If this were a prizefight, Democrats and those on the so-called progressive left would be taking a standing 8-count. Determined to regain control of the White House in 2012, conservatives are launching a full frontal assault on every arsenal that Democrats have used to gain a competitive edge. Still stinging from the 2008 victory of Barack Obama, the Republican Party is leaving no stone unturned in trying to dismantle the machinery they believe catapulted the one-term senator to the Oval Office. From state houses to Congress to the Supreme Court, this is no conspiracy. It is a well executed strategy on the part of the GOP to establish political dominance.
In recent weeks an attack on public-sector labor unions in Wisconsin has gripped headlines as its governor is one of several Republican governors who have made labor public enemy #1. At the same time there has been another covert attack on perceived progressive media as National Public Radio’s chief executive resigned after a video surfaced, supposedly revealing some damning comments from a network fundraiser. In New Hampshire, Republicans are trying to take away the voting rights of college students in the state, who were called “foolish” by the state House speaker and lambasted for “voting as a liberal.” Separately, these episodes appear to be politics as usual, but what binds them together is the not so subtle venom that has been injected into the bloodstream of the nation since the historic election of the nation’s first Black President.
Though the attack on unions by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may eventually backfire, it was a clear message that Republicans understand the importance of organized labor to Democrats and have every intention to curb the political power of unions. It is no coincidence that collective bargaining was thrown under the bus by Walker even though labor had indicated it was willing to make other concessions to do its part to bring the state’s finances under control. The issue was never the state budget. It was the state’s and nation’s politics. By pointing the finger at labor, Governor Walker, in his best imitation of union basher Ronald Reagan, sought to pit the middle class against workers for the purpose of neutralizing unions. The loss of collective bargaining essentially kills unions, and renders them useless in the political process by taking away the tool (organizing through membership and dues) they possess that makes them a potent force during elections. Given the past support of Democrats by organized labor, and the role they played in handing Mr. Obama the keys to the White House, there will likely be similar attempts by Republican governors in other states to come down hard on unions. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich is also targeting labor unions as Republicans in that state push a bill that would limit collective bargaining rights, eliminate the right of public workers to strike and establish merit-only pay increases.
At the same time that unions fight for survival, conservatives on the Supreme Court have paved the path for corporations to inject money in the electoral process to exercise influence over lawmakers. The Court’s 5-4 decision along partisan lines in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is all the more relevant in the face of Governor Walker’s union busting in Wisconsin. The playing field is beyond tilted. As business interests open their checkbooks to secure their wishes, including the relaxation of environmental regulations and favorable tax policies, unions, representing working-class Americans, are being handcuffed. Already at a disadvantage in the political sphere, average Americans are seeing the growing influence of corporate money while their path to lawmakers is becoming increasingly narrow and obstructed.
Attacking Voting Rights
Florida and voting is now an oxymoron. Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, and GOP lawmakers have rescinded the right to vote for felons upon their release from prison. Of course, many of the formerly incarcerated are people of color - Blacks and Latinos - who mostly likely align with the interests of the Democratic Party. Still, Republicans don’t totally resent the incarcerated; they still count them as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are imprisoned for apportionment purposes. As their home communities suffer, the formerly incarcerated are denied the right to cast their ballot and those still imprisoned are pawns of the political process. In other words, the incarcerated are not worthy of the vote but have value enough to be used to enhance the political power of others. It is the 21st century equivalent of the notorious 3/5ths rule during slavery.
Not resting at denying the formerly incarcerated their right to vote, some Republican are taking aim at college students. The move in New Hampshire to strip college students’ voting rights has even angered some campus Republicans. Under the claim of “ballot security,” Republicans in the Granite State are claiming concern over voter fraud is at the root of their effort to curb college voters. However, the comments of GOP lawmakers in the state make it clear that their primary concern is the students’ power at the polls and their tendency to align with the Democratic Party and liberal causes. Four decades after young people highlighted the contradiction of being drafted to war while being denied the right to vote, college students are again the targets of an attempt to put limits on their citizenship.
