One of the salient realities of politics is that much of the contention revolves around efforts to get the news media and the public to focus on events that reinforce one group’s point of view over others. There are, of course, front-and-center national and international news developments that literally command attention. But when it comes to, say, a noisy dispute over a budget in a medium-sized state, you’d normally see one side or the other trying to “nationalize” the event to gain external allies.
But that’s what is most fascinating about the ongoing saga in Madison, Wisconsin: what began as a series of union protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to take away public employees’ collective bargaining rights, and then evolved into a national cause célèbre for unions and progressives generally, has become of equal importance to the Right, where the belief that Walker is sparking a nationwide revolt against “union thugs” is very strong.
Even as polls in Wisconsin and nationally show Walker with relatively low and flagging levels of support for his confrontational tactics, conservative gabbers are treating the events like the Battle of Algiers. The highly influential RedState blog has become completely obsessed with Wisconsin and its political and economic implications; on Monday of this week, the site featured no less than five front-page posts on the subject. Here’s a taste of the tone, from RedState diarist Mark Meed:
I appreciate it might seem unnecessarily provocative to compare union thugs to dogs — especially to those in the moderate attack dog community — so let me offer a “scratch behind the ears” qualification. These aren’t just any dogs, they’re the ones out of “Animal Farm”. These are the pack animals that are inevitably dispatched when socialists run out of other people’s money, and those other people finally notice.
Nice, eh? But the focus on Wisconsin is not limited to the fever swamps of the conservative blogosphere; it’s breaking out on the presidential campaign trail as well. Tim Pawlenty released a video with dramatic footage of the Madison protests and ending with the proto-candidate himself gravely intoning: “It’s important that Americans stand with Scott Walker, stand with Wisconsin.” Newt Gingrich recently devoted his Human Events column to a lurid characterization of the Wisconsin fight. A sample:
In Madison, Wisconsin, we are witnessing a profound struggle between the right of the people to govern themselves and the power of entrenched, selfish interests to stop reforms and defy the will of the people.
Not a lot of nuance there. Meanwhile, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is taking some conservative heat for failing to follow Walker’s lead in declaring war on unions, compounding the hostility he earlier aroused by calling for a “truce” on cultural issues.
There is one underlying difference of opinion among conservatives about Wisconsin that’s worth noting and pondering: while some focus strictly on public-sector unionism, others view the assault on public-employee collective bargaining as just one front in a broader fight against unions and collective bargaining generally. Most obviously, conservatives are aware of the important role of unions in Democratic Party campaign financing and voter mobilization efforts, and naturally welcome any opportunity to weaken the “other team” (even as they characterize Democratic defenders of unions as parties to a corrupt bargain that shakes down taxpayers and businesses for higher wages and benefits in exchange for political assistance).
But some conservatives are willing to go further and denounce all forms of collective bargain as either corrupt, as coercive, or as incompatible with economic growth. Here’s Robert VerBruggen writing for the National Review site:
In reality, “collective bargaining” is when a majority of employees vote to unionize, and then the union has the legal right to represent all the employees. In other words, it forces workers to accept unions as their bargaining agents, and it forbids employers to negotiate with non-union workers on an individual basis.
A more colloquial version of this argument was made by a conservative blogger calling himself USA Admiral:
There is no real use for [unions]. If you can’t negotiate your own contracts, you need to be flipping burgers.
The larger, macroeconomic case against unions as an institution in the private as well as the public sector is mainly made by Right-to-Work agitators, but it occasionally is taken up by conservative politicians as well. It’s probably not surprising that the most overt stance against the very existence of unions was recently made by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who appointed a corporate labor relations lawyer (i.e., someone whose job is to oppose unions and unionization) to head up the state labor department. Haley was not shy about her motivation in taking this unusual step: “She [the appointee] is ready for the challenge,” Haley said. “We’re going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it. She’s the right person to help me do it.”
In the end, the sense that Scott Walker is fighting the ancient enemy of the conservative movement probably best explains why so many conservatives can’t resist blowing the Wisconsin saga up into an apocalyptic struggle of immense importance. If Walker loses, it will be interesting to see if he’s treated as a martyr or just as insufficiently vicious.