Step by step the longest march can be won.
Many stones can make an arch, singly none.
And by union what we will can be accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none.

Ruthie Gorton

In this week’s Sift:

  • Union Busting in Wisconsin. The confrontation between Wisconsin’s Tea Party governor and public employee unions is about power, not money.
  • How to Speak Conservative: American Exceptionalism. Another in my ongoing series about conservative jargon that usually leaves liberals scratching their heads.
  • Short Notes. Follow-up on last week’s “Private Sector Covert Ops”. Curveball confesses. The weak field of Obama-challengers. Dr. Cuddy supports abortion rights. Anti-abortion terrorism is working. Envisioning high-speed rail. And the Web lets you generate your own Beck-style conspiracy theory.
  • This Week’s Challenge. A new feature of the Sift: something to think about each week. This week: In the future, how will work-that-needs-doing turn into jobs?

Union Busting in Wisconsin

The confrontation in Wisconsin has gotten a lot more national attention since I wrote about it last week. Some of the reporting is quite good, and I won’t repeat it all here. A few points are worth underlining.

This is about power, not money. Usually when somebody says “It’s not about the money”, it’s about the money. Here, though, money is a pretext.

Leaders of the public-employee unions say they’re willing to accept the financial concessions in Gov. Walker’s bill, just not the slashing of the workers’ rights to organize and bargain. No dice, the Governor says.

Rachel Maddow does a good job of painting the larger picture. The Citizens United decision makes corporate and union spending key to financing campaigns. And that makes it key for Republicans to take down the unions, so that all Citizens-United funding will flow to them. “In terms of large-scale money spent in elections, unions are the only competition that Republicans have.”

That’s why Walker exempted police and firefighters — unions that supported him — from the new rules. But the cops and firemen are too smart to trust him not to take their rights away later on. Firefighters symbolically marched into the Capitol to join the protestors. And the head of one police union posted (and then later pulled down, for complex reasons explained herethis statement:

I specifically regret the endorsement of the Wisconsin Trooper’s Association for Gov. Scott Walker. I regret the governor’s decision to ‘endorse’ the troopers and inspectors of the Wisconsin State Patrol. I regret being the recipient of any of the perceived benefits provided by the governor’s anointing.

The crisis was manufactured. There are two budget situations in Wisconsin. The current two-year budget, which runs through June, has a $137 million shortfall. It’s not unusual to have a budget repair bill to make up the difference. But Governor Walker’s “repair bill” also contains sweeping policy changes that in a fairly short time could destroy Wisconsin’s public employee unions. (It also gives Walker the ability to change state medical assistance programs without going back to the legislature.)

That’s not a side effect, that’s the point. Walker manufactured this shortfall with corporate tax give-aways precisely so that he could submit this “repair” bill and take away workers’ rights.

The second situation, the $3 billion gap you sometimes hear about, is in the early projections of the next two-year budget. Governor Walker has not even submitted an official budget yet, so an estimates of the shortfall Wisconsin faces in the next cycle are just speculation. The Wisconsin budget process has produced worse projections than this before, and the legislature has worked them out without taking away anyone’s rights.

It’s not just Wisconsin. Similar union-busting is in the works in Ohio, Tennessee, and several other states. Basically, any state with a Republican governor is using the current fiscal problem as an excuse to bust its public-employee unions.

Numbers. In spite of Fox News’ effort to hype it, the Tea Party counter-protest was a big disappointment. The pro-Walker group was out-numbered about 35-to-1.

Bug-freedom. Conservatives don’t see the contradiction in an allegedly freedom-loving Tea Party governor taking away people’s rights, because they don’t see collective bargaining as a right at all. Freedom, to them, is only about individuals.

Whenever folks start using the rhetoric of liberty, it’s important to pinpoint which kind of freedom they’re talking about. In the fall, in my review of Merchants of Doubt, I described the distinction between lamb-freedom and wolf-freedom: Wolf-freedom means tearing down the barriers that make lamb-freedom possible. Your children’s freedom to drink from the tap ends when a corporation is free to pollute the water supply.

