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Wisconsin and the Politics of Envy

Pitting workers against workers for the scraps of the economic system is a tried and true tactic, but there is no envy on our side of these demonstrations: people just want a fair shake.
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Conservatives love to write off progressive populism as "the politics of envy," saying we envy the rich instead of recognizing them for being the hardworking entrepreneurs they are. Given that, the current conservative exercise of attacking public employees for getting pensions, decent health care coverage, and occasional salary increases is irony on a scale rarely seen. Republicans and conservatives' basic argument is that since private-sector workers have been so thoroughly screwed on wages, health care, and retirement plans in recent decades, those same workers should be mad that teachers and cops and social workers have gotten a little more economic security than they have. If that ain't the politics of envy, I don't know what is.

Pitting workers against workers for the scraps of the economic system as a few people and corporations at the top rake in, and then hoard, most of the money is a tried and true tactic, and it sometimes works. But the movement revolt that started in Wisconsin and is spreading rapidly to other states is so far successful in turning the argument around. When 70,000 pro-union progressive protesters show up at the Capitol in Madison, and the numbers keep building day after day, and the kind of folks coming are just soft-spoken teachers and hearts-on-their-sleeve firefighters, it gets impossible to write these people off as a narrow special interest.

The other thing that is so exciting about what is going on is that this is not like the usual stock demonstrations of the recent past, when organizations or coalitions would plan months in advance and raise millions of dollars to try to turn out a modest crowd for a one day, six-hour rally in D.C. The events in Wisconsin are inspired far more by Egypt than by the traditional methods of American organizations, as people from the labor movement, but also supporters from all walks of life, are turning out day after day after day. It is one of the most remarkable moments this old activist has ever seen, and it is changing our political expectations as we speak. There is no envy on our side of these demonstrations: people just want a fair shake. There are no tantrums about being unwilling to talk or compromise or sacrifice in hard times, they just want to have a voice through collective bargaining. And a majority of people in Wisconsin get it -- 65 percent support the right of public employees to bargain.

The tantrums and the envy are all on the side of the conservatives. They don't want to compromise with public employee unions, or bargain with them, they want to shut them down. If they don't get their way at the federal level, they'll just shut the government down. And speaking of envy: the Tea Party folks in all their ballyhooed hype have never been able to turn out these kinds of crowds, even with the enormous corporate money behind them. They still get coverage from the establishment media (Did you see the ridiculous headline in the Washington Post yesterday? "Supporters Rally for Governor's Bill." In the third paragraph the intrepid Post reporter did note that "The overwhelming majority of protesters were teachers, students and other public-service workers..."), but the numbers all are on our side.

The Democratic senators in Wisconsin are doing the right thing in staying away and showing solidarity with the attacked unions. Now the national Democratic Party is going to have to step up to the plate and show whose side it is on. They need to embrace the protesters and embrace this moment. There has been a widening gulf between establishment D.C. Democrats and grassroots progressives, as the latter have gotten more and more alienated from too many Democrats taking on the pro-big business and bankers ideology. In this movement moment, Democrats need to stand unapologetically with progressives, which so far too many seem to have been wobbly about doing. It is great that President Obama signaled his support, and that OFA has helped out in Wisconsin. They need to not back down. In fact, if I were at the White House, the first thing I would do whenever the Wisconsin standoff gets resolved is to invite the leaders of the protest to the White House to celebrate their taking a stand for democracy. (Side note for current White House staffers planning this event: If there ends up being mass civil disobedience, and the leaders get invited to the White House, the Secret Service will have to be talked into going along with the plans. When I was at the Clinton White House and invited people with histories of civil disobedience in to meet President Clinton, the Secret Service was never very happy with me.)

But it is not just Democratic officials who should be standing with Wisconsin movement leaders: all progressives should. Conservatives want to roll back the clock on more than a century of social progress, and they are only going after the unions first because they are the strongest progressive institutions in America. They figure if they can take out the unions first, everything after that -- outlawing abortion, ending progress on LGBT and other civil rights, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, etc. -- will be relatively easy.

This fight is for all of us; it is about preserving the American middle class and our ability to organize collectively. It is about human rights. It is about focusing the blame for the economic crisis where it belongs, on bankers and policy makers, not teachers and cops. And the fight isn't just in Wisconsin: All over this country, the conservative movement is trying to take away our rights, and everywhere in America, we should be showing solidarity with our embattled brothers and sisters in Wisconsin.

Here is a list of rallies happening this week to show support for the protesters in Wisconsin. Go to the one closest to you, take your family, take your friends. This is a big deal.

Let me repeat that: This Is A Big Deal. Given the money and entrenched power of corporate conservatives, progressives are not going to win anything that matters in the coming years unless we do what the protesters in Wisconsin are doing and go far beyond the usual call-and-petition-your-member-of-Congress tactic. We are going to have to be creative, we are going to be bold, we are going to have to incredibly dogged and determined. Just like Wisconsin. Just like Egypt. And the powers that be in both political parties will have to listen if we are.

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