is so crucial at this juncture:
A Democratic Party dominated by its public sector unions is a party married to government and to bureaucracy. To the degree that the public unions shape its agenda, the Democrats become a lobby for the servants of the state. For the unions who represent its employees, the bureaucratic, civil service state is a solution permanently in search of new problems to solve and new worlds to conquer. The power of the public unions within the party pulls Democrats much farther to the left than they would otherwise go.
This is one reason the Wisconsin reforms stimulated such a powerful and united emotional wave of push back from virtually every section of the left. The threat to the public unions isn’t just a threat to a powerful source of funding for left-liberal candidates and to strong organizations with political experience and muscle; it’s a threat to the heart of the left coalition and to the structures that give the left much of its power in Democratic and therefore in national politics.
But the dominance of the public unions in the left had consequences for the left itself — bad ones. In contemporary America, the public sector unions are essentially a conservative constituency. That is, their core goal is to get more resources in order to fight all but superficial change in the structures their members inhabit. They want ever growing subsidies to the postal service, the public school system, the colleges and universities, even to health care — but they do not want the kind of reforms that could make these institutions more efficient, more productive, more serviceable.
Illustration by Sean Delonas
Mead offers wise counsel. One can of course believe that the reason for the victories in Wisconsin, San Jose, Stockton, and San Diego is simply the deep pockets of the Koch brothers. And those pockets are deep and deceptive. But money alone does not explain the voters’ abandonment of public unions and the progressive model. The nation is seriously rethinking the role of the state and the public in our lives. We should be thinking with them. You can read more of Mead’s post here.