Well, there’s also bug-freedom: the right to stay small and get squished. Bug-freedom is more than just the right not to belong to a union, it also includes the right to go without health insurance, the right to finance your own retirement without Social Security, and other similar rights.

Daily Kos’ AlecMN debunks a bunch of myths about teachers unions and education.

The pro-Walker TV ads (which the Club for Growth had ready to go immediately — they knew the plan) are appalling:

All across Wisconsin, people are making sacrifices to keep their jobs. Frozen wages. Pay cuts. And paying more for health care. But state workers haven’t had to sacrifice. … It’s not fair. … It’s time state employees paid their fair share.

The longer radio ad has the same basic structure, but goes on to list the Wisconsin businesses where workers have sacrificed “to keep their jobs” and says, “Everywhere you look, people are sharing the load. But state workers have been exempt in these tough times.”

The response to this is so obvious: It isn’t people who are sacrificing, it’s working people. Billionaires didn’t have to give up the Bush tax cuts. Corporate profits are up. Wall Street is soaring and big bonuses are back. But we’re supposed to ignore all that and be jealous of teachers and nurses. Private-sector workers are getting screwed by their employers, so they should want public-sector workers to get screwed too.

“frozen wages, pay cuts, and paying more for health care” — private-sector workers are supposed to want that trend to continue?

How to Speak Conservative: American Exceptionalism

Conservatives from Sarah Palin to Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to CNN’s Kathleen Parker know what’s really wrong with Barack Obama: He doesn’t believe in “American exceptionalism”. What are they talking about?

Like class warfareAmerican exceptionalism used to mean one thing and now it’s being used to mean something else, something you have to pick up from usage, because it’s hardly ever defined. It’s like the beatnik or hippie slang of the 50s and 60s — if you have to ask for a definition, you obviously don’t get it.

Origins. Let’s start with the original meaning. As far back as De Tocqueville’s 1831 classic Democracy in America, political scientists have observed that America was created by a unique set of circumstances:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.

It’s like in the comic books: The formula for creating super-soldiers died with its inventor, so the prototype — Captain America — is the only one you’re ever going to see.

What are those unique circumstances? These two pop to mind: (1) The American colonies were founded on a democratic model from the beginning, so there was no prior aristocracy to overthrow. That’s how we avoided the horrors of the French or Russian Revolutions. (2) The richly-endowed continent at our backs meant that during our formative decades we could have a pro-business climate without developing a correspondingly large underclass. Ambitious people who couldn’t find opportunity could push farther west.

The upshot of the original meaning of American exceptionalism is that another country can’t just adopt the American constitution and expect to become America. It’s a notion that would cast doubt on ambitious nation-building exercises like we’re seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that’s not how conservatives use the term today.

The city on a hill. More recently, the phrase American exceptionalism has picked up a second meaning whose roots go back even farther, but which runs almost exactly opposite. In this version, America has a unique mission to provide an example to the world.

Historically, the image that has stood for this idea is the city on a hill. It goes back to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it gives light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

The image has been associated with America since Jonathan Winthrop in 1630. Speaking to the pilgrims about to disembark and found the city of Boston, Winthrop urged them to bring their best, most Christian behavior to the new colony:

for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us

In 1783 in Philadelphia, on that day that Congress ratified the peace treaty with Great Britain, Thomas Paine envisioned a grand mission for the new country:

To see it in our power to make a world happy — to teach mankind the art of being so — to exhibit on the theatre of the universe, a character hitherto unknown — and to have, as it were, a new creation entrusted to our hands, are honors that command reflection.

Just before leaving Boston for his inauguration in 1961, John F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop to the Massachusetts legislature, and then said:

For what Pericles said to the Athenians has long been true of this commonwealth: “We do not imitate — for we are a model to others.” … Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill

Triumphalism. In 1974, once-and-future presidential candidate Ronald Reagan added another image to the mix. His speech was called “The Shining City Upon a Hill“, a phrase he used often in his career, including his farewell address in 1989. He attributes it to Winthrop, but in fact shining is nowhere in Winthrop’s quote, and Jesus talks about the candle shining, not the city. But the Bible does have a shining city: the New Jerusalem from Revelation 21.

