Written by: Michael Baharaeen
In the 2010 midterm elections, the country held a national referendum on the policies of President Obama and the Democrats, or rather how Republicans characterized these policies. There is no other way to explain it because the GOP’s resounding campaign message was persistently anti-Obama/Pelosi/Democrats. This message had a ripple effect through every level of government, from Congress to governorships to state house races. How did the Democrats combat this message? As Jon Stewart mused, when challenging DNC Chair Tim Kaine on his show, the only argument from Obama and the Democrats seemed to be, “Don’t vote for the other guys. They suck…worse?1”
In fact, the national dialogue from Washington at the time had become so obfuscated with mistrust and misinformation – no thanks to the endless surfeit of special interest monies to Super PACs — that voters had given up and were willing to throw out whoever was in power. We have a two-party system, the Democrats happened to be in the majority, and the economic recovery had not been quick enough for the liking of most voters, and these circumstances working in tandem led to an influx of Republicans in political offices across the country. Unfortunately, many voters in the lower and middle classes cast their ballot for Republicans, a party anathema to the former group’s economic interest.
When Republicans took over in January, they claimed that the budget deficit was the source of all of our woes and began seeking cuts to social programs right and left; this, despite the fact that most respectable economists were saying that in economically depressed times, the deficit, while important in the long run, should take a provisional back seat to government spending and investing – i.e. take a short-term hit in order to facilitate long-term growth. But the Republicans took this newfound power and began voting to eviscerate many programs from the federal budget that benefit the middle and lower classes.
Planned Parenthood was one of the first targets of these cuts. They receive federal funds to provide a wide array of services to women, especially those with lower income: prenatal care, postnatal care, contraception, and information campaigns to help protect women from STDs. They also offer, as about 3% of their services2, abortions to women in need of them. By law, federal funds are not allowed to support this service. But this did not stop Republicans from decrying the agency as providing abortion-on-demand and voting to strip their funding. It didn’t matter that Planned Parenthood provides many of their other services in order to prevent the need for abortions; it didn’t matter that their funding makes up a microscopic portion in the deficit. If it had not been for Senate Democrats stopping this measure (and presumably a veto threat by President Obama), this very important service would have become obsolete for many Americans who desperately need it.
This crusade was followed closely by union-busting. Unions, which serve to enhance workers’ rights and to ensure fair wages and worker treatment, were one of the cornerstones of America’s “Golden Years.” From the 1930s, with the introduction of the New Deal, to the 1970s, unions were thriving, as was the country. They secured better working conditions for all workers, won the five-day work week, and helped bring about the realities of paid vacations, sick leave and maternity leave. However, due to state budget cuts, public sector union pensions and health benefits were put on the table in many states, including Wisconsin. (This may have actually seemed a reasonable proposal had the state government not just given corporations huge tax breaks3, which helped create the deficit that the state was now attempting to ameliorate on the backs of the working class.) Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, was not looking for shared sacrifice when pushing this initiative; instead, he was going after an institution which was central to developing the working class.
After the pensions and health benefits were on the table, something to which the unions agreed, Governor Walker decided to go one step further and take away the right of union members to bargain collectively. The concept of collective bargaining is central to a union: it allows all members to have one united voice when negotiating the terms of their contracts, benefits, etc., with the management. Once it was obvious that the governor’s intentions had far surpassed attempting to balance the budget and had shifted to dismantling the strength of unions completely, many Wisconsinites began to reconsider their vote to install Governor Walker and a Republican-controlled state legislature in 2010. (In fact, shortly after the Wisconsin controversy, Public Policy Polling released a poll suggesting that if a recall election were held for the governor, the majority of voters would have voted for his Democratic opponent4). Additionally, others may have realized the importance of actually voting in mid-term elections.
But one of the best examples of how Republican austerity measures have awakened a sleeping beast in the body politic is their response, or lack thereof, to the increasing number of large-scale disasters that have struck our country, from flooding and hurricanes to droughts and tornadoes. Instead of providing disaster relief immediately, Republicans withheld funds until they were offset by cuts somewhere else in the budget. This has never been how the United States operates in times of emergency. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire…I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.’… I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.” (On a side note, many of the same GOP politicians voting against disaster relief then turn around and claim that we should do nothing to combat climate change, which many have stated has contributed to our recent tragedies5).
