Wayne O’Leary

Barbarians at the Gates

While Democrats and progressives have been preoccupied with the day-to-day partisan infighting in Washington, the real action in American politics has been taking place far from the nation’s capital, in the various states. The upheaval in the hinterland since 2010 can best be described not as a political struggle between equal contending sides, but as a one-sided assault in which the forces of the right have literally overrun their opposition and changed the governmental landscape — at least for the time being.

For several generations, the conventional wisdom, especially on the political left, has been that Washington is all-important, that anything worth doing should be pursued at the federal level. The left has looked to presidents, not governors, and to Congress, not state legislatures, for ways to improve the quality of American life and advance liberal values. This has been natural, given the Democratic tradition of strong, activist progressive presidents: Wilson, FDR, JFK, LBJ. But times have changed; the world inhabited by these liberal standard-bearers no longer exists, and the sort of opposition they faced has undergone a radical metamorphosis.

It used to be that the major political parties tended to coalesce near the ideological middle — between the 30-yard lines in the old football analogy; Democrats were center-left, Republicans center-right. It was assumed they shared certain values and agreed on certain basics: maintenance of the social safety net, for example, or minimal economic regulations. It was further assumed that both parties could be trusted when in power not to completely ignore precedent and impose their most extreme agenda items without input from the other side.

These things can no longer be assumed, nor can a grudging acceptance of adverse election results by the losing side. Although the mainstream media portray this negative transformation in our politics as mutually motivated, setting up a false equivalence, the fact is the change is almost entirely the product of a militantly reactionary Republican party and its associated interest groups. And nowhere is it more starkly evident than at the state level.

The destructive goings-on in the individual states amount to nothing less than a form of political barbarism marked by unrestrained disrespect toward the right’s adversaries and directed at the wholesale obliteration of the liberal governmental structures built up over the last three-quarters of a century. Notwithstanding an uncanny spiritual resemblance, the latter-day barbarians laying waste to everything in their path are not named Attila or Alaric; instead, they have more prosaic names like Walker, Snyder, Rauner, LePage, and Brownback. Their shared pattern of ruthless behavior, however, suggests a broadly coordinated approach that is far from ordinary and not coincidental.

It’s obvious the dimmer segments of the GOP statehouse crowd could not have devised their ambitious agenda without outside help and guidance. Enter the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. A far-right, pro-business lobby that somehow manages to retain a tax-exempt status, ALEC is active nationwide, and its Republican-dominated membership rolls include a quarter to a third of all state legislators. ALEC “alumni” make up a virtual who’s who of GOP politicos, recent past and present, including numerous current red-state governors and congressional figures.

Only a tiny fraction of ALEC’s budget comes from the nominal dues of its 2,000 or so legislative members. The overwhelming bulk of it (upwards of $7 million annually) comes from the members that really count: roughly 300 corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate-affiliated think tanks or foundations. Business memberships reportedly cost $7,000 to $25,000 a year, plus several thousand more for companies electing to serve on advisory task forces; some enthusiastic funders (e.g. ExxonMobil, the Koch foundations) go even further and make voluntary grants in the five- and six-figure range.

What these “disinterested” contributors get for their money is the opportunity to help frame model special-interest legislation that is then turned into hundreds of bills by conservative sponsors in the states, who merely plug in the proper jurisdictions. ALEC was burned in 2011-12 by a dalliance with social conservatism, which resulted in bad PR and cost it some nervous corporate support; it has since sworn off identification with gun-rights expansion, voter restrictions, abortion bans, and “personhood” legislation in favor of hard-right economic initiatives on things like deregulation, privatization, education, pensions, taxes, tort reform, and labor law.

As of 2015, GOP partisans anxious to vandalize, Taliban-style, the accomplishments of those who have gone before — to tear out, root and branch, every vestige of economic progressivism — are using ALEC’s legislative draftsmanship to convert extreme market fundamentalism into established state law. Their narrow, ultra-libertarian vision is presently focused, laser-like, on three areas: organized labor, higher education, and taxation. On the labor front, the right’s top priority is to weaken unions and thereby reduce wages by passage of comprehensive “right-to-work” laws banning fair-share payments, or equivalent dues, by nonunion workers benefiting from union-negotiated contracts. Closely associated with the push for right-to-work is the abolition of collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers, especially unionized teachers. High as well on the anti-labor to-do list is the repeal of state “prevailing-wage” statutes requiring private-sector bidders on taxpayer-funded construction projects to pay wages in line with comparable work in the immediate locality.

Next to union labor, the philistine right is most agitated by spending on public higher education, the source of “un-American” liberal ideas. Cuts to university campuses, pioneered by Brownback’s Kansas in 2012, are now the leading edge of an ideologically oriented austerity drive aimed at shrinking the public sector, partly to offset radical reductions in state income taxes on business and upper incomes that have created massive deficits rather than predicted expansions in revenue. But budget cutting alone is not enough, so GOP governors have contrived to balance their books through the classic conservative expedient of “tax shifting” — cynically scheming to replace graduated income taxes with regressive sales taxes aimed at middle- and lower-income Americans.

It’s only the beginning. In the pipeline are state “preemption” laws overturning municipal regulatory ordinances uncongenial to industry (such as mandatory paid sick leave), as well as laws easing state child-labor restrictions and minimum-wage requirements. The barbarians are scaling the walls, and if they’re not soon repelled at the ballot box, they will permanently command the heights.

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

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015


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