Legislative walk-outs: The system is busted 

It hardly matters what side you're on, Democrat or Republican, worker or boss, the legislative walkouts in Indiana and Wisconsin are a sign of how far our representative form of government has fallen.

I know that for plenty of people, the Democrats' decisions to walk and bring the legislative processes in their respective states to a halt are heroic acts. If I were an elected Democrat in either the Indiana House or the Wisconsin Senate, I would have gone to Illinois, too.

But everyone involved has to know we're on thin ice here. And the ice is melting.

It's not as though we couldn't see this coming. For years now there's been a steady degradation of our politics, starting with Ronald Reagan's declaration that government was the problem, not the solution to social ills.

That was a catchy sound bite. If it had been allowed to stand as an observation that — when it comes to educating children, for example — government can only do so much, Reagan's assertion would have been fine, a useful extension of John Kennedy's exhortation for people to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.

Instead, Reagan's words became a battle cry for those who believe that government can't do anything right. Not only that, views that had previously been considered paranoid, like the notion that the government is somehow conspiring against us, became politically fashionable.

Time goes by. And the political discussion in this country has gradually eroded from a debate about the appropriate functions and priorities of government to a bitter argument over government's very existence.

A not-so-funny thing has happened on the way to this impasse. As politicians have used anti-government sentiment to get themselves elected to government posts, they have often succeeded in making government as ineffectual as they say it is.

This would be bad enough. But the anti-government folks have tended to have another arrow in their quiver. That's the belief, nurtured by generous campaign contributions by wealthy individuals and corporations, that America's business is serving business.

Health care, welfare, nursing homes and prisons, schools, highways and the water we drink: as far as anti-government folks are concerned, all these things can be better provided by people who define value according to the bottom line.

But it turns out that businesses are no more virtuous or efficient than government. Have you tried negotiating with a health insurance corporation, a big bank or telecommunications company lately?

And after over a decade of government policy aimed at making the rich richer, how much better off are you?

Democrats in Indiana and Wisconsin responded in the only way they had left to an onslaught of Republican legislation inspired by the belief that, when it comes to workers' rights and public services, government should be small and powerless.

In both states, Republicans have argued that they won decisive majorities in the last election and, therefore, are carrying out the will of the people.

Democrats counter that, while voters wanted change in the last election, they weren't necessarily endorsing the specific proposals Republicans have brought forth. What's more, they say, the rule of the majority should not be used to take away rights previously awarded to unions.

If everyone concerned shared a general belief in the value and role of government, the proposals that caused walkouts in both states could have been debated to the point where meaningful compromise was attained.

But compromise is only possible when both sides are able to admit that neither is certain about what's true. As long as either side clings to the certainty of its position, compromise looks like defeat.

Republicans in both states were loaded with certainty when they entered this year's legislative session. In business terms, they saw their majorities as effective monopolies that would enable them to "own" their respective markets and effectively redefine labor-management relations, breaking the unions — and a major source of support for Democratic candidates — in the process.

Rather than be defeated, Democratic legislators walked out.

As I stated earlier, this move has been seen as heroic by working people. They stand to lose the most if Republicans have their way.

But I also can't shake the feeling that we have crossed a line. I know how thwarted I would feel if policies I supported were blocked by a walk-out. At that point, those of us who believe in government as the peoples' advocate would have to wonder what it would take to get things back on track, and how you govern when so many of us are certain government doesn't work.

What happens if walkouts become the default mode of doing legislative business — the way the filibuster has changed our understanding of what constitutes a majority in Congress?

The toothpaste is out of the tube. I have a sinking feeling this suits many of our politicians just fine.

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