Monday, February 21, 2011

The Anti-Wisconsin Idea

The first time the state of Wisconsin comes up in my U.S. history survey classes is when I reach the section on the Progressive movement.  You can’t really discuss the reforms of the early twentieth century without giving due credit to the leading role of Wisconsin.  The reforming spirit of that state, represented in politics by the LaFolletes, became a model for the nation.  Today, Republicans all over America are trying to turn it into another, and quite different, kind of model.

A hundred years ago, the “Wisconsin Idea” was shorthand for a whole series of reforms, most of which we take for granted today.  It meant more direct democracy, a response to the wholesale corruption of state politics in the U.S. during the rise of big business in the late 19th century.  More democratic institutions, progressives hoped, would also produce more enlightened economic policies, and end the stranglehold trusts had over the economic life of the nation.

The direct primary (which allowed voters, not party bosses, to pick nominees) and the direct election of senators (which allowed voters, not state legislators, to pick senators) were two major political parts of the Wisconsin idea. Economically, it meant things like workers’ compensation and business regulation.

Wisconsin was in the reforming vanguard in the late 19th century.  As early as the 1880s, Wisconsin was passing worker safety and child labor laws.  In 1895, as southern states were institutionalizing segregation, Wisconsin outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations like restaurants (which is the part of the Civil Rights of 1964 that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky today still thinks is unconstitutional).

Today, Gov. Scott Walker is trying to put Wisconsin in the vanguard again, but this time with an anti-progressive agenda.  Walker’s controversial proposals to strip collective bargaining rights for state unions may be unique by virtue of the week-long protests they have provoked.  But other states are pursuing similar anti-union agendas: The states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, among others, are experiencing similar attempts to use state fiscal crises as vehicles to disempower unions.

This is no coincidence.  It is part and parcel of the Republican Party’s anti-government mentality that has been a dominant theme of theirs for over thirty years.  If government is bad, then government employees are bad. 

This is the proper context for understanding Speaker John Boehner’s Marie Antoinette moment last week.  Boehner responded to the fact that budget cuts would mean that federal employees would lose their jobs by saying “if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it.  We're broke. It's time for us to get serious about how we're spending the nation's money."

Similar comments are being made in Wisconsin.  At Saturday’s counter-protest, Tea Party activist Herman Cain said: "Wisconsin is broke. My question for the other side is, 'What part of broke don't you understand?'"

Wisconsin is not broke, and neither is the U.S.  Wisconsin’s current budget deficit is less than the amount of pro-business tax breaks just generously handed out by the Republicans. As for the U.S. budget, as “a share of the nation's economy, Uncle Sam's take this year will be the lowest since 1950, when the Korean War began.”  And yet Republicans insist our budget deficit is entirely due to spending, not to lack of tax revenue.

Yes, both the federal and state governments have real budgetary problems.  But Wisconsin’s unions have agreed to the financial sacrifices, and are only insisting on the maintenance of their bargaining rights.  (Don’t be fooled when Walker says they will keep those rights—the legislation takes away bargaining rights over working conditions and caps the ability to negotiate salaries to the inflation rate.  In other words, unions will never actually gain ground.  At best, they will tread water; at worst, fall behind.)

Yes, unions are imperfect instruments, and could use reform of their own.  But the political reality is that unions are being scapegoated by Republicans for our current economic ills.  Unions did not gamble billions of dollars on financial shell games and ruin the economy.  Financial institutions did, but you don’t see them being called on by the GOP to sacrifice.  You see them bailed out, and, unrepentant, you see them going back to business as usual and awarding themselves unconscionable bonuses. 

When the Republicans start calling business out and demand that they contribute to solving our economic problems, then I’ll take them seriously.  Until then, this anti-“Wisconsin idea” is simply an attack on government workers and union rights and an attempt to turn back the clock and restore the laissez-faire world of the late 19th century.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Coin of the Realm

"The Congress shall have Power ... To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin."

That would seem clear enough to most people, but not to South Carolina State Rep. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, who according to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal "has introduced legislation that backs the creation of a new state currency that could protect the financial stability of the Palmetto State in the event of a breakdown of the Federal Reserve System."