As a reminder to the American public of just how much the spending cuts have impacted everyday citizens, particularly those hurt by the recent disasters, the New York Times published a heart-wrenching, front-page story on September 26, entitled ‘Flood Victims Who Are Fed Up with Congress.6’ At first glance, I thought that people were finally waking up to the reality that the policies of this Congress have been nothing but devastating to the least fortunate among us. But upon reading into it, some of those interviewed actually believed that everyone in an elected position was to blame for the deteriorating conditions around the country, and one even suggested voting out every single incumbent: “If they are in, they should be out.”
This merits some consideration. Why have Democrats been drawn into this conversation? As one can see, the only reason devastated areas are having difficulty recovering is that the Republican-controlled House will not provide any emergency funds. One can only speculate that blaming the government as a whole is a direct result of what people hear on the news. The mainstream media has fallen victim to the ‘false equivalency’ phenomenon. When people blame both Democrats – the party trying to rush emergency aid to ravaged areas – and Republicans – the party withholding funds – for our current state of affairs, it is clear that an inaccurate message is being conveyed to the public. Cable news and other media outlets have succumbed to Conventional Wisdom Syndrome, a disease which leads one to posit that real reporting consists of, “One side says this, the other says that,” and never challenge incorrect claims or the spreading of mistruths.
Norman Ornstein recently admonished the Washington Post for its coverage of the ongoing debate over the funding of natural disasters7. In the article to which he refers, the Post columnists insinuate that both sides are at fault for our current predicament. As the piece’s authors put it, “Democrats decided to pick a fight over a side issue: an insistence by the GOP to pay for more disaster relief funding by cutting a popular auto-industry loan program. Republicans refused to back down.8” Ornstein rebukes this approach by correctly stating that in the past, when disaster relief has run out and more is requested, Congress has always provided supplemental funding and worried about offsetting the costs later.
Ornstein’s rebuke of the Post article raises important questions: how many times have the Republicans threatened to hold the country hostage during times of great distress until getting what they wanted? How does this fit the paradigm of politics as the art of compromise? Moreover, which Republican policies are in the best interests of the average voter in this country? Voters unfortunately neglected to realize that the people who only four years earlier had finished squandering President Clinton’s budget surplus – through two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy, two unfunded wars, and a very costly Medicare prescription drug program – were now somehow serious about addressing that same deficit and could fix the economy by implementing the exact same policies as before.
So how is this Congress addressing the deficit? Instead of shared sacrifice, their policies asked the middle, lower, and working classes to bear most of the brunt. In the same breath they then demanded that more tax cuts be given to the rich, or, as Republicans call them, the “job creators.” It doesn’t matter that the reason for asking the rich to pay more in taxes is because they own such a disproportionate share of the wealth9. It doesn’t matter that the “job creators” in Corporate America are sitting on $2,000,000,000,000 in unused funds and yet are still not hiring any workers or providing people with loans10. No, according to elected Republicans, all that matters is that government is evil, and those affluent enough to make campaign donations are in dire need of more tax breaks. Then they might decide to hire more workers.
People should be wary of the claim that government has no positive functions. If it were not for government – and, specifically, liberals in government – society would not enjoy the social safety nets that we have today (such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) which protect the vast majority of lower- and middle-class Americans. As I have asserted in the past11, Democrats, for whatever reason, are struggling to articulate their case for good government to the American people. The Democratic Party’s platform is comprised of policies aimed at strengthening the middle class, attending to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised, and alleviating ever-growing income inequality, while the Republicans insist on standing up, first and foremost, for the richest one percent12. Yet many Americans continue to vote for the party whose elected officials have helped create a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.
As the cliché goes, elections have consequences. For the sake of building a stronger middle class, addressing the needs of the poor, putting us back on sound economic footing, and moving our country forward, it is vital that voters learn from this last election and take note of how to remedy that result in November 2012. If a frank distinction between the two parties is not made clear to voters very soon, they will continue to elect people who do not hold the interests of the majority of voters in mind. Only after receiving an unfortunate wake-up call might these voters want to change their ways. And by then, I’m afraid it will be too late.