People watching the news over the past week might have thought that Congress was the only place where battles for our future were being won and lost. That's wrong. There are other battles, better battles, battles far from the glare of the Beltway spotlights. And more are on their way.
So forget Washington for a minute. (If you feel like I do right now, that'll be a pleasure.)
If you want to see where the next wave of corporate-sponsored political attacks is being launched, look to New Orleans. And if you want a shot of optimism, a ray of light, a sign that battles can be won against overwhelming odds, turn your eyes toward Wisconsin.
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That's where the action is.
Al Gore said this week that we need an “American Spring.” It would be a stroke of Carl Sandburg-ish poetry if we were to someday look back and see that the first signs of our spring appeared in Midwestern farm country. And if that image is too corny for your taste, remember: The corn harvest starts around now. I'm just getting an early start.
The Wisconsin uprising began when Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans in the legislature began their ruthless attempt to strip unions of their rights in that state. They had every right to believe it would be easy. The Democrats had just been routed in their state and across the country, as voters discouraged by the lack of jobs and growth took their revenge on the party in power. Walker and his colleagues thought they had found their “Shock Doctrine” moment in that state's budget crisis, and used it to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights because they claimed the state “couldn't afford” to pay their wages and benefits.
The unions offered Walker virtually all the concessions he wanted, which took the financial argument off the table, but he moved forward anyway. And then a miracle happened … Voters who had accepted one injustice after another finally decided they'd had enough. Demonstrators flooded into the state capitol, support flowed in from around the state, and six GOP legislators who voted for these provisions found themselves forced into recall elections. (It was too early to force a recall of the newly-elected governor.)
The “empire” always “strikes back,” and Wisconsin was no exception. Dollars flowed in from the usual rich right-wingers, and they were used to force three Democrats into recall elections, too. The six Republicans will fight for their seats next week, on August 9, and two Democrats will be challenged on August 16. (One of the Democrats has already beaten back his challenge.)
People of all parties should back the challenge of these Republicans and support the Democrats – not out of party loyalty, but because each victory strikes a blow for fair play, the middle class, and a just economy. If three Democrats win, Republicans will lose control of the state legislature. That would be a huge triumph for everyone except the wealthy and cynical hacks who are trying to usurp democracy and destroy the middle class.
These recall elections have already been a victory. They've put the oligarchs and their political lackeys on notice, letting them know that it won't be as easy to trample on the public as they thought. But the most inspiring thing about Wisconsin is the spirit that's been tapped. Similar movements are springing up in other states. And in one of the most cheerful stories of the uprising, a local pizza joint reported that it was getting orders from around the world from callers who wanted to send food to the strikers in the Capitol — including calls from Egypt, even as that country's uprising was reaching its peak in Tahrir Square.
You want anchovies with that political powershift?
Crescent City Blowback
Meanwhile, down in New Orleans, a shadowy convocation takes place … It needs a musical soundtrack, something just right for the occasion … but sadly, Black Sabbath broke up years ago.
“ALEC,” the “American Legislative Exchange Council,” is holding its annual meeting this week in a city that's known for … well, for lots of things people like much better. ALEC is funded by billionaire right-wingers the Koch Brothers. It's mission is to help political servants of the corporate class advance at the state and local levels, and then to provide them with their commands from the Death Star … ahem, “model legislation” that they're expected to pass once they gain political power.
The Wisconsin union-busting law, like other legislation passed around the country, was incubated in the bowels of ALEC. And now legislators from states like Florida and North Carolina are flying to New Orleans on the taxpayers' dime so they can be given more guidance on how to strip most of the same taxpayers of their rights, their prosperity, and their chances for economic advancement.
Corporations don't get to program these automated politicians for free, of course. Undermining democracy is a “pay to play” proposition. As Bloomberg News reports:
“At ALEC's annual meeting in San Diego last year, three companies — pharmaceutical manufacturer Allergan Inc., telephone giant AT&T Inc. (T) and cigarette maker Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) — each paid $100,000 to be “President Level” sponsors. Another 11 groups, including Pfizer Inc. (PFE) and the Institute for Legal Reform, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce arm that advocates for jury award limits, wrote checks for $50,000, according to documents distributed at the meeting that were given to Bloomberg.”
Today's Manchurian Candidates aren't programmed by Communists, but by executives for corporate America. (But who's playing Angela Lansbury's role as “Mother”?)
People will say that ALEC isn't that bad, or that secretive. If so, why did they have its own staff throw one reporter out of the Marriott where the meeting's being held, while another was ejected twice for tweeting about it!
(Who could have predicted that 2011's version of Big Brother would ban something called “tweeting”?)
As for ALEC's agenda, the organization isn't content to strip union members of their rights. It's also behind a wave of “voter ID” laws designed to disenfranchise voters who are more likely to vote Democratic, to help their servile minions sympathetic politicians get into office. Those voters are more likely to be black, brown, and poor, which makes ALEC the country's leading sponsor of 21st Century Jim Crow laws.
New Parties? American Spring?
This week Al Gore said something a lot of people have been thinking when he told Keith Olbermann it's time for an “American Spring.” Fox News predictably – and hilariously – twisted Gore's words with the headline, “Gore: We Need An Arab Spring In America.” (Right – because the Kenyan Muslim didn't work out as well as hoped, so we need Arab ones to complete our Shariah Law program.)
Gore's meaning was plain enough, of course: Americans need a revitalization of democracy, too. Fox helped make his point by its willingness to serve the ALEC crowd the way Qaddafi's newspapers serve their “great leader.”
People across the country who are disillusioned with the latest budget deal, and who see it (rightly) as yet another program funded and designed by billionaire cash, have a place to channel their third-party energy: We already have a third party of sorts, made up of candidates at the state and local levels who fly under the radar of corporate America, and who have been bought off by Wall Street cash of “legislative models” funded by polluters and multinationals.
It's too early to tell if Wisconsin is the first bird of an American Spring, but one thing's for sure. In the icy grip of corporate winter, Wisconsinites turned up the heat on their corporate-controlled politicians. These folks deserve support — whether it's cash or get-out-the-vote calls. (You can learn more about how to help here.) And there will be more Wisconsins – in Ohio and elsewhere – as voters strike back against the corporate political agenda.
That's why despair shouldn't be an option. A cop slaps a shopkeeker in Tunisia and the Arab world changes. An old man walks out of a jail cell with dignity and courage, and apartheid falls. Some Midwesterners get fed up and … well, let's see. Better yet, why not influence the outcome? After Wisconsin comes Ohio. “Where are the jobs?” events are scheduled for August 10. If you're in Washington – or can get there – the Take Back the American Dream conference happens on October 3.
But there's also action in homes, workplaces, and capitals all across the United States. Don't let the bluster fool you. The ALEC crowd is running scared … and it should be. They can still win, of course. The good guys are outgunned, at least when it comes to cash, and the Crescent City mob's got a running start. But things can change quickly. We may be eating “Wisconsin uprising” pizzas all across the country soon. If so, I want to thank our Tahrir Square allies in advance for phoning in those pizza orders. And to tell them something important:
Americans hate anchovies. (At least, this one does.)