So in the Spirit he carried me to the top of a vast, lofty mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, and bringing with it the glory of God. It shone with a radiance like that of a very precious stone.

The city on a hill has to be on its best behavior because it “cannot be hid”. But the New Jerusalem is God’s gift at the end of time, not a human city that needs to work to build its future. Where Kennedy and Winthrop emphasized the city on the hill’s responsibility, Reagan’s hybrid image emphasized its glory. We are not so much challenged by Reagan’s God as favored by Him. And we deserve this favor, Reagan implied, because of our virtues:

I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.

Reagan’s speech is triumphalist, trumpeting the glories of America:

One-half of all the economic activity in the entire history of man has taken place in this republic. We have distributed our wealth more widely among our people than any society known to man. Americans work less hours for a higher standard of living than any other people …

… and so on at considerable length, concluding that:

We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia … we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.

[As an aside, you can see a similar triumphalist shift in the way “America the Beautiful” is often sung today. Originally, “God shed His grace on thee” was a prayer, not a statement of accomplished fact. The unspoken helping verb is may, not has: “may God shed” not “God has shed”. That intention is apparent in the next verb: “crown thy good” not “crowned thy good”; it goes with may, not has.]

Rogue nation. George W. Bush pushed Reagan’s triumphalism a little further: America is exceptional in the sense that rules do not apply to us. We can invade other nations. We can grab the citizens of other countries and torture them. Such things would be wrong if other nations did them, but America is the exception.

Similarly, the conservative hostility to international law is rooted in this rogue-nation version of exceptionalism. If the US were to submit to international rules, if we had to “seek a permission slip” from the UN “to defend the security of our people” — that would be admitting that we were just another country, and not exceptional.

At the extreme, America is exempted from all requirements of reality, and can make any claim it wants regardless of facts. For example: We have “the best healthcare system in the world.”

These are the “exceptions” that foreigners think of when they hear us talk about American exceptionalism. To them, it is a claim that we define reality, so we can do anything we want. And that is why President Obama is reluctant to use the phrase.

What it should mean to liberals. De Tocqueville’s version of “American exceptionalism” is worth tossing around the next time conservatives start talking about another democracy-by-force crusade. It should confuse them.

And liberals should not shy away from the Winthrop/Kennedy version of city-on-a-hill. It’s a myth, but myths of this sort can be good when they call on people to rise above the average. They only become destructive when they justify privilege rather than responsibility. That’s what’s wrong with the Reagan/Bush additions to the myth. To believe that America should be the country that leads the world in all good things — that’s all positive. To believe that we are and always will be the greatest, no matter how we behave or what the facts of the matter are — that’s pernicious.

Short Notes

I promised a follow-up on last week’s “Private Sector Covert Ops” about the recently leaked proposal for the Chamber of Commerce to attack its liberal enemies, including the threat to make Glenn Greenwald “choose career preservation” rather than continue supporting WikiLeaks.

The best account I’ve found of this from a not-directly-involved source is on Wired’s Threat Level blog. The picture they paint reminds me of the layers of deniability built into organizations like the Mafia: Big corporations contribute to the Chamber of Commerce so that it can do their dirty work. The Chamber has a relationship with a big law firm, Hunton & Williams, which hears the proposal from the private-sector spooks, HBGary.

What did Tony Soprano know? You’ll never prove anything.

It’s official: The Iraq War was based on lies. The informant codenamed “Curveball” now admits that he made up his reports about Saddam’s mobile biological weapons labs. This is who Colin Powell was talking about when he made the Bush administration’s case to the UN:

We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War. … The source was an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities. He actually was present during biological agent production runs.

Now that chemical engineer admits it was all bogus: “I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that.”

Colin Powell’s people are less pleased.

Nate Silver puts numbers around something we all feel instinctively: The Republicans have a weak field of challengers to President Obama.

Nate verifies this by looking at net favorability: the percentage of the population who views the candidate favorably minus the percentage with an unfavorable view. Normally, a viable presidential candidate has a high net favorability rating at this point in the process. Maybe not everybody has heard of him or her, but those who have are impressed.

