The GOP's Mixed Emotions on Anger
The national Republican leadership embraced anger during the first two years of Barack Obama’s term with rank-and-file Republicans even brandishing guns at rallies. But anger is suddenly a bad thing again, at least when expressed by public employees defending their collective bargaining rights.
Following press reports that the Democratic National Committee and the pro-Obama Organizing for America were lending support to the labor uprising in Wisconsin, House Speaker John Boehner chastised the President for fueling anger on the Left.
“I urge the President to order the DNC to suspend these tactics,” Boehner said in a statement on Feb. 17. “This is not the way you begin an 'adult conversation' in America about solutions to the fiscal challenges that are destroying jobs in our country.”
Boehner went on: "Rather than shouting down those in office who speak honestly about the challenges we face, the President and his advisers should lead. Until they do, they are not focusing on jobs, and they are not listening to the American people who put them in power."
In the pre-Wisconsin-uprising days -- of just one week ago -- Boehner and participants at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference were still riding the wave of right-wing populist anger against Obama and against his “Obamacare” health-insurance reform.
During that anger-is-good phase, which began the moment Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, Republican leaders defended disruptive Tea Party protesters who were deployed at Democratic-organized “town hall” meetings on the health-care bill.
Many of those town hall debates degenerated into bizarre spectacles of right-wing activists shouting down elected representatives, drawing comparisons between health-care reform and Nazi eugenics programs, and in some cases using physical violence. Some Tea Party activists carried guns to a location where Obama spoke and to a park near Washington, D.C.
In those crazy days, very few Republican leaders spoke out against these tactics, claiming that the fury was just a natural part of the democratic process when you had Americans objecting to legislative changes. (Sen. John McCain of Arizona was one of the few exceptions, tweeting during the acrimonious health-care debate that “we should allow everyone to express their views without disruption – even if we disagree.”)
It took actual acts of violence against some Democratic members of Congress, such as an attempted attack on the home of Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello, before Boehner declared that violence against members of Congress was “unacceptable.” But still he added a caveat in defense of the anger.
“I know many Americans are angry over this health-care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren't listening,” Boehner said, though adding that violence was “not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change.”
That wave of anger – combined with record-setting spending on political commercials – lifted the Republicans to electoral victories last November. Republicans not only reclaimed the U.S. House, but also picked up around 700 state legislative seats and 11 governorships.
With this new-found power in state capitals as well as in Washington, the Republican leadership began reverting back to its pre-Obama attitudes toward public anger – decrying as irrational any anger on the Left toward Republican policies. Remember the endless commentary depicting criticism of George W. Bush’s war policies as “Bush derangement syndrome.”
However, the GOP attitude toward anger actually appears to operate on parallel tracks simultaneously. For instance, Republicans denounce the anger voiced by Wisconsin public employees over loss of their collective bargaining rights but defend anger directed toward those same public employees.
Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who represents a Wisconsin district, defended Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to alter the contract status of public employees while simultaneously lashing out at those workers.
Ryan told MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" program on Feb. 17 that Walker was “basically saying ‘I want you public workers to pay half of what our private-sector counterparts’ and he's getting riots – it's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days."
Suddenly, mass demonstrations by angry citizens are not simply examples of people exercising their constitutional rights but “riots” akin to the violent street battles in the Middle East. Yet, as the fact-checking Web site Politifact pointed out, even the police departments in Wisconsin have remarked on how civil the demonstrators have been.
“For the most part, people have been very respectful and very orderly,” said Elise Schaffer, public information officer for the Dane County Sheriff’s Department. “It certainly has been a very peaceful protest.” (Politifact gave Ryan’s statement a “pants on fire” designation, its lowest rating for accuracy.)
Besides the inaccuracy of calling the Madison protests “riots” – conjuring up images of burning cars and damaged property – prominent Republicans also are questioning whether the demonstrators are acting on their own or are simply being manipulated into illegal protests by Obama’s White House for its own political gain.
