The conservative class war on the American middle class and poor has seen three stages, with each building on the previous one. The first, begun in the late 1960s and early ’70s, involved the creation of a series of right-wing institutions to undermine the bipartisan establishment and recast its view of reality. Next came a sustained and successful effort to rewrite the tax code to shift the burden away from corporate America and the wealthiest Americans toward the rest of us, together with the weakening of the case for government responsibility for programs that serve the less advantaged. The arguments for these changes originated with the same think tanks and media organizations that were founded in (or helped guide) the creation stage. Third came the final attack on the legitimacy of all groups in society that might prove to be impediments to the new right’s influence. Members of the media, academia, the labor movement and the nonprofit sector were all considered targets, as they were seen to be advocates for causes and people deemed to be beyond the purview of legitimate government action.
Recent events in Wisconsin provide a textbook example of how the process has worked until this point. Governor Scott Walker’s assault on the right of public workers to bargain collectively, among other clearly punitive restrictions, comes despite the fact that they have already conceded the givebacks he has demanded for budgetary purposes. That’s because the savings are not the point; the politics are. Walker’s campaign is, as Politico reported, the “result of methodical polling, lobbying, messaging, grassroots organizing and policy crafting by a coterie of well-funded conservative groups.”
Private sector unions have already been decimated by changes in the global economy, but also, significantly, by the rewriting of labor law in Congress and the courts, which have crippled their ability to organize in the workplace. This relentless assault on unions was facilitated by the appointment of countless conservative judges to the state and federal judiciary under Presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush. (Reagan’s 1981 firing of America’s air-traffic controllers and busting of PATCO was merely the opening salvo in this war.) As not more than 7 percent of the private workforce are now unionized, their public counterparts are perhaps the final barrier to the unchallenged domination of American politics by the power of money.
Any number of right-wing billionaires and institutions over the past few decades have invested millions, occasionally tens or even hundreds of millions, to reach this moment. These include individuals like Nelson Bunker Hunt, Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and Rupert Murdoch, and organizations like the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, etc. The men of the hour, however, are the energy moguls David and Charles Koch. They helped fund Walker’s campaign and the Republican Governors Association, which pitched in as well. Upon Walker’s victory, David Koch sent executives from Koch Industries to try “to encourage a union showdown,” as Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, helpfully explained to the New York Times. AFP has spent more than $340,000 on television and radio ads in support of Walker’s bill, and bused in Tea Party supporters to hold pro-Walker demonstrations. But this is just the tip of an extremely costly iceberg that involves coordinated efforts by dozens of right-wing organizations working in conjunction with one another, both locally and nationally.
By now it should be obvious to anyone who examines the matter carefully that public employee compensation (including healthcare and pension benefits) is not the cause of Wisconsin’s budget woes (nor those in Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, etc.). Not only have Wisconsin’s public workers already offered the givebacks Walker demands but his budget also includes budget-busting tax cuts that, according to Wisconsin’s nonpartisan fiscal office, “will reduce general fund tax collections by $55.2 million in 2011-12 and $62.0 million in 2012-13.” Indeed, the entire argument regarding overpaid public workers is a smokescreen. As many studies have demonstrated, government workers actually earn slightly less than private sector workers with similar characteristics.
The political power of public unions, not their pensions, is the point. Speaking at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee convention, Scott Hagerstrom of Americans for Prosperity explained, “We fight these battles on taxes and regulation, but really what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.” The problem, complains Steven Malanga of the counterestablishment Manhattan Institute in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, is that “public-sector unions especially have become the nation’s most aggressive advocates for higher taxes and spending. They sponsor tax-raising ballot initiatives and pay for advertising and lobbying campaigns to pressure politicians into voting for them. And they mount multimillion dollar campaigns to defeat efforts by governors and taxpayer groups to roll back taxes.”
In a way, CNBC’s famous Tea Party ranter, Rick Santelli, is correct in his now infamous observation, offered on Meet the Press, that the cost of fairly negotiated public pensions is somehow the equivalent of Al Qaeda’s mass murder of 3,000 innocent Americans on 9/11. (The very fact that something so deeply moronic could be said—and even worse, go unchallenged—on America’s most prestigious political program is itself a victory for conservative class warriors.) Both are seen by conservatives as politically fortuitous events to be exploited rather than problems to be addressed. One can only wonder if and when members of the media will finally wake up to the costs to this country of continuing to play along.