03/01/2011 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Be Like Ike, Wisconsin

So now Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly have taken the first significant action to take away collective bargaining rights from most public workers. And lawmakers in Indiana, Maine, Missouri and seven other states plan to introduce legislation that would bar private-sector unions from forcing workers to pay dues or fees, reducing their treasuries. Meanwhile, the Ohio governor wants to ban strikes by public school teachers. And lest we think it's a strictly partisan issue, Democrats Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown supported pay freezes for public employees.

So when the pundits are in overdrive, what can I say calmly and respectfully that would shed any additional light on this issue? Only that the civil disobedience we've seen in front of these state houses is yet another manifestation of the central fault line in American politics -- the big government/small government dialectic, which has been the focus of our national debate for a half century at least. You should know that it has its roots in the Goldwater defeat in the 1964 Presidential election. Read George Packer's extraordinary piece about this in the New Yorker -- in my mind, a landmark piece of political analysis. And ensuing generations have used the words small government/big government as tent poles for a whole host of things -- small government equates with pro-business and anti-regulation while big government means pro-union, pro-entitlements and pro-oversight. So, for the canny political operator, the formula is simple: paint big government as insidious, bloated, socialist and creating a culture of entitlement; and small government as embracing the free market, individual rights and the constitution. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, over the last fifty years, it has been the cardinal meme of American politics and been conscripted by just about every successful politician who's run for office since.

Fifty years later, we're still waging the big government/small government war. These last few weeks, it has fueled splenetic Op-Ed pieces and 24-hour news-channel coverage surveying this latest dust up. Reading these commentators, one is struck by how they place themselves under these broad rubrics without entirely understanding the ramifications of what they're saying (I see this on both sides). Rather than the oft-maligned-as-elitist Times or the Post, consider this very emblematic quote from an Op-Ed in the Springfield News-Leader in MO:

"Let's think about Zenith (Corporation) in Springfield. This was a fine manufacturing plant with many good employees working there. Management discovered they could move their operation to Mexico and save millions of dollars in their labor rates, thus improving the bottom line for the company and their stockholders. Meanwhile, the union stood by, steadfast and complained, but offered little to match the labor rates of the Mexicans. As a result, they still had their proud union, but the Mexicans had their jobs. This same scenario has unfortunately been repeated by too many corporations, too many times in the last several years, with little attempt to match the foreign labor rates. Because of their selfish desire to keep their standard of living as high as possible, they would never consider matching the rates of a Third World country in order to keep jobs in this country."

This passage, extraordinary for its level of cognitive dissonance is a sign of how effective the half-century old screed against big government (aka in this case, public-sector unions) has been. The author here doesn't think to ascribe any responsibility to the companies which actually made the decision to relocate jobs to other countries (facilitated, incidentally, by the deregulation passed by small-government advocates) or to consider the implications of asking American workers to accept the same wages as their counterparts in countries where the cost of living is dramatically less (consumer prices including rent in the United States are 61% higher than in Mexico).

What's also remarkable in this symptomatic passage is the notion that unionized employees have caused everything from the erosion of our manufacturing base to our state budget shortfalls. As a point of comparison, consider Germany which has the highest degree of worker control on the planet since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Germany remains the 2nd largest exporter in the world behind low-cost China. They have six weeks of federally mandated vacation, free university tuition, nursing care, and childcare. For those pundits who decry the culture of entitlement that unionization fosters, it may be useful to note that the Germans equal or surpass us in terms of productivity, even though American workers work more -- 1,804 hours versus their 1,436 hours. The irony is that the German workers rights movement is a legacy of the United States: the 1945 European constitutions and the UN Charter of Human Rights were the progeny of Eleanor Roosevelt and the New Deal under the aegis of the Marshall Plan.

The current standoff is based on a premise that's similarly problematic. According to data gathered by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, there is no causal relationship between collective bargaining and budget deficits. While Wisconsin will have a budget deficit of 12.8 percent for 2012, North Carolina, which does not have collective bargaining, faces a higher deficit of 20 percent. Ohio, which has collective bargaining, has a deficit that is about half the size of the non-union North Carolina's. Facts like these have to matter, give us pause and serve to temper the rhetoric.

What's bothersome today isn't the notion of having an honest debate on collective bargaining (having been a union member in the past, I'm well aware of its faults) but the disingenuousness of the rhetoric, the terrible taxonomy of this national discussion. Once again, we are being asked to see this through the prism of partisan, binary politics -- this is the puerile "us against them" stuff that the media is so good at fomenting. But it isn't that simple. For those who may associate collective bargaining with the left wing of the Democratic Party, it may be valuable to know that people of impeccable Republican credentials supported it. Nelson Rockefeller, Republican Vice President, Governor of New York and fixture of the Nixon and Ford administrations was one. He worked with the legislature and unions to create pension programs for many public workers, such as teachers, professors, firefighters, police officers, and prison guards. In fact, he proposed the first statewide minimum wage law in the US which was increased five times during his administration. Moving further up the GOP pantheon, we find war hero and President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who helped promote unions. It is worth quoting him at length -- from a speech he gave in 1955:

"You of organized labor and those who have gone before you in the union movement have helped make a unique contribution to the general welfare of the Republic-the development of the American philosophy of labor...Workers want recognition as human beings and as individuals-before everything else. They want a job that gives them a feeling of satisfaction and self-expression. Good wages, respectable working conditions, reasonable hours, protection of status and security; these constitute the necessary foundations on which you build to reach your higher aims. The American worker strives for betterment not by destroying his employer and his employer's business, but by understanding his employer's problems of competition, prices, markets. And the American employer can never forget that, since mass production assumes a mass market, good wages and progressive employment practices for his employee are good business."

But back to the present. The locution that galvanized me more than any was this in a statement from Governor Walker: "We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots." "Haves and have-nots". This is a further and very skillful skewering of the schema that was formed 50 years ago. Rather than big government versus small government, it's now us versus labor. Now, we are being asked to see public employees as our nemesis, a kind of rogue element within the electorate intent on wreaking economic ruin. It is this kind of invidiousness that Eisenhower himself counseled against and hearing Ike makes you nostalgic for a time when political expression sounded different. Take a listen:

"The second principle of this American labor philosophy is this: the economic interest of employer and employee is a mutual prosperity. Their economic future is inseparable. Together they must advance in mutual respect, in mutual understanding, toward mutual prosperity. Of course, there will be contests over the sharing of the benefits of production; and so we have the right to strike and to argue all night, when necessary, in collective bargaining sessions. But in a deeper sense, this surface struggle is subordinate to the overwhelming common interest in greater production and a better life for all to share."

We should have an honest discussion about collective bargaining; the question is how. As the debate moves to the governors' mansions and legislatures of Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, I hope we can emulate Ike's clarity, seriousness and idealism.