EASTON, Md. — February 28, 2011 — The 14 Wisconsin state senators who fled to Illinois to prevent a vote curtailing workers’ bargaining rights would have made Abraham Lincoln proud. They were following a long tradition of historical lawmakers who have found creative ways to protect the minority viewpoint.
Back in 1840, Abe made a national name for himself by jumping out of a second storey window of the Illinois State Capitol. The Democrats had locked the doors of the House to ensure a quorum to vote against keeping the Legislature in session.
Lincoln headed for a window, opened it, dropped down nearly 30 feet, and took off, denying that body the necessary quorum. That incident actually helped propel him to national prominence and ultimately the Presidency.
Thanks to Governor Scott Walker, the past two weeks of upheaval in Wisconsin have become lessons not only into history but also into our own political choices, even challenging conventional wisdom.
Here is some of what we learned:
Get A Backbone: The Left does not need to roll over & play dead just because, at this moment, in time the Right seems to have the upper hand. The Indiana and Wisconsin senators’ decampment to Illinois and the 70,000 protestors who jammed the streets and the Wisconsin State House showed that when people stand up for what they believe, they gain the respect and support of the American public.
This is a lesson dispirited Democrats need to learn. It’s a lesson for President Obama. Stand up for your principles. Fight back.
Make The Issue A National Debate: Now the protests have a life of their own, spreading into other states. This past Saturday across the country, rallies in support of workers mushroomed.
“Save the American Dream” has become the rallying cry and the American middle class answered in force as thousands took to the streets from Albany, NY to Los Angeles.
Already many Republican governors, who at one point seemed about to drink the Walker Kool Aid, backed off, seeking other ways to work with their budget shortfalls and public workers.
Don’t Be Bullied, Even By Thugs with Guns: Thanks to peaceful protest marches, which are now headed into their third week, the unions and their supporters have shown us the definition of restraint.
When members of the Western Rifle Shooters Association showed up at the Georgia protests in Atlanta, packing guns and brandishing rifles (later bragging about their actions on their website), the protestors kept their cool. And the police were there just to make sure the WRSA kept their fingers off the triggers.
Still it had to be unnerving.
When the deputy Attorney General of Indiana suggested using “live ammunition” to clear the protestors out of the Wisconsin state house, Indiana didn’t hesitate: it fired him.
Zero tolerance for such rhetoric drew a significant line in the sand.
Explore and Explode Conventional Wisdom: In trying to pit middle class worker against worker, the public employee vs. the private employee, the Right Wing has portrayed public employees as fat cats, draining the budget with their outrageous salaries and benefit packages.
However, the fallout from the Wisconsin showdown has revealed this not to be true. A recent study of the two sectors’ salaries show it is much more complicated than that. For the most part, college educated public workers not only earn less than their counterparts in businesses, they have seen their median pay fall even further behind, while those with high school educations usually earn somewhat more.
Plus the public sector employs twice the number of college educated than do businesses.
To make up for the salary differences, states usually do offer good pension and benefits. The deal is basically: don’t take as much up front and we promise you will be compensated down the line.
The other bit of conventional wisdom that fell was that the public was against unions engaging in collective bargaining. Wrong! The Gallup/USA poll released last week showed that 61% Americans oppose their state abolishing collective bargaining rights while only 33% support such a law
Be In Control of the Message: For too long, no matter what the issue, the Democratic message has been less than inspiring. The side that defines the issue is the one that wins public opinion. For some reason that I have never been able to fathom, Democrats have not been able to explain an issue succinctly, much less in a sound bite than resonates.
Remember the Republican nonsense of Death Panels?
This time around the unions and their supporters made sure people knew state employees believed in shared sacrifice, not sacrificial lambs.
Strip the GOP of Its Populist Veneer: In the last two years, the Republican Party has tried to sell itself as the Party of the beleaguered Little Guy, even as it raked in millions to underwrite Right Wing candidates from extremist billionaires. Their most successful attempt was to co-opt the Tea Party movement and it has worked pretty well with the Tea Party accepting free buses for rallies and other goodies from the likes of the Koch Brothers, the Bradley Foundation, or Freedom Works.
Now, however, the onion is being peeled and people are paying attention, perhaps because their eyes are starting sting. Behind seemingly patriotic front groups lurk people who are only interested in “starving the beast,” aka our government, lowering taxes on the richest 1%, and destroying the unions and thus the Democratic Party.
What happened in Wisconsin made people realize that the middle class was being scapedgoated by the very same Republicans that brought us the Great Recession. Meantime in Wisconsin, corporations were handed a huge tax break in January by Governor Walker just as he was blaming unions for the financial woes of his state.
And now, unless he gets his way, Walker wants to lay off 12,000 public workers in retaliation. Imagine what that would do to the economy of Wisconsin.
Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives need to continue to peel the onion and show the Republican Party for what it is and always has been, the Party of Big Business, not the average American.
In other words, call the Republicans out.
Until Democrats and President Obama act as boldly as the workers in Wisconsin and the 14 lawmakers who headed for the Land of Lincoln, America will find itself pitted against itself, never realizing who the real enemy of the American worker actually is.
And it’s not your neighbor next door.
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