COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Spiked Tea Party Hangovers

Stephen BerkLast fall a corporate funded noise machine succeeded in motivating a minority of the electorate to vote in Tea Party Republican extremists, and now the sleeping giant, American voters-at-large, is awakening to the ugly results.  With unemployment well into double digits in most parts of the country, media and politicians in thrall to Wall Street now worry chiefly about national and state debt.  The same politicians unconcerned with saddling future generations with mammoth costs of ignored climate change and ever mounting education and mortgage debt, now proclaim their deep concern for runaway federal spending that will burden their grandchildren.  The lead role played by spending to further the interests of empire is of course never mentioned.  And Bush’s tax cuts for the richest among us are continued by the Obama “compromise.”

Austerity, not jobs, is Wall Street’s mantra, and cuts must come chiefly from domestic programs that benefit those most at-risk.  Contrary to policies of the New Deal era, those most able to pay are now largely exempted while those least able are made to shoulder the main burden.  We can see this in state budgets being submitted by many Democratic as well as Republican governors.  Andrew Cuomo of New York proposes deep cuts to social welfare, while maintaining major tax breaks for the wealthiest.  This is also true in the supposedly liberal administration of Washington’s Governor Christine Gregoire.
The most flagrant abuses are being visited upon those asleep at the wheel in the Midwest, who allowed their governorships and state legislatures to be taken over by Tea Party ideologues.  As Lyndon Johnson once tried to amend the New Deal with his War on Poverty, the Tea Party Republicans are setting out to further their patron saint Ronald Reagan’s dismantling of New Deal equalitarianism.  Its centerpiece was the National Labor Relations Act, which granted all workers the right to join a union and collectively bargain with their employers. This effectively brought workers in the big industries into the middle class and undergirded the prosperity of the postwar period.  On the other hand, the Tea Party’s centerpiece is to be the end of labor’s bill of rights.  Corporate elites have whittled away at labor rights for generations, and an economically conservative consensus of the past thirty years has seen both parties use globalization to outsource factories to poor countries abroad and thereby de-industrialize and de-unionize the American labor force. The results have been a low wage economy and spiraling consumer debt. In 1981, Ronald Reagan threw down the gauntlet at public employee wages and benefits by busting PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union.

It is in Reagan’s union busting tradition that new extremist governors of states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio have gone on the attack against public employee, chiefly teachers’ unions.  A public spellbound by media spin ever touting the virtues of turning every sphere of life over to the almighty “free market” is starting to question that reigning dogma.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s attempt to bust teachers’ unions and claim dictatorial powers over the state’s economy roused demonstrations in Madison not seen since the Vietnam era.  And in these demonstrations, police and fire fighters stood shoulder to shoulder with teachers, students and university teaching assistants. Realizing that they have gotten something much different from what they expected in last fall’s elections, Wisconsinites are now busily seeking the recall of Republican legislators and ultimately Governor Walker.

In neighboring Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder has aroused tremendous public ire by ramming a bill through the Republican legislature that gives him the power to declare a financial emergency in any locality and appoint a financial czar to replace the local government.  This has already been done in the town of Benton Harbor, much to the consternation of its residents.  Are political ideologues, pawns of moguls like the fossil fuel industry’s Koch brothers, at last overreaching and provoking real populist resistance?  I hope so, since our very democratic process is under assault from armies of corporate feudalists.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.