03/03/2011 05:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Bullying Style in American Politics

A music teacher in rural Wisconsin, my cousin Becky can hardly be mistaken for a shirker or a cheat. Warm and outgoing, blessed by a smile as open as a cornfield on a spring morning, she exudes competence and care for her students, the very image of a trustworthy educator and public servant.

But the greeting she received last month from her local conservative state lawmaker didn't square with treatment of a respected community member, much less a valued constituent. Instead of sounding her out about her concerns with legislation to strip teachers in the state of their right to form or keep a union, her Republican representative in the state Assembly alleged that she had lied to skip work. "This was a regular day off," she reports. "And to start in by attacking us? It was just unreal."

The fight over collective bargaining for public service workers now engulfing capitols in the Midwest and elsewhere is about much more than budget problems or pay and benefits of teachers and first responders. The power play against labor led by GOP governors Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Bill Haslam in Tennessee, and Chris Christie in New Jersey has its roots in a deeper dynamic.

Prolonged and systematic attacks on any group in an effort to take away their rights, voice, and respect in society are a hallmark of the bullying style in American politics. The bullying style seeks to disparage a selected target so thoroughly as to deny it prestige or sympathy, render it a pariah, and rebrand it as a threat to the common good. At its most sophisticated, it can alienate family members or colleagues from each other and transform the devoted teacher next door into a money-grubbing derelict.

Akin to the paranoid style described by Richard Hofstadter in 1964, the bullying style derives in part from prejudice, in part from opportunism. Adept at exploiting stereotypes and fears about national security and the economy, its tools are ridicule, scapegoating, blaming targets for their own mistreatment, and raw use of power to downgrade social standing.

Just like its counterpart, the bullying style represents the penetration into mainstream politics of rhetoric and practices long relegated to extremist movements, such as the anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-immigrant right wing. More associated with middle-school cliques than the hallways of state, it is now a defining aspect of conservative leadership and governance, even as its practice frustrates both leading and governing.

Bullying Style and Its Targets

The bullying style does not exempt, but instead actually directs scorn and hostility at precisely the people associated with human service, preservation of order, and caregiving in society. Recent legislative attacks by Republicans actually land law enforcement, social workers, librarians, educators, students, and advocates for environmental protection, marriage equality, disability rights, and women's reproductive health in the same coalition.

LGBT organizations and leaders, including Madison's own Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and gay-rights activists in Columbus, have heartily joined in public-service workers' protests at their capitols. One reason is that the bullying style now targeting union members resonates on deeply personal levels, inspiring active and sustained solidarity with labor.

Many conservatives profess to love the republic even while lashing out at the people who make it run. Insults convey their long-term devaluation of government and public-sector employees. Kasich in Ohio called a state police officer an "idiot" in February, before issuing an in-person apology that he first tried to phone in. Walker in Wisconsin threatened to call out his state's national guard against teachers and public servants as he readied to take away their bargaining rights.

More than simply falling prey to the bullying style, Republican elected officials are adopting it as a strategy for displaying and gaining power. In so doing, they invoke GOP electoral gains in 2010 to legitimize and prioritize attacks they barely mentioned, if at all, in their campaigns while also highlighting dire straits that may be of their own fabrication to demand compliance with their plans.

No Debate, No Excuse, No Appeal

Wisconsinites express anger that, prior to his bid to roll back 50 years of history and abolish public workers' unions, Walker squandered on tax cuts a budget surplus left him by the prior administration. Critics now allege he orchestrated the pinch in state funds and now cites a looming shortfall in order to justify removal of bargaining rights and his austerity budget.

Walker's assault on labor in Wisconsin underscores two other facets of the bullying style: punishment and attempts to close off recourse. Flight from the state by 14 Democratic state senators has denied the quorum Walker needs for getting the legislature's rubber stamp on his budget bill. Walker's response? Attempting to impose fines on the lawmakers and cut off their paychecks.

Nor would Walker give local governments any way of escaping his budget ax, an especially restrictive and contradictory stance for a small-government conservative. His plan would impose 8 percent cuts on public school funding but somehow locates new money for private school vouchers in Milwaukee. And while chopping funds for roads and local governments by more than 10 percent, Walker's budget would bar localities from fully ensuring drivers' and residents' safety by forbidding them from raising taxes to fill the shortfall.

Bullying Style in DC

Lacking control of the White House or dominance in the Senate, conservatives on Capitol Hill have displayed less of the bullying style. Still, House Republicans managed a few symbolic swipes at unions by removing the word "labor" from the Congressional committee overseeing education and, now, "the workforce." As one of their first orders of business in the new Congress, Republicans also removed votes in committee proceedings from 6 Democratic House members, including the District of Columbia's long-serving delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

They also sought to defund and shut down the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that helps set policy governing tens of millions of workers and managers in private workplaces. Though sent to the floor by the majority, the vote failed Feb. 17 as 60 Republicans joined with Democrats to defeat the measure.

Heightened Scrutiny, and Targeting

Naysaying against unions and union members is nothing new from Republicans. In Michigan, for instance, wealthy GOP donor Betsy DeVos, whose husband Dick ran for governor in 2006, repeatedly criticized the "high wages" paid to union members in the state and said that other states with anti-union "right-to-work laws have an advantage in attracting new jobs." But the DeVoses paid a price then for such ignorance and callousness toward working families fighting for their foothold in the middle class. Dick DeVos handily lost the election.

The economic downturn has scrambled Americans' notions of job security, jeopardized some states' fiscal positions, and furnished conservatives new openings to scrutinize the contracts that public-service workers have secured with state and local governments. Instead of holding up these agreements as evidence of negotiation and compromise to ensure stable staffing levels to perform vital services, conservatives have often demonized them. The fact that public service workers are the backbone of the labor movement in many states, and a fixture of the volunteer and donor corps for Democratic campaigns, adds to conservatives' temptation to attack them.

How It Backfires

But in Wisconsin and elsewhere, there are signs that residents are recoiling from the bullying style of Republicans' anti-labor onslaught. The state known for its dairy farms, breweries, and pro football triumphs has a rich progressive history, dating back to its 1848 constitution and the creation of the Republican party in the town of Ripon in 1854. Determination by the party's founders to forge a society dedicated to equality and opportunity seems absent from the anti-union demands by the modern-day Republicans just 70 miles down the road in the state capitol. Indeed, it is the growing array of labor activists and allies -- including another of my cousins, a schoolteacher from Milwaukee -- whose protest signs and chants echo that passion for basic fairness.

It is also telling that 30 years of breakthroughs in collaboration between unions and other constituencies growing in power, such as Latino and immigrant advocates and the gay and lesbian community, are paying dividends in the heat of the current showdown. Wisconsin was the first state to enact protections from discrimination for gay workers, in 1982. And two years before the murder of Matthew Shepard, Wisconsin helped alert the nation's conscience to the epidemic of school-based bullying with Ashland native Jamie Nabozny's victory in federal appellate court.

Wisconsin schools implemented new anti-bullying policies just seven months ago. My cousin Becky is struck by the fact that even as she infuses her classes with required lesson plans that stress tolerance, honesty, and compassion and touch on stopping bullies, she is facing a political attack that feels like a firsthand threat.

Perhaps, she adds with trademark good humor, it is up to the coalition of public servants and social justice advocates that has reawakened her interest in state politics to give wayward conservatives an extended course in character education.