The actions of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and other elected leaders who are following his lead speak to a striking failure of leadership: We live in an economy that has undergone massive transformations over the past several decades. Yet, instead of reckoning with the impact of these changes and understanding state-level budget troubles in light of a larger economic crisis, many of our elected officials want us to believe that states are facing difficulties for a simple reason -- because of greedy public employees.
This notion is absolutely ridiculous. If we are going to come to terms with what is happening in Wisconsin and other states where governors are launching attacks on working people disguised as efforts to deal with budget issues, we must look at a wider picture. While the particulars of each individual battle are important, in the end this is not about one state. It is about confronting the disturbing tendency among our lawmakers to seek scapegoats rather than real solutions to our nation's most central problems.
Any analysis of our common economic situation that blames middle class public employees for states' woes -- and that sees eliminating their rights as a viable solution -- overlooks a straightforward and challenging reality. We have an economy that, in the last thirty years, has gone through some of the most fundamental macroeconomic change we have seen since the transition from the agrarian economy into an industrial economy. We are now in a post-industrial economy, where the rules of competition have changed. Our goods and services are no longer insulated by national boundaries or protected by restrictive trade rules.
Yet while the working world has been turned on its head as a result of this massive macroeconomic shift, our social institutions -- our government, our labor laws, our educational systems -- have not changed to catch up. Perhaps most significantly for the states, our tax and fiscal policy have not been updated for decades.
Nobody disputes that we have massive rising deficits and budget challenges that need to be addressed. But blaming the people who provide health care, education, and vital public services is not the way out of these problems. Instead, we must hold our leaders to a higher standard and demand from them a substantive response to a changed economic reality.
Specifically, rejecting the politics of scapegoating and moving towards real solutions involves three things:
Reform our tax and fiscal structures
First, we must reform our tax and fiscal structures. At the foundation of the budget shortages in the states is a failure to truly discuss our priorities as a society. The costs of public services -- particularly health care -- have risen. However, we haven't had increases in revenue to match. Instead of pointing the finger at public employees, we have to ask hard questions of ourselves. Do we really value a given service -- whether it involves public safety, retirement security, education, or health care? If so, we cannot be debating whether employees providing these services should be paid decent wages. Instead, we need to determine how we can collectively pay for those aspects of government we have decided are critical to the health of our communities.
Although still scattered and only starting to bloom, there have been efforts in a variety of states that provide suggestions for how citizens groups can pursue real solutions with regard to tax and fiscal policy. Californians provided a model some two decades ago, when they passed a ballot initiative mandating that a minimum percentage of the state budget be spent on K-12 education, a community priority. More recently, Oregon passed a measure raising taxes on corporations and households earning more than $250,000 per year, ensuring that the state's highest earners pay their fair share and allowing the state to preserve essential services.
A November 2010 report from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) notes several instances when voters chose to preserve essential services, rejecting regressive ballot measures:
"In Arizona, Proposition 302 failed to cut funding to the state's First Things First early childcare program (30% Yes, 70% No)... [The] measure would have cut essential programs such as quality child care, early literacy programs, parenting support for at-risk families, oral health treatments for infants and toddlers, and programs to prevent child injuries or childhood obesity."
"In Colorado, Amendments 60 and 61, along with Proposition 101, constituted a triple failure for ideological right-wing interests. The amendments sought to decimate the state budget, eliminate billions in funding for services, and wipe out the state government's ability to assist working families. All three were defeated."
That voters saw through these ideologically motivated efforts and demanded more substantive approaches to meeting community needs was a positive sign.
Higher expectations of our elected leaders
A second element of moving beyond scapegoating is having higher expectations of our elected leaders, refusing to allow them to engage in the politics of division. For too long, the right wing has used issues of immigration, gay marriage, reproductive rights, and gun control to excite their base and place blame on others. Certainly, these issues present some important questions for our nation to resolve. But politicians are raising them cynically, as a way to raise hysteria and garner support without doing anything to solve the economic problems we face.
In California, where I worked in the labor movement throughout the 1990s, I saw how pro-choice and pro-union communities could effectively educate one another, agreeing on the values they held in common and uniting around candidates who could address their common concerns. In recent elections, we saw again that voters could come together to reject cynical moves by conservatives to exploit cultural wedge issues. BISC cites several examples:
"With all eyes on the economy, the right wing failed to use anti-reproductive justice measures as 'wedge' issues in states with key candidate races - something they've tried consistently in past cycles. The only initiative on the ballot was Colorado's Amendment 62, a statewide ban on abortion, which voters overwhelmingly rejected (29% Yes, 71% No). As evidenced by the candidate results, Amendment 62 failed as a wedge issue. In other states where anti-reproductive justice measures were pursued - North Dakota and Montana - the measures failed to even make the ballot."
A conservative tirade about social matters is no substitute for a real plan to create jobs and protect community services. These ballot results show that voters are hungry for something better than the politics of division.
Build for the Future
As a third step in moving beyond scapegoating, we must build for the future. Clearly, we need to elect leaders committed to genuine problem-solving. But the only way we will be able to do this is if we build political organizations that will be around for the long haul. Every time the right puts a regressive issue on the ballot or launches an initiative to attack middle class workers, we lose -- regardless of whether their initiative ultimately prevails. We lose because it burns us out, expends our resources, and puts us on the defensive.
In order to go beyond holding the line, we must have organizations that do not disappear after every election cycle. We must engage voters and elected officials on an on-going, year-round basis. Our organizations must continually focus attention on the issues that matter most to the middle class, so that we are leading with our own agenda. The measure of success for each of our campaigns should be whether we effectively moved our base and put ourselves into a better position for the next fight.
While so many of our political leaders try to find scapegoats to deflect blame, the American people are ultimately smarter than that. They want compelling solutions to unemployment and economic insecurity, and they respond when they hear them. The question is: How much longer will we allow lawmakers to take the easy way out, and when will we start to demand of them real answers to our country's economic problems?
Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via the Web site, www.amybdean.com.