The ink on the reports of the election results has barely dried and conservatives have already rolled out the first big post-election victory -- by enacting a so called "right to work" law in, of all places, Michigan. Previously, the labor unions that were defeated -- in the 23 states with right to work laws, in addition to the defeats in Ohio and Wisconsin -- included mainly select public sector employees. In Michigan, the labor unions of private sector employees, including the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and Teamsters, were also set back. And this is in the state in which the UAW was born, a state long known as one in which the labor movement is particularly strong. In Ohio and Wisconsin, the defeats came after huge and prolonged demonstrations. In Michigan, the labor unions were unable to mount a similarly prolonged protest.
Moreover, as NPR reported, "there's a sense of, 'it can happen in Michigan, it can happen any place.'" Note that the majority of state governors -- some 29 out of 50 -- are Republicans and quite a few of the Democratic governors are conservatives. Right to work supporters have already set their sights on passing similar legislation in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Montana. For labor unions, whose membership has been in decline for decades, now amounting to only 11.8 percent of all workers, this change in the law foretells many more losses of membership and a further decline in their clout. Estimates vary, however research suggests that at least one out of four workers is quite content, if able, to benefit from collective bargaining by labor unions and not pay dues, as the right to work law allows them to do. (Labor unions hence call these laws "right to free load").
Labor unions are a key component of the Democratic coalition. Their members, volunteers, and donations have played a significant role in many elections, including President Obama's win Michigan this November. The president has not always reciprocated. Thus, he did not join the campaign to protect labor unions from similar laws in Wisconsin, even though he was campaigning in neighboring states. And he kept his distance from the recall campaign in Wisconsin, in which the labor unions tried -- it turns out in vain -- to punish the governor who launched and signed the legislation which severely curtailed collective bargaining rights.
As I have documented in this space recently, it is a major mistake to think about American politics mainly in terms of Democrats versus Republicans. This line of thinking tends to lead people to think that these days the Democrats are doing quite well and the GOP is licking its wounds. Actually, much of American politics is driven by a divide between conservatives and liberals. While the number of Democratic voters actually exceeds the number of Republican ones, most Republicans are conservatives, but only about half of the Democrats view themselves as liberals. Hence when the tug-of-war occurs between liberal and conservative pieces of public policy, the conservatives tend to prevail.
You may counter by noting that conservatives just lost a great deal in the recent election, as many Tea Party representatives were defeated and several of their leaders are being back-benched by Speaker Boehner. Moreover, the Tea Party's favorability has fallen to a record low of 32 percent (with 50 percent rating it unfavorable) from its March 2010 high of 41 percent. Actually, these developments favor the conservatives. They will now be able to appear less radical, less extreme, and more compassionate.
You can read the tea leaves as to what will happen next in negotiations over the fiscal cliff. On issue after issue, liberal ideas face opposition not merely from determined Republicans, but also from select (conservative) Democrats. On raising tax rates for those earning over $250,000 or more, a centerpiece of the Obama's re-election campaign, some Democrats (such as Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer) have demurred, letting it be known that they may be willing raise that threshold to $500,000 or even $1 million per year. Liberals, following Obama, want to re-raise the estate tax to 45 percent, with an exemption for the first $3.5 million. The GOP is opposed, preferring to continue the Bush-level estate tax, and they are joined on this position by a number of Democrats from more rural areas, such as Max Baucus, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, and Mark Pryor. The president also calls for raising taxes on long term capital gains from 15 percent to 20 percent and to tax income from dividends at the same rate as other incomes. Senate Democrats oppose these increases.
Ergo, unless liberals find new ways to reach more voters and above all expand their coalition, the fact that there is a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in the Senate will not carry the day for most liberal ideas.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.