In 1976, on a failed campaign to the White House, Ronald Reagan coined one of his enduring linguistic legacies – the “welfare queen,” a mythical, inner-city resident who wastes the public’s hard-earned money on “welfare Cadillacs” and other luxuries she can’t afford, and, thus, doesn’t deserve. When Reagan finally succeeded in becoming president four years later, he waged war on these “welfare queens,” redistributing money from the “least deserving” by cutting social services and public programs that helped the poor, and funneling it to the “most deserving,” by providing generous tax cuts for the extremely rich, who had actually “earned” their money.
Today, as a recent Gallup poll found that Americans were most likely to dub Reagan “the greatest president ever” (just above the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln), Reagan’s battle against the “welfare queen” lives on – though she doesn’t drive a Cadillac, but, perhaps, a fire engine, and has a Cadillac health care plan, as Jonathan Cohn presciently pointed out in “Public Employees Are the New Welfare Queens” last August in The New Republic. In the last few weeks, “public employee” has become a bad word, a symbol of greed and undeserved excess, one that is responsible for our crumbling budgets, and, by logic, our own struggling economy – just like the “welfare queens” of the 70’s.
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And yet, many Americans will find a comparison of “public employees” to “welfare queens” hard to swallow, given our patriotic disposition toward firefighters and police officers – especially in the wake of 9/11, when they were elevated to the status of heroes worthy of bumper stickers honoring them across the country. Unlike Reagan’s image of the “welfare queen” ripping off the system, it’s hard to see people who rush into burning buildings or step into the line of fire as undeserving of their benefits.
The perfectly ambiguous term “public employee” was designed in the first place for just this reason: the label sounds more like a faceless, heartless bureaucrat than a public servant risking her or his life for the common good. The term strips away the humanity and the nobility of a public servant’s work, replacing it with an uninspiring, and certainly unrespectable, blandness. It’s far easier to take away a “public employee’s” pension than it is to take away your local firefighter’s, who might someday save your life.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seems perfectly aware of this potential political trap. As he tries to dismantle collective bargaining and, thus, cut benefits and pay for “public employees,” he is ensuring that firefighters, police and state troopers are all exempt from his attack. He could never sell benefit-busting against American heroes.
Teachers, however, are a much easier sell as the new “welfare queens,” which is why they (and other, less visible public servants) find themselves in the conservatives’ crosshairs. In the last year, public education has undergone a sustained, highly successful character assassination from billionaires and the corporate media, transforming educators from dedicated public servants to lazy, self-interested bureaucrats who care more about pensions than their students. “The Myth of the Bad Teacher” has prevailed, popularized by “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” discussed at length on Oprah and repeated ad nauseam on the covers of popular magazines like Time, which proclaim that these “bad teachers” have caused a crisis in education. Wading in this swamp of negative propaganda, teachers are easy prey. After all, “bad teachers” working in a “bad” school system clearly don’t deserve our hard-earned money when they aren’t earning it in the first place. Why not take away their Cadillac benefits?
Much like the “welfare queen,” the “bad teacher” and the “public employee” are convenient scapegoats at which we direct our current economic rage.
Walker’s attack on teachers and other public servants, however, is not just trick of mass psychological transference, a means to distract us from the real culprits of this economic devastation – crooked bankers, sneaky lenders and complicit politicians. Rather, Walker – whose hero is Reagan, according to a recent New York Times profile – is carrying out another of Reagan’s linguistic and ideological legacies, “starving the beast.” Walker is playing by the Gipper’s handbook, working hard to transfer wealth from the public to the private sector and attempting to cut pay and benefits for public servants, while at the same time cutting taxes for businesses. In fact, Walker’s tax cuts for private business appear to be underwritten by cuts in public sector benefits. If he succeeds, the money will literally be handed from the pockets of public servants to private business owners.
The inspiring protests in Wisconsin are not just about health care benefits, pensions or even unions. No, the Wisconsin uprising is really about defending the public sector, and those that work for the public, against increasing privatization and corporatization that serves to increase wage inequity and decrease benefits for the many for the profit of the few – which is Reagan’s real legacy.