Controlling the Message
Republicans have pounced on the selectively edited remarks of a National Public Radio fundraiser, Ron Schiller, which characterized tea party members as “seriously racist.” His comments were recorded by a conservative activist. The person behind the “sting” was James O’Keefe, the same right-wing activist who disguised himself as a telephone repairman to get into the office of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and attempted to put a CNN reporter in an embarrassing situation. In the aftermath of the controversy, NPR’s president, Vivian Schiller (no relation), resigned her position. Conservatives are now rolling the dice and working to strip NPR of its funding under the cover of tackling the federal deficit and balancing the budget. A vote has been scheduled today in the House to cut federal support for NPR and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), long targets of conservatives who claim the outlets cater to liberals and liberal causes. O’Keefe, in fact, has admitted that he went after NPR after the network fired journalist Juan Williams when the Fox News commentator said he was afraid of Muslims on airplanes during an appearance on the cable news channel.
Republicans point to the Internet as justification for the elimination of government support for public broadcasting. They claim that new media - news and opinion websites, social networking tools, and mobile phone applications - allow for a wide range of voices to be heard and eliminates the necessity for federal funding of a media organization such as National Public Radio. Ironically, it is the behavior of right-wing activists such as James O’Keefe that reveals that all things are not equal over the ‘Net. The coalescing of conservative Internet activists and conservative radio and cable television outlets is a toxic mix; creating a wide distribution channel for misinformation, half-truths and outright lies. Progressives have no equivalent to the Fox News Channel or the gaggle of right-wing talking heads on radio (remember Air America?).
While conservatives push to kill public media, the Fox News Channel stands out as the television platform for the conservative agenda. Still claiming to be “fair and balanced,” the network is the training camp and way station for right-wing ideologues and demagogues. And Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media czar and owner of the Fox Empire, and Roger Ailes, the political guru running the news channel, make no excuses for the tenor of the rhetoric on Fox News Channel programs or the slant of news coverage. The cable channel stands out for its blatantly rightward leaning news coverage and its talk show lineup that includes a bevy of conservative mouthpieces such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. There is no semblance of balance on the Fox News Channel as it regularly gives voice to the conservative agenda and has been particularly strident in its criticism of the Obama administration.
Republicans have embarked on a calculated strategy of attacking three core tools of political empowerment - voting, organizing and media/communications - in a blatant attempt to cripple progressives. It is a very sophisticated campaign. Democrats are entangled in fighting fires on several fronts while their whole house is burning around them. The left has failed to connect the dots and progressive voters are clueless to the extent that the right is attempting a power grab. The notion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” has always missed the mark because conservatives have been making moves on the left in full public view. It has been the tepid response of Democrats and their cohort of activists and supporters that has emboldened conservatives and given Republicans the upper hand in setting the nation’s agenda. The writing has been on the wall for some time now and the Democratic Party elite simply chose to ignore it, opting instead to take the “high road” and intellectualize their policy differences with Republicans. Democrats have operated as if the conflict was about policy. It has never been, dating back to the Reagan era. Public policy is road kill. The fight is about power and political control, and Democrats are losing key battles in the war. It is the equivalent of trying to play baseball with a fly swatter while the opposing team is swinging 40-ounce Louisville sluggers and knocking the ball out of the park every time.
Today’s vote on eliminating funding for National Public Radio is another key milestone in a broader conservative agenda. The right does not have to win every battle; they just have to put up a strenuous fight to embolden their constituents in preparation for the 2012 showdown. Republicans have shrewdly developed a faux populist agenda that lays claim to fairness and equity and cloaks anti-democratic measures in patriotism. Democrats have not shown the ability to launch a counter-offensive although the move to recall Republican legislators in Wisconsin behind the anti-union measures in that state may be the first real test of progressives’ ability to fight back.