The Wisconsin Recall As Harbinger of Increased Political Strife: The Polarization of the Electorate is not Confined to Blogs and Speeches

The intense recall elections that are taking place this week and the next in Wisconsin are in my view a harbinger of further levels of political dislocation in the United States. In the ordinary course of politics, it is rare that voter dissatisfaction is so intense that citizens are prepared to overcome the arduous procedures needed to force the issue.  But the sad truth about the United States is that there are ever greater levels of polarization in the electorate than at any recent time.  

The movements have come from both sides.  The conservative wing has become more libertarian and thus has little patience with the power of unions which they (and I) regard as contracts in restraint of trade that prevents the orderly provision of goods and services. Yet, as the Wisconsin struggle over public unions reveal, the rapid decline of unions in the private sector is perceived as a mortal threat to the entire structure of labor relations that was put into place with great fanfare in the 1930s for the private sector, and which was extended to public service unions in the 1960s.

What is so clear is that there are no obvious compromises that allow the two sides to get together.  In more recent times, the battle between the pro- and the antiunion forces took place within the existing legal structure, such that the usual solution was to lower (or raise) a wage, reduce (or extend) holidays, and so on down the line.  But today the battlefield is over the legitimacy of the structure, not the deals made under it.

As the split becomes wider, so too the costs to spring into action become lower, with the immense rise of social networking devices that can be used to crystallize dissatisfaction on both sides of the line.  The reports that the Wisconsin battles have generated as much heat as a gubernatorial election should not come as a surprise.  These are not statewide figures, but are confined to those districts where the passions run hot. 

Surely, some of this will spill over into the national arena.  I have already written that the source of the huge uneasiness in financial markets over the deficit stems from the simple realization that the two parties really have very little in common and don’t like each other to boot.  But the source of the decline in the United States stems from the ability of the Democrats this last time round to put forward an agenda that maps their preferences, but which imposes hidden costs on society that are manifest most recently in the disappointing job reports that go hand in hand with deficits.  

We are in for grim times.  Unless we free up labor markets, all the stimulus and all the protest will not do the slightest good.

  1. Al Kennedy

    Private sector unions are slowly dying and we should try to accelerate their demise.  The current Verizon strike is a good example of why they should disappear.  Verizon’s landline business is unionized and is being subsidized by the wireless business which is non-union.  Work practices in the landline business have prevented Verizon from making the necessary workplace changes that would reduvce cost and benefit businesses and consumers.  Unnecessary landline costs prevent Verizon from investing that money in wireless and making it more competitive.  Why should Boeing be forced to be less competitive with Airbus by building 787s in Washington State and deprive South Carolina of 2,000 jobs?

    Public sector unions should not be legal.  Even Franklin Roosevelt did not support that and warned that it was a real danger to the country.  Their wages and benefits on average exceed those in the private sector for equivalent work, and their political contributions elect officials who are negotiating their contract which is an inherent conflict of interest.  Current contracts are bankrupting states, counties, and cities.  Existing workplace legislation and Civil Service should be sufficient for those employed by the taxpayers.

  2. Stuart Creque

     In the private sector, unions allow workers to bargain collectively to create a more level playing field against exploitative employers.  The problem for the union movement in the private sector is that laws make exploitative practices by employers far rarer: those practices open today’s employers up to criminal charges or civil penalties.  Thus the collective protection rationale for unions becomes ever less important and the countervailing inflexibility and anti-meritocracy of private sector unions make them less attractive to workers.

    In the public sector, however, unions are simply a license to extort salaries, benefits and favorable working conditions from the public purse.  Only when the imbalance has led to a massive and destabilizing burden that threatens other constituencies have politicians realized the danger that unchecked public union power presents to their government entities and their own re-election prospects.

  3. flownover

    Grim times indeed as the Dept of Justice girds it loins for the fight by hiring 16 leftists to staff the Voting Rights section. That’s one battleground where we cannot find any traction. Separate from the DNC and above the law ,being inside the fortress, the parallels to Waffen SS appear. Liberal fascism requires shock troops, here is the command staff. Wisconsin will be a skirmish, wait for their appearance. 

