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 percolating campaign message was anything that sounded anti-Obama or anti-Pelosi. This message had a ripple effect through every level of government, from Congress to state house races to governorships. How did the Democrats combat this message? As Jon Stewart said, 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. These circumstances working in tandem led to an influx of Republicans in political offices across the country. Unfortunately, the majority of voters – those in the lower and middle class – who cast their ballot for Republicans were unknowingly voting against their own interests.
When Republicans took over in January, they made the claim that the budget deficit was the source of all of our woes and thus began cutting social programs right and left. They did this despite the fact that most respectable economists were saying that in times as economically depressed as these, the deficit, while important in the long run, should take a provisional back seat to spending and investing in job creation – i.e. taking a short-term hit in order to facilitate long-term growth. But the Republicans took this newfound power and began cutting many programs for the middle and lower classes from the federal budget.
Planned Parenthood was one of the first institutions targeted for funding cuts. They receive federal funds to help poorer women with a wide array of issues: prenatal care, postnatal care, the dissemination of contraceptives, and information campaigns to help protect women from STDs. They also offer, at 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 and voting to strip their funding. It didn’t matter that Planned Parenthood provides the services it does with the hope that it would prevent the need for abortions. And it didn’t matter that cutting their funding would make only a microscopic dent in the deficit. If it had not been for Senate Democrats stopping this measure, this very important service would have become obsolete for many Americans who desperately need it.
Then came the 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 concepts 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 states like 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 shore up on the backs of middle class union workers. The Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, was not looking for shared sacrifice when pushing this initiative; instead, he was going after an institution which was vital in developing and maintaining a strong middle class.
After the pensions and health benefits were on the table, 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 of a union to have one united voice when negotiating the terms of their contracts, benefits, etc. 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 wonder whether their vote to install Governor Walker and a Republican-controlled state legislature in 2010 had been the right one. (In fact, shortly after the Wisconsin controversy, Public Policy Polling released a poll which showed that if a recall election were held for the governor, the majority of voters would have voted for his Democratic opponent4).
One of the best recent examples of how Republican austerity measures have awakened a sleeping beast in the body politic is the high number of large-scale disasters that have struck our country, from flooding to hurricanes to 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 scientists and scholars 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 the most recent Congress have been nothing but devastating to those least fortunate among us. But upon reading into it, some of those questioned in the piece actually believed that everyone in an elected position was to blame with 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? As has been shown, the only reason disparaged areas are having difficulty obtaining the resources they need to recover is because the Republican-controlled House will not provide any emergency funds. One can only guess that the blaming of the government as a whole is a direct result of what people hear on the news. To be frank, the mainstream media has not been doing its job very well. When people blame both Democrats – the party trying to rush emergency aid to ravaged areas because, well, it’s an emergency – and Republicans – the party that is withholding funding until someone pays for it now – it should be clear that the proper message is not being conveyed to the public. Lately, it seems the main news outlets have succumbed to the conventional wisdom in Washington that real reporting consists of, “One side says this; the other says that,” and never challenges 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 funds have run out and more are requested, Congress has always provided supplemental funding and worried about offsetting the costs later.
Ornstein’s admonition 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 they got what they wanted? How does this fit into the description of politics as the art of compromise? Moreover, what policies are Republicans advocating that are in the best interests of the average voter in this country? Voters bought into the notion that the people who just got done turning President Clinton’s budget surplus into a skyrocketing deficit – 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 that they could fix the economy by implementing the exact same policies as before.
What is involved in this approach? Instead of shared sacrifice, their policies asked the lower, middle and working classes to bear most of the brunt. They then turned right around and demand 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 loans (and, incredulously, the economic proposals of every serious contender for the GOP nominee for president includes even more corporate tax breaks10). No, according to Republican officials and most people who have been schooled in the thought of “Washington Conventional Wisdom,” 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 cannot do any good. If it were not for liberals in government, society would not enjoy the social safety nets that we have today (such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), social safety nets which protect the vast majority of low and middle-class Americans. As I have asserted in the past,11, 12 Democrats, for whatever reason, seem to be having a very difficult time making their case. The Democratic Party’s platform – comprising policies centered on strengthening the middle class and attending to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised – is inherently in the best interests of the vast majority of Americans. The Republicans stand up for the richest one percent13; the Democrats stand up for the other 99. Democrats concern themselves with the plight of the poor, and they decry the growing inequality between the rich and everyone else. Yet Americans continue to vote for the party whose elected officials have created a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. It may be said officials have constructed a narrative in which support of higher taxes is deemed unpatriotic because it “punishes success.” Or it may be that many Americans still believe in the American Dream: that they will one day be in that top income bracket.
As the cliché goes, elections have consequences. For the sake of moving our country forward, building a stronger middle class, and putting us back on sound economic footing, it is vital that voters remedy the results of last election. The 2012 election will give them a chance to do just that. If a frank distinction between the two parties is not made clear to voters sometime soon, they will continue to vote against their own interests without even realizing it. Only after receiving an unfortunate wake-up call might they want to change their ways. And by then, I’m afraid it will be too late.