Former Bush political adviser Karl Rove asked on Fox News, “the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, which have been providing buses, making phone calls, organizing the protests, have they been in essence facilitating people breaking the law?”
Rove further suggested that Obama was “trying to muscle the state legislature in Wisconsin and the governor through using the Democratic National Committee and its own political arm, Organizing for America, to try to force an outcome that he wants to benefit the labor movement.”
Others on the Right have gone so far as to raise the specter of communist revolution in Wisconsin.
Glenn Beck’s Web site, The Blaze, has published a video shot by the MacIver Institute, which bills itself as the “free market voice of Wisconsin.” Featuring members of the International Socialist Organization and the Socialist Workers Party hawking newspapers outside of the Wisconsin state capitol, the video implies that the protests are being used to facilitate the global revolution that Beck has been warning about on his daily TV show and radio program.
As anyone who has ever attended labor or anti-war rallies is aware, there are often representatives of various left-wing groups present, selling newspapers and attempting to recruit members. These individuals are for the most part ignored, but in the minds of Beck’s followers, they represent clear evidence of a vast socialist-Islamist conspiracy.
During the Egypt uprising, on Feb. 3, Beck warned on his radio program that “Groups from the hardcore socialist left, and extreme Islam will work together because of the common enemy of Israel” and because their mutual objective is to “overturn relative stability, because in the status quo, they are both ostracized from power and the mainstream in most of the world.”
Yet, as right-wing pundits and politicians claim the Wisconsin labor protests are orchestrated by the White House and socialist agitators, the Right is quietly orchestrating its own counter-protests – with money and organization from the outside.
As ThinkProgress reported, Gov. Walker’s top political ally in Wisconsin is the Kansas-based energy company Koch Industries, a giant private company owned by David and Charles Koch, major funders of the Tea Party movement and various anti-regulatory think tanks and right-wing pressure groups.
In Wisconsin, Koch Industries owns a coal company subsidiary with facilities in Green Bay, Manitowoc, Ashland and Sheboygan, six timber plants and a large network of pipelines throughout the state.
“Koch Industries was one of the biggest contributors to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign, funneling $43,000 over the course of last year,” ThinkProgress reported, and “Koch front groups are closely guiding the Walker agenda.”
Now, in response to the growing labor unrest in the state, Koch front groups are busing in Tea Party protesters to support Walker’s anti-union campaign. MSNBC’s Ed Schultz reported on the involvement of Club for Growth and the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity in the pro-Walker rally on Feb. 19.
While the Feb. 19 protests and counter-protests remained peaceful, they revived images of the August 2009 health-care town hall meetings, with rancorous shouting matches between the two sides. As the Washington Post reported regarding Walker’s plan to strip collective bargaining rights, “the opposing groups traded ear-splitting chants of ‘Kill the bill!’ and ‘Pass the bill!’”
“Some demonstrators ended up in nose-to-nose arguments over whether unions were bankrupting the state or protecting its workers. Others simply traded insults and made obscene gestures from a distance,” the Post said.
Signs held by the counter-demonstrators indicated that the public employees are being greedy in their demands. “Your Gravy Train Is Over,” read one, while another said “Welcome to the Recession.”
But some public employees said their main concern was holding on to their collective bargaining rights and they expressed a willingness to accept some pay cuts. Stacy Smith, a first-grade teacher, told the Post, "People are willing to give up the money, but we're not willing to give up our rights.”
As the two sides dig in their heals and harden their views, public opinion seems to be up for grabs. It is clear that both the Left and the Right are working hard to portray the Wisconsin protests in the most favorable or negative light, while perhaps the bigger picture is being lost.
What is clear is that Wisconsin may be just the first of many states in which this battle will play out.
As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a rally in Madison, “This is a coordinated effort by the Republican Party to destroy the labor movement in this country. If Wisconsin passes this, there are at least another 12 to 15 states that will try it.”