“If there is an attempt to monetize the Fed we ought to at least have a study on record that could protect South Carolinians,” Bright said in an interview Friday.
“If folks lose faith in the dollar, we need to have some kind of backup.”

Let us, for the moment, put aside the question of the (at best) dubious constitutionality of what Bright is proposing. What is the mindset behind it?

For starters, it would seem that Bright has been spending too much time listening to Ron Paul and Glenn Beck. This idea is the political equivalent of Beck's shameless shilling for gold on his TV and radio programs. "Be afraid! The end is nigh! Protect yourself! Buy gold!"

But even more interesting to me is what this idea reveals about the default setting for Bright: that if his paranoid fears come to pass, South Carolina can go it alone and save itself while the rest of the country falls.

Does he really believe that if U.S. currency were to lose its value, that South Carolina, all by itself, would be able to reconstitute a meaningful currency that would shelter it from the resulting economic storm? The idea is self-evidently absurd.

As the Herald-Journal article rightly notes, this is part and parcel of Bright's political playbook. Last year he proposed what amounts to a nullification bill targeted at the Affordable Care Act. “If at first you don't secede, try again,” Bright said at the time.

Now, I know he was joking. But that joke is telling. Secession is no laughing matter, but seeming to take the idea of secession seriously is enough to make Bright (and by extension, South Carolina) a laughingstock. (Though a quick Google search shows his state currency idea is playing well on secessionist websites all over the country.)

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bright's proposal is yet another example, like the "ban foreign law" idea, of a disheartening lack of seriousness among South Carolina's elected officials. It panders to the people's fears and their desire to feel in control of events in trying times. Rather than confront actual problems facing the state, problems which good and effective government might actually be able to address, they propose these silly, time-wasting distractions from the real business of the people.

Lastly, it is sad that so many alleged "constitutional" conservatives in fact advocate such unconstitutional ideas. There was a time in American history when states had extensive control over the value of currency, under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution (which they purport to venerate) explicitly took that power from the states. As James Madison says in Federalist 42, by doing so, "the Constitution has supplied a material omission in the articles of confederation."

Like it or not (and Bright clearly does not), one of the most important of "original intents" of the Constitution was to shift power from the states to the federal government to make for more efficient and practical governing of the United States.

Bright will no doubt argue that what he proposes is within what is allowed by the Constitution. If that is true, then what he is proposing could not possibly be capable of addressing the false specter of disaster he raises. Either way, his proposal is nonsense.

In assessing Bright's real motive then, I can do no better than quote David Ramsay, doctor and member of the Continental Congress from South Carolina and later a member of the South Carolina state senate. Writing under the name "Civis" in the February 4, 1788 edition of the Columbian Herald in Charleston, Ramsay exhorted South Carolinians to ratify the Constitution. Don't listen to what opponents say their reasons are for opposing the ideas of the Constitution, Ramsay warned. "Examine well the characters & circumstances of men" to find "the real ground" of their positions, he said, since "they may artfully cover it with a splendid profession of zeal for state privileges and general liberty."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reagan at 100: Listen to the Music

As anyone who has read this blog would know or could guess, Ronald Reagan has never been one of my favorite presidents.  My first vote for president was cast in 1980, and it wasn't for him.  (It wasn't for Jimmy Carter either, but for Republican Congressman John Anderson who ran as an independent.)  I cut my political opinion writing teeth at my college newspaper, penning pieces often critical of Reagan.

Today is Reagan's 100th birthday, and that has prompted lots of reconsiderations of the man and his presidency.  I concede that my opinion of both today is not as harsh as it was in the 1980s, though it is still predominantly negative.  And what I consider to be the relatively positive aspects of his administration are ones that most modern-day conservatives either deny or ignore.

But I was listening to Chris Matthews Friday night in his commentary on Reagan, and he had one eloquent line that I agree with whole-heartedly.  Reagan, he said, "heard our music even when it faded."  I think that captures beautifully why the memory of the man still resonates with so many Americans, even as the details of his actual record fade into myth.  He sang America's song, and many people loved him for it.

