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
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
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.