  4. AmishDude

    Proposition: Closed-shop labor unions violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free association.

  5. Ross C

    I don’t yet know the results in WI, but I fear it will go the way of California.  A state with an assembly that has given up on the prospect of governing the state.  That is, except for the political payouts they provide for the special interests that provide for their reelections.  My guess is that CA will have to utterly break before it will fix itself.

  6. civil westman

    We are led to believe that the state is omniscient and so benevolent that we the subjects ought to be grateful that it is willing to take our earnings and direct our lives down to the smallest detail. Just why is it then that the employees of this benevolent state need unions to protect them from exploitation? Does not the same state know what is best for its employees? After all, even informal unions of taxpayers (e.g. the Tea Party) are accused of terrorism.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Grim times, yes, and good times also — for we are at the end of an epoch. When the dust settles, what Scott Walker and the Republicans in Wisconsin have effected will not be undone. And whatever happens today, the radical left in Wisconsin will be much weaker in 2012 than it was in 2008.

  8. dogsbody
    AmishDude: Proposition: Closed-shop labor unions violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free association. · Aug 9 at 4:43pm

    Awesome.  Comment, Professor Epstein?

  9. Southern Pessimist

    I wonder if the union workers who pay for the millions in political advertising feel that they are getting their money’s worth. I am sure there is some solidarity but making their presence in the process so visible may backfire on them.

  10. Underground Conservative
    civil westman: We are led to believe that the state is omniscient and so benevolent that we the subjects ought to be grateful that it is willing to take our earnings and direct our lives down to the smallest detail. Just why is it then that the employees of this benevolent state need unions to protect them from exploitation? Does not the same state know what is best for its employees? After all, even informal unions of taxpayers (e.g. the Tea Party) are accused of terrorism. · Aug 9 at 5:05pm

    Just what I think whenever this comes up. Those poor government workers must be terribly exploited by their managers to require so much protection.

    But seriously, the gauntlet has been thrown down, government unions need to cease or go on a huge diet.  Government workers can only earn what the citizen is willing to pay.  There is no other obligation.

  11. Bryan G. Stephens

    Paul,

    You are my ray of sunshine in a weary world.

    Paul A. Rahe: Grim times, yes, and good times also — for we are at the end of an epoch. When the dust settles, what Scott Walker and the Republicans in Wisconsin have effected will not be undone. And whatever happens today, the radical left in Wisconsin will be much weaker in 2012 than it was in 2008. · Aug 9 at 5:09pm

  12. liberal jim

    I would submit that we find ourselves in the current fix because the two parties had too much in common, for far too long.  It now appears that the Republican Party is slowly being changed into a small government party.   If establishment Republicans prevent this from happening any significant fundamental change will be forestalled.  It is good to note that the BBA bill was a fairly modest proposal and that many establishment Republicans worked behind the scenes to ensure it was never debated say nothing of enacted.  Jim Jordan BBA’s mover is now being threatened by establishment Republicans with redistricting.   The important battle is being waged inside the GOP

  13. liberal jim

    I would submit that we find ourselves in the current fix because the two parties had too much in common, for far too long.  It now appears that the Republican Party is slowly being changed into a small government party.   If establishment Republicans prevent this from happening any significant fundamental change will be forestalled.  It is good to note that the BBA bill was a fairly modest proposal and that many establishment Republicans worked behind the scenes to ensure it was never debated say nothing of enacted.  Jim Jordan BBA’s mover is now being threatened by establishment Republicans with redistricting.   The important battle is being waged inside the GOP

  14. AmishDude
    dogsbody

    AmishDude: Proposition: Closed-shop labor unions violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free association. · Aug 9 at 4:43pm

    Awesome.  Comment, Professor Epstein? · Aug 9 at 5:20pm

    I gotta warn ya, I’m crazy.  I think that the Missouri Plan for selecting judges (as practiced in Iowa) violates the fact that each state should have a republican form of government.  I think that being forced to participate in collective bargaining violates the 13th amendment and all sorts of wild things.

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