That same line, however, also captures for me what was so lacking in the man and his presidency.  As an unabashed and unashamed Bruce Springsteen fanatic, I cannot hear the words "Reagan" and "music" without thinking of the infamous Reagan misuse of Springsteen's music during the 1984 campaign.  Springsteen had released the "Born in the U.S.A" album, the one that would launch him into rock superstardom, in June.  That fall Reagan tried to appropriate Springsteen for his campaign.    While campaigning in New Jersey, Reagan said:

America's future rests in a a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire:  New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen.

Now, I realize that line was written for Reagan and not something he came up with on his own.  He didn't know the first thing about Springsteen or his songs, other than that he was wildly popular at the time and perhaps that his new album had the American flag on the cover.

But that's my point.  Yes, Reagan heard the music.  He just didn't hear the words.  He didn't listen to the words, or care what they actually said.  The title song of that album, despite the misinterpretations of people like George Will (and legions of superficial fans), is not a proud, patriotic anthem.  It is not a song with a message of hope.  It is one of rage and despair.  The Vietnam veteran who narrates it ends with the line:

I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go

It's a song about someone who has been used up and cast aside by the country he was born in and loves.  It's a song, as so many of Springsteen's songs are, about someone whose dreams have been crushed, but who desperately still wants to believe. 

When told of Reagan's words, Springsteen said that while Reagan was not a bad man, he was afraid that "there are people whose dreams don't mean much to him."  Those are the people Springsteen was writing about.  Those are the people Mario Cuomo was talking about in his memorable 1984 convention speech: "There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city."

There are things you miss when you only hear the music.  Truly great leaders need to know the words.  I admire Reagan's ability to hear our music.  But I want my leaders to listen to our lyrics, too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Keep Fear Alive!

Why does it so often seem that those who most loudly proclaim America’s exceptional greatness seem to also have the least faith in its traditions and principles in practice?

This week we’ve been treated to the spectacle of South Carolina Republican State Senator Mike Fair following the lead of Oklahoma in proposing an “anti-Sharia” law. At the same time, Glenn Beck has been calling events in Egypt evidence of the “coming insurrection” that will create a new caliphate from Iran across North Africa, and up into western and central Europe. In both cases, these baseless fears are grounded in the idea of the inherent fragility of western civilization’s most basic institutions (otherwise, there would be nothing to fear). What’s going on here?

This is beyond mere paranoia. These are completely manufactured, utterly irrational, and potentially self-destructive fears that tell us far more about the speakers than their targets.

According to Talking Points Memo, Fair initially admitted his bill was aimed at Sharia: "This bill has been called anti-Sharia law, and I suppose it does deal with that," Fair said. "There are some localities around the country that have imposed Sharia law in lieu of local laws." Later, perhaps realizing that he had let the cat of the bag, he retreated and stated that the target was “foreign law,” and that he didn't want his proposal to be interpreted "as anti-Sharia law and statute."

There’s one big problem here: there are no localities that have imposed Sharia law in the U.S. It’s a simple fact. Yes, I know there are many websites that claim it is true.  But the only so-called “evidence” ever cited to support this crazy claim is a court case that never once mentions Sharia law. It was a case of a wife accusing her husband of sexual assault, in which a judge decided that the state of mind of the defendant was relevant and that he lacked criminal intent. And even that ruling was overturned by a higher court.

That’s it. That’s the extent of the alleged imposition of Sharia law in America.

And what about that "new caliphate"?

In his TV rants, Beck claims that the recent unrest in North Africa is a sign of the “coming insurrection” which aims to establish a new caliphate. Today Morocco and Spain, he says, are “on fire.” Having just returned from a visit to both countries, I can assure everyone that neither country is currently in flames.

Beck sees in the street protests of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen not popular unrest provoked by undemocratic regimes, but a larger conspiracy (one that involves everyone from both presidents Bush to Obama to ACORN) to restore the Islamic caliphate. There is about as much chance of a new caliphate in North Africa and Europe as there is of Pat Robertson becoming grand ayatollah in Iran.

What do these cases have in common (beyond the pathological paranoia)?


Fair says that his bill was prompted by concerns over “people who are accustomed to their religion and their civil laws being inextricably connected.” You don’t need a degree in psychology to see the irony here. This is a state that banned tattoos until 2004, in part due to Biblical injunctions against the practice. (In 2006, a tattoo parlor in Columbia was initially denied a license because it was located within 1,000 feet of a church.) To this day, when I go food shopping on a Sunday, I cannot pick up beer or wine from the Bi-Lo because of religiously-inspired blue laws. And this is a state that recently re-elected Jim DeMint to the Senate, who has a 100% rating from the Christian Coalition.

