I loved how close ally of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Rep. Paul Ryan, blurted out that Madison in recent days looked like Egypt. Realizing that made the protesters sound like the good guys, he tried to backtrack with something incoherent about meaning the violent protests there, but given that the only violence in Egypt was done by the government and Mubarak’s allies, he just dug himself a deeper hole.
The fact is that the pictures we are seeing and the story playing out in Wisconsin is like Egypt in some really important ways. The new mass militancy of union members, students, and other allies of the maligned teachers, social workers, cops, firefighters, and other public employees being attacked and threatened by the Governor is not a manufactured thing, it is a mass movement spreading like wildfire, building in momentum day by day. Blaming public employees for the state’s economic problems is like blaming foreign aid (less than 1 percent of the budget) for our federal budget deficit: the numbers don’t add up. And building an economic strategy around breaking unions, laying off more workers, driving down wages, depriving retirees of pensions, and forcing already hard-pressed workers to pay more out of pocket for health care is pure, unadulterated economic insanity. Taking money out of the economy and decimating a huge part of the middle class’ disposable income is not exactly a formula for stimulating a recovery.
The response to Gov. Walker’s insanity has been as inspiring as the protesters in Egypt, and it is a joy to see workers, students, and progressives of all stripes spontaneously say “NO!” in a very loud voice. In fact, it is clear that protesters in Wisconsin and Ohio were inspired by the Egyptian democracy movement; some folks were even carrying Egyptian flags. The fact that the protests are spreading like wildfire to Ohio and other states is heartening, too. I can tell you this, as an old hand at the electoral and legislative battles progressives have fought over the last couple of decades: it is only this kind of mass militancy that will give us a chance to survive the power of the Wall Street, big business, and right-wing media machine. They have too much entrenched power, too much money, and too much concentrated media sway for progressives to beat them using conventional tactics and strategies.
Here’s the other thing: the current crop of extreme-right Republicans have no interest in compromise, on anything. They don’t want to force the public employee unions to the table to bargain over wages and health care, they want to utterly destroy the unions for all time. They don’t want to negotiate over changing the formula on pension contributions, they want to make workers pay for half their pensions, or slash their benefits to shreds — and then never have to negotiate with workers again over them. At the federal level, they don’t just want to make substantial cutbacks in domestic programs, they want to defund many of them entirely — and if they don’t get their way, all of it, they’ll just shut down the government. It’s not just economics issues either: pro-lifers don’t just want to make it harder to get abortions, they want redefine rape and make shooting an abortion doctor a justifiable homicide. These Republican extremists are completely beyond the pale.
As Dean Baker and so many other rational economics writers have documented thoroughly, the cause of our federal and state budget problems are not teachers and firefighters and social workers and food safety inspectors, who make about as much on average as comparable workers in the private sector. The problem is out-of-control Wall Street bankers whose reckless speculation crashed our economy, and an ever tightening squeeze on middle-class workers whose wages are flat and whose daily living expenses are rapidly increasing.
So fight back, you teachers in Wisconsin. Fight back, bus drivers in Ohio. Join them, students and progressive activists of every size, shape, and color. We are fighting for our lives against extremists who quite literally are moving openly to roll us back to the mid-1800s, when the robber barons got the governors in their pockets to call out the National Guard to shut down strikes, and when the richest 1 percent controlled most of the wealth in the country. Big business and the Far Right have joined forces to try and destroy unions and the safety net for all of us. We have to beat them.