If that is the case, the United States will surely find itself falling even further behind the rest of the developed world in terms of its respect for labor rights.
As the U.S.-based Freedom House said in a 2010 report, “the United States is almost alone among economically advanced democracies in its lack of a strong trade union movement in the private sector. While in the decade after World War II some 35 percent of workers in the nonagricultural private sector were represented by unions, by 2009 that figure had fallen below 8 percent.”
Freedom House, which traditionally challenges authoritarian dictatorships over denials of freedom, designated the United States as only “partly free” in its survey of global workers’ rights.
“The ability of workers to join trade unions and engage in collective bargaining has been gradually restricted through legislation, regulatory decisions, and court verdicts,” Freedom House noted.
Freedom House pointed out that the public sector is the only area of the economy that has seen its union ranks grow over the past several decades. Over 35 percent of public employees are represented by unions, but as Freedom House observed, “even public-sector unions may suffer as governments are forced to cope with unsustainable budget deficits.”
For this reason, the coming budget battles – and legislation like that proposed in Wisconsin – could prove decisive to the very existence of a labor movement in America.
It is unclear whether the Obama administration will continue in its stated support for the Wisconsin public employees or succumb to Republican pressure to pull back from the fight. In recent decades, the Democrats have not had a great track record for standing firm.
The Angry Label
Given the Right’s upper hand in media and other political infrastructure, the Republicans also may succeed in maintaining their two-track approach toward anger, fanning it among their Tea Party backers while tamping it down when displayed by public employees and progressives.
In recent years, Republicans have had great success in portraying anti-war and other protesters as irrationally angry and incapable of civil discourse.
For instance, in the early 2004 presidential campaign, “liberal anger” over the Iraq war, tax cuts for the wealthy and other Republican policies was considered an albatross that could pull down any Democratic politician tied to it.
An early victim was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who had emerged as an early favorite in the Democratic primaries, but was deemed “too angry” by some commentators. “Mainstream America,” the pundits warned, would not relate to Dean’s “angry persona,” an argument that contributed to the collapse of his candidacy and the choice of the more sedate John Kerry.
As Kerry’s national campaign began, the national Democratic Party sought to distance itself from the likes of Michael Moore, whose gutsy film “Fahrenheit 911” was deemed “extreme” in its criticism of the Bush presidency.
This repudiation of progressive anger was taken to absurd levels at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where the Kerry camp ordered speakers to refrain from criticism of Bush. The keynote address by then-Senate candidate Barack Obama didn’t even mention Bush’s name, stressing instead a positive message about America’s traditions and potential.
The Democratic strategy didn’t work out well, with Bush narrowly besting Kerry thanks to Ohio’s disputed electoral votes.
However, as the Democrats shed some of their timidity in 2006 and 2008 – and at least paid lip service to the outrage roiling their “base” – they did much better at the polls. That, however, was followed by the messy governance of 2009 and 2010 when the Democrats futilely sought bipartisanship from Republicans and turned their backs on many progressive concerns.
Meanwhile, as right-wing funders got busy handing out money to anti-Obama activists, Republicans embraced (or winked at) Tea Party extremism. The surge of energy on the Right and the demoralization of many on the Left led to the Republican triumphs in November 2010.
Now, the question is: Have the Democrats learned a lesson? With progressive populism on the rise in reaction to Republican tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for regular Americans, do the Democrats have a deeper appreciation for the political potential from this renewed activism and, yes, this anger?
Or will Obama and the Democrats trade away the passions of the moment for some small tactical concession from Boehner and the Republicans? Given the surprise expressed by many progressives that Obama even spoke up for the Wisconsin protesters, smart money might well be betting on the latter result, not the former.
However, at the very least, the GOP’s growing aggressiveness against organized labor – and the pushback from workers – might force the Democrats into a somewhat more combative stance, at least rhetorically, on the issue of collective bargaining rights and possibly other progressive causes.
Learning from the Republicans, the national Democrats might even tap into their long-lost anger.
Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.
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