Fair’s objection (and that of many South Carolinians) is not to religion and civil laws being intertwined—their problem is with the wrong religion and civil laws being intertwined.

And Beck? In his simplistic view, world events are not complicated and multifaceted, they are all explainable by a single, malevolent intent. Someone (else) is trying to impose his vision on everyone. No one is an independent actor; everyone is the tool of dark forces. Tellingly, his interpretation of events in Egypt coincides nicely with the Mubarak regime’s take—it is not authentic, spontaneous, or legitimate.  It is the work of “foreign agents.”

The irony here is that Beck makes himself the mirror image of radical Islamists who see the United States behind every problem in the world, seeking to impose its control over everyone and everything. Not only that, but by darkly hinting that American presidents have been in on the plan for the new caliphate, Beck even agrees with the Islamists that ultimately America is in control of events—only in his telling, it is the “bad” Americans out to destroy the “real” America.

Both Fair and Beck represent essentially the same thing: fear of the unknown. Both feel beset by a world far too complicated for their simple minds to understand, and rather than seeking knowledge, they give in to their own ignorance and seek to make others fear as much as they do.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egypt and the Moroccan Model

Well, I certainly picked an interesting couple of weeks to be out of the country.

I recently got back from 16 days abroad in Granada, Spain and Rabat, Morocco. The revolution in Tunisia made for a particularly dramatic time for my first visit to a predominantly Muslim country.

Last Wednesday, the Wofford faculty group I traveled with had the chance to meet with Mustapha Khalfi, Director of Publication of Attajdid, one of Morocco's leading newspapers.  We had an extended discussion with him about the Tunisian revolution and its possible ramifications in the Muslim world.

As a self-proclaimed moderate Islamist living under the Moroccan monarchy, Khalfi had unique insights into the recent historic events in the region.

Since I'd had a both a busy schedule and somewhat limited access to media, I was eager to hear his take on what had happened in Tunisia.  I asked Khalfi if the revolt there might spread to Egypt.  It was unlikely that events would follow the same pattern, he said, because in Tunisia the military sided with the protestors, while Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who came from the military, could likely count on the support of the armed forces.

As has become apparent in the days since, the military likely is the key variable in this volatile situation.  There have been signs that the protestors have embraced the military as (at least) a lesser evil than the police and security forces, and that the military has reciprocated by showing restraint.  As the protests have continued—perhaps culminating in a decisive confrontation today—the military promised that it would not fire on peaceful protestors.  If it abandons Mubarak, it is hard to see him staying in power, and another North African domino may fall.

Whatever the next days and weeks bring, it seems inevitable that change will come to Egypt, but what kind of change that will be is impossible to say at this point.  The collapse of the regime's authority may well leave a power vacuum in Egypt, and that is where the danger lies.

It is inspiring to see people take to the streets demanding freedom.  It is thrilling to imagine a dictator driven from power by the force of popular resistance.  But what replaces the dictatorship?  As the U.S. found out in Iraq, a functioning democracy requires more than the removal of a dictator.

This was the most compelling point that Khalfi made: the necessity of civic institutions in any democratization movement.  He held forth his own country of Morocco as a model of moderate change, a people building those institutions under the relatively progressive leadership of a young monarch who has both political legitimacy as king and religious legitimacy as "Commander of the Faith."

Sadly, Mubarak has spent nearly 30 years undermining such institutions because he saw them as threats to his power.  Now his power is disintegrating, and no one really knows if there will be anything to replace it that can give the Egyptian people a sustainable balance of freedom and order.

That has ever been the problem with regimes that can isolate themselves from public opinion—they seek to make themselves indispensable by destroying viable alternatives, but that tactic itself helps insure that when they finally fall, their societies lack the political resources needed to construct new institutions.

Khalfi painted a picture of Morocco as a nation aware of this pitfall, and working hard to avoid it.  For his sake, and that of the other Moroccans we met on our trip, I hope he's right.