Isn't it, well, a bit ironic that the protesters in Madison, blocking the state senate chamber, are chanting "Freedom, Democracy, Union" while trying to prevent a vote? Isn't it ironic that the Democratic Senators have fled the democratic process? Isn't it interesting that some of those who--rightly--protest the assorted Republican efforts to stymie majority rule in the U.S. Senate are celebrating the Democratic efforts to stymie the same in the Wisconsin Senate?
An election was held in Wisconsin last November. The Republicans won. In a democracy, there are consequences to elections and no one, not even the public employees unions, are exempt from that. There are no guarantees that labor contracts, including contracts governing the most basic rights of unions, can't be renegotiated, or terminated for that matter. We hold elections to decide those basic parameters. And it seems to me that Governor Scott Walker's basic requests are modest ones--asking public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care plans, though still far less than most private sector employees do. He is also trying to limit the unions' abilities to negotiate work rules--and this is crucial when it comes to the more efficient operation of government in a difficult time.
The most thoughtful assessment of besieged Madison (both the author of the Constitution and the city named after him) comes, as usual, from Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest. Mead has argued for some time that the "blue social model," which gave America the post-New Deal order where Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor argued but ultimately collaborated on the administration of Big Prosperity, has become obsolete. The "chief division in American politics today," he wrote last year, "is between those who think the blue model is the only possible or at least the best feasible way to organize a modern society and want to shore it up and defend it, and those who think the blue model, whatever benefits it had in the past, is no longer sustainable."
Public employee unions are not only the principal beneficiaries of what's left of the blue model, but its most passionate advocates on ideological as well as self-interested grounds. The Democrats of our day are the party of government in two senses: they advocate more government intervention in the economy as the indispensable means to improve social conditions; and they represent the interests of all the government's wards and wardens, the recipients and deliverers of benefits.
There is a basic tension here. The commitment to successful government interventions will require the party of government to insist on rigor, clear standards, and vigilant economizing - all the things likely to antagonize the party's constituencies in government. As a result, Mead argues, the blue model routinely costs more than we can afford while failing to accomplish things we really need done. Or, as Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana put the point to an interviewer, "I argue to my most liberal friends: 'You ought to be the most offended
of anybody if a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered
in some way.' And some of them actually agree." But a lot of them don't agree, and you can find them shouting in the Wisconsin capitol this week.