George W. Bush was at +47 in early 1999, closely followed by Elizabeth Dole at +41. In 2007, Barack Obama was at +27, Rudy Giuliani at +30, and even Hillary Clinton — whose high negatives worried Democrats — was +2.

This year, Huckabee (who might not run) is +8, Romney +4, and everybody else at zero or below.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have two candidates in Ms. Palin and Mr. Gingirch whose net favorability ratings are actually in the double-digit negatives, something which since 2000 had only been true of Pat Buchanan and Al Sharpton.

LIsa Edelstein, who runs the hospital on the TV show House, stars in an abortion-rights ad asking “Why is the GOP trying to send women back to the back alley?” The visuals are simple and effective: Edelstein takes a slow walk down a dream-like hallway, then opens a closet door and stares meaningfully at a wire hanger.

Rachel Maddow points out that at least one kind of terrorism is working in America: Ever since the murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion terrorist in 2009, there have been no abortion doctors in Wichita. A service that is legal in Wichita is nonetheless unavailable because providers have been successfully terrorized.

Rachel takes the right tack on this: No matter what you think about abortion, do you want America to be the kind of country where murder is an effective political tactic?

Gonzeaux does a thought experiment: If you were in downtown Dallas and wanted to get to downtown Houston, would you do better to drive, fly, or take the kind of high-speed rail President Obama wants to build? When you think it through in detail, it’s pretty obvious you’d want the train.

There’s no need to watch Glenn Beck when the Web can generate conspiracy theories on its own.

This Week’s Challenge

This is a new feature of the Weekly Sift. Every week I’m going to end with an issue to think about — something where I don’t have the answer, I’m just raising the question. Feel free to email me answers or post them as comments on the Weekly Sift blog.

This week’s challenge occurred to me while I was reading about post-Katrina New Orleans. People were slow to move back New Orleans, the article claimed, because there were no jobs. Let that paradox rattle around in your brain for a while: In this ruined city, a place where there was more work to be done than anywhere in America, there were no jobs.

To me, that’s not just an indictment of our economic system, it’s a microcosm of the biggest economic problem we face going forward: There is no end to the work will need to be done. But how will that work turn into jobs?

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  • macduff  On February 21, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    On one side of the argument: cut spending and write down the deficit, the Hoover model.
    On another side: spend on infrastructure, create jobs, which in turn begets more jobs and tax revenue, the WPA/New Deal model.
    Which one does history come down on?
    But then, here at this time, what does history have to do with anything?

  • Heather  On February 21, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Regarding American exceptionalism, there's also the aspect that any critique of American behavior is believed to be unpatriotic.

    • Norgie  On November 22, 2013 at 5:33 am

      Why the sarcasm, Chris? If you do not mind me snayig it, it is completely out of place in a blog where anyone should be comfortable in expressing a contrary opinion.What attracted me to the Civil War at first was the battle narratives, like those in Shelby Foote. Now I am more taken by the political and social history of the war, which is far more rich and interesting. So I can understand Kevin’s point of view completely.I fail to see how Kevin Levin is a threat to you or your dearly-held opinions, but clearly you see him that way.

  • Anonymous  On February 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Re jobs post-Katrina: yes, there was much work to be done. One problem is that people who had the money didn't want to pay for the work to be done. When the economy is near collapse, and people don't have savings or jobs that pay more than minimum wage, they can't afford to rebuild their homes after a disaster. When the place you live and the place you work has been demolished, where does the money come from to rebuild? Historically, the government. But not in these times, where tax breaks for corporations and anti-decifit fever are all the fashion. And if insurance companies fight every claim (sometimes fraudulently), places don't get rebuilt. Sadly, I expect to see more Katrina's and more destroyed communities due to climate change and the Republican war on the working class.

    • Sergey  On January 31, 2013 at 11:50 am

      Now, uh, Nathan, you just, uh, haven’t, uhm, grasped what a, uh, I mean, balnlirit, uh, orator, you know, Obama, uhm, really is.Once you, uh, embrace the, uhm, hope and uhm, change, uh, and I mean, understand that, uh, yes, we CAN!, uh, you’ll, you know, be much, uh, more accepting.


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