With the latest turn of events in Wisconsin, Republican state senators have circumvented the need for a quorum vote on Scott Walker's budget bill by leaving out the fiscal clauses and passing the new laws curbing collective bargaining rights for state and public employees. This dubious tactical manoeuvre strips away the pretence that Walker and his GOP allies have hitherto maintained that the legislative package was necessary to close the state's budget deficit: Walker's objective is, as protesters in Madison have argued all along, to break the last vestige of organised labour strength in the US – the power of public sector workers to organise and negotiate collectively. Stated or not, Walker's ambition is to complete what Ronald Reagan began 30 years ago.
But the legislative chicanery in Madison's Capitol smacks of desperation. It may yet prove that the right in the US has overreached in its attack on public sector unions, provoking the left/liberal base of the Democratic party, a popular uprising in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and a backlash among the public. The latest Rasmussen poll shows Wisconsin voters disapproving of Governor Scott Walker by a margin of 57% to 43%, with 48% saying they "strongly disapprove". But there are also some positive lessons that American progressives and liberals could learn from the right's political strategy.
It is not just that these rightwing governors like Scott Walker and John Kasich (Ohio), and other Republican leaders, are willing to take risks and fight for what they want. It is also that they fight for structural reforms – reforms that change the political terrain so that it will be more favourable for the next battle and for the "long war" to which they are committed.
Undermining and destroying collective bargaining rights is one of the most important structural reforms that any rightwing government in a developed country can win. And it is not just because, as has been widely noted, that unions contribute money to the campaigns of Democratic candidates. It is much deeper than that. Organised labour is relatively weak now, but for more than a century, it has been the most important force for positive economic reforms in the United States, from the eight-hour work day, to health insurance and Medicare, social security, pensions and minimum wages. The labour slogan, "Unions: the folks who brought you the weekend", is a true but vastly understated historical reality in America.
Ronald Reagan understood this very clearly when he fired 12,000 air traffic controllers soon after taking office in 1981 to break their strike and begin a new era of labour suppression, in which private sector workers all but lost their rights to organise unions. His agenda was so radical that it scared many conservatives – which was one reason he lost the 1976 Republican nomination. Even after he won the presidency in 1980, much of the business class was not convinced that it was possible to revert to 19th-century labour relations – until Reagan did it. Unions were 20% of the private sector labour force when Reagan was elected; they are 6.9% today.
Crushing organised labour was essential to a number of Reagan's other historic achievements, including launching the most massive upward redistribution of income and wealth in US history. During the 25 years after he took office, the after-tax real (inflation-adjusted) income of the richest 1% would more than triple, while the average American's income would barely grow at all. But there was so much more that he accomplished in the world of rightwing ideas – on foreign policy, tax reform and more. Without much of a mandate from voters, Reagan was nonetheless a president who transformed the world, perhaps more than any single person in the second half of the 20th century. Unfortunately for the world, the changes that he led made most people worse-off – and in places like Central America, tens of thousands were killed by the dictators, death squad governments and "freedom fighters" that he championed.
Contrast the leadership of Reagan and even today's far less skilled Republicans to their counterparts on the Democratic side. Bill Clinton also fought for structural reforms. His top legislative priority during his first year in office was fighting for Nafta, which helped to further undermine labour in the United States. By creating the World Trade Organisation and implementing welfare reform and financial deregulation, Clinton continued the rightwing structural changes of the Reagan era – so much so that there wasn't much left for George W Bush to do when he took office. Bush tried to go after social security, but was defeated. (Clinton had a very similar plan for partial privatisation and cuts to social security, but had also backed off under political pressure.)
Now we come to President Obama, who really did have a mandate for change, as the majority of the electorate finally rebelled against nearly four decades of rightwing reforms and the pain and anxiety caused by the Great Recession. One structural reform that Obama had promised in his campaign to support was the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have gone a long way towards restoring the collective bargaining rights that Reagan had destroyed. President Obama quickly backtracked on this promise.
On healthcare, Obama also retreated from his pledge to support a public option – which was not so much a structural reform in itself as merely an opening to the structural healthcare reform that this country needs. Real healthcare reform would be a vital progressive structural change, not least because it would eliminate the long-term deficit problem in the United States and thereby remove the main pillar of the rightwing budget cuts agenda.
The list could go on, but my point is not to attack Obama. He is simply representative of Democratic political leadership after nearly four decades of rightward drift, which has been helped along by conservative structural reforms. This is something that the pundits get wrong every day: it is not because this is an inherently conservative country that liberal leadership is so weak. Although polling results fluctuate widely with media coverage and the framing of the polling questions, for decades there have been polls showing majorities in favour of real healthcare reform (Medicare for all), deep cuts in military spending, an end to US military intervention abroad, increased taxes for the rich, government spending to increase employment (as needed now) and most of the progressive agenda.
The problem lies not in the people but in the corridors of power, in the media and the Congress and the many institutions – including liberal ones – that have been shifted rightwards by strategic efforts over the last 40 years. That is why progressives find themselves fighting defensive battles, as in Wisconsin – while the right, which has neither the presidency nor the Senate – plays offence. It will take some time to get to the point where progressive structural reforms are on the agenda.
But that time will come, and the mass uprisings in support of collective bargaining are a great and inspiring start where new leadership and organising will emerge. Inshallah (God willing), as they say in Egypt.
This article was also published in The Guardian.