Wayne O’Leary

Fascism on the American Plan

During the turbulent upheaval of the 1930s, as things teetered on the tipping point, a grim adage achieved wide currency in America: ‘When the United States gets fascism it will call it anti-fascism.”

The saying was popularly attributed to demagogic Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, although there is no evidence “the Kingfish” ever uttered it. Still, it sounds like Long, and to a considerable extent, it describes the government he visited upon his state.

In an effort to end oligarchy and spread the wealth, undeniably noble aspirations, Long converted Louisiana for a time into a virtual dictatorship.

Democratic rules, rights, and procedures were suspended, the legislature became a rubber stamp, political opposition was silenced or ignored, and the law, enforced by state militia, was what the governor said it was.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should; something eerily similar is beginning to appear across a wide swath of the American heartland and beyond.

The motives are different; helping the poor has been replaced by comforting the rich. Where Huey Long fought the greedy corporations of his day, modern gubernatorial demagogues are rewarding them. But the same antidemocratic tendencies are in evidence, and the same bullying strong-arm tactics are being applied. The smell of fascism is in the air.

Remember the names: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Synder of Michigan, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Paul LePage of Maine. These authoritarian Republicans and their lesser-known fellow travelers, flush with the hubris of electoral success in 2010, don’t bother to disguise their intentions; they want to redistribute wealth upwards, create a pro-corporate business climate, cripple labor unions, defund the Democratic Party, and neuter public employees by privatizing their functions — or, at the very least, by reducing them to proletarian status.

In Wisconsin, Walker has demanded that state workers and public school teachers ante up in the form of reduced benefits to close a state budget gap created by $140 million in corporate tax cuts — a crisis of his own making.

In Michigan, Snyder has demanded that retired seniors and low-income residents pay $1.7 billion in additional state taxes to offset corporate tax cuts totaling $1.8 billion.

In Florida, Scott has decreed that $1.75 billion will be deleted from public-school funding to compensate for $1.6 billion in business and property tax cuts.

Some are going further. Walker proposes to sell off Wisconsin’s public-power facilities to private interests, while Kasich would do the same with Ohio’s prisons. Snyder wants to appoint all-powerful management czars to run Michigan’s most financially pressed townships, dismissing popularly elected officials without cause. And in virtually every case, Republican governors are engaged in either passing anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation or removing collective bargaining for public employees with an eye toward eventual decertification of their unions.

This sounds like a broken record because it is; the Republican offensive at the state level is nationwide and coordinated, the cooperative product of conservative think tanks, corporate lobbies, and national GOP political strategists. Individual statehouse Republicans are not working alone; Walker and Kasich, it’s been revealed, compare notes on a regular basis. In contrast to Huey Long, who was a lone operator often at odds with his party, Long’s modern counterparts are acting in concert and are backed by the institutional support structures of national conservatism.

Democrats and their liberal allies, it appears, are just becoming dimly aware of what they’re facing. Having only partial control of the national government, Republicans have chosen to work from the periphery, imposing their hard-right philosophy piecemeal on a state-by-state basis. The Huey Longs of the Right are not responding ad hoc to individual budget emergencies, as much of the mainstream media dutifully reports, but rather implementing a broadly shared agenda that’s been planned well in advance.

And it’s a radical agenda. Step by step, the GOP is inching its way toward an incipient form of red, white, and blue fascism obscured by libertarian rhetoric.

Extremist programs will be rammed through with little regard for political niceties. The new GOP, represented by its autocratic governors, will not compromise, will not hesitate to cut constitutional or legal corners, will not shrink from crude or threatening behavior, will not apologize to those it crushes under foot.

Most of all, like the full-blown fascists of yore, it will tell the big lie. At the moment, the biggest lie being told is that public workers are living in high clover off the taxpayers, enjoying unprecedentedly extravagant wages and benefits far greater than their counterparts in the private sector. A study by Rutgers University Professor Jeffrey Keefe, using US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, shows exactly the reverse; nationwide, public workers earn an average annual wage of $69,000 versus $71,000 for comparable private workers. And in besieged Wisconsin, the Economic Policy Institute reports, public employees with college degrees (60% of the state workforce) earn thousands of dollars less than their opposite numbers in private industry.

Collective bargaining, bête noire of the nascent statehouse dictators of the Right, is, to hear them tell it, the root cause of their fiscal problems; here, too, however, truth is their Achilles heel. Policy Matters Ohio, a respected think tank, has supplied the coup de grâce.

In 2010, it seems, the nine American states that totally ban collective bargaining with public-sector unions had an average budget deficit of 25%, compared to an almost identical average shortfall (24%) for the 14 states that universally follow the practice. Among the collective-bargaining states with the smallest budget gaps for fiscal 2011, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, were Walker’s Wisconsin (12.8%), Kasich’s Ohio (11%), Snyder’s Michigan (6.5%), and Scott’s Florida (10.4%).

Truth, it’s said, is the first casualty of war, and this is war — an all-out class war, which billionaire Warren Buffett sardonically says his class is winning. The war was never openly declared, and important segments of the American polity remain blissfully unaware of its existence, including the White House and the Democratic party generally. That may be changing.

Credit Wisconsin for the wake-up call. Democrats in the Badger State, championing organized labor and ordinary workers, lost in the short run, but in losing gallantly, they may have sown the seeds of ultimate victory for themselves, their national party, and their country.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2011


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