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Boiling the Middle Class

March 10th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments


We’ve all heard the anecdote about cooking frogs. If you toss a live frog into a pot of boiling water, the shock of the heat will be so great that the frog will immediately leap out to save itself. But if you place the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and then slowly start to boil it, the change in temperature will happen so gradually that the frog will be boiled alive before it can realize what’s happening.

The American middle class was placed in a pot of lukewarm water three decades ago with the advent of “trickle-down” economics, and the temperature has been rising steadily ever since. More money goes to the very top by way of tax-cuts and subsidies for large corporations, and recently through massive taxpayer bailouts of giant financial institutions, and in order to make up for the deficit more money is cut from programs that benefit the middle class. The temperature in the pot has been getting increasingly uncomfortable for quite some time.

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began his attempt to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, thus effectively removing any last shred of real political power from these middle class workers in his state, we reached the verge of the boiling point. As the national Republican Party celebrated this move and Republican governors across the country got poised to follow suit, it seemed that the pot was beginning to boil nationwide.

Here I have to tweak the analogy just a little, and imagine that the frog in the pot is split-brained. While the left side of the frog realized what was happening and tried to leap out of the pot by launching massive demonstrations against the union-stripping bill, the right side of the frog—being more easily duped by corporate propaganda—was convinced that the other half was over-reacting and that the water was actually too cold. While the left-brain wanted out of the pot altogether, the right-brain wanted even more heat.

But even now the analogy doesn’t accurately reflect reality. You’d have to imagine that the left side of the frog is almost twice as large as the right, as poll number after poll number has consistently indicated that about two-thirds of the American people are opposed to the union-stripping measure. The impulse of the frog to leap out of the pot was stronger than the impulse to stay and boil, and yet…somehow…the frog has remained right where it is.

After waking up Wednesday to the news that Governor Walker actually seemed ready to compromise by weakening the union-busting part of the bill, I thought this might finally be it. The American political left, having been far too silent for far too long as the pot kept getting hotter and hotter, had finally stood up and spoken out and sent a message to the cooks in the kitchen that they were not going to sit around and be boiled. Might the chefs have finally gone too far? Might this finally be the end of the relentless rightward-drift America has been on for my entire lifetime?

Then I woke up this morning, Thursday, to the news that the Wisconsin state legislature had done an end-run around the Democrats and rammed through the union-busting portion of the bill through a sudden stroke of political trickery. Because they needed at least one Democrat to hold a vote on the state budget, they had to remove the union-busting measure from the bill and vote on it as a separate piece of legislation, for which no Democrats were needed. It’s as though the moment the frog was finally leaping out of the pot, they grabbed it, tore off its left leg, and tossed it back in the pot from which it is now incapable of escaping.

Had this draconian anti-union bill been proposed twenty or even ten years ago, it never would have passed. That would have been going too far, too fast. The entire frog—both the left side and the right—would have noticed the sudden change in temperature and leapt out immediately. But the Republicans seem to have paved the way for this just slowly and gradually enough that they felt the time was ripe to deliver this final blow to the middle class and let boiling begin.

Slowly but surely, they’ve managed to get a sizable enough chunk of the middle class to direct their anger away from the corporations and wealthy people to whom all of their money is actually being funneled and direct it instead at organized labor. It’s not the Wall Street fat-cats who are the problem, it’s those fat-cats who work in…public education? It’s the nurses who are to blame for everyone’s economic woes?

Enough people have been fed these lies for a long enough time that they no longer even question them. And while there are definitely valid criticisms to be made about teachers’ unions and the like, it’s a huge leap from saying they may go a little too far at times to blaming them for the budget crises in local and national governments, especially when tax-rates among the super-rich are at historic lows and defense spending is at a historic high.

A recent poll asking Americans how they would balance the budget came back with results proving my conjecture that America is far more progressive than most Americans believe. When asked how they would save money, 81% said they would raise taxes on millionaires, about 76% said they would cut defense spending, and about 74% said they’d end subsidies for oil companies.

Washington just recently voted to keep giving subsidies to oil companies, there’s no talk of seriously cutting defense spending, and as for raising taxes on millionaires…well…hopefully your short-term memory isn’t so terrible that you’ve forgotten Obama’s deal to extend the Bush tax-cuts back in December.

Americans were also asked what would be unacceptable to cut. The three items at the top of that list, each with over 75% of the American people saying it would be unacceptable to cut them, are Social Security, K-12 education, and Medicare. And yet Washington remains poised to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare while local governments—including Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin—are busy slashing education.

Democracy, it seems, is in its death pangs. When you have a huge consensus among the American people that they don’t want labor unions stripped of their collective bargaining power but the people supposedly “representing” them in government do it anyway, when the vast majority of Americans agree on which programs they want to see cut and which they don’t want touched but their “representatives” in government do precisely the opposite, when weeks of grassroots protests across the nation send a message loud-and-clear that what one party wants to do is unacceptable but those “representatives” do it anyway, something is seriously, deeply, profoundly wrong.

When a journalist prank-called Governor Walker pretending to be the billionaire political financier David Koch to encourage him on his union-busting efforts and the governor’s response revealed just how squarely in the pockets of powerful business interests he’s in, that should have been the end of his career. Ten or fifteen years ago, there would have been such an outcry over this transparent disregard of the interests of average citizens that the governor would have been forced to resign. Nowadays, he was not only able to remain in office but to win the political fight he knew the vast majority of Americans opposed him on.

The pot is boiling. Poll numbers don’t matter anymore because it no longer matters what the average American thinks. The average American is broke. The only opinions that matter are those of the Koch brothers and their billionaire-brethren who can afford to finance political campaigns (now without limit thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling). The fact that even in the face of overwhelming public opposition, even in the face of massive, nation-wide protests, the Republicans still feel safe doing the bidding of their corporate masters at the expense of the middle class, is all the evidence you need that they think the frog is pretty much cooked.

There is only one avenue of escape left to the frog, and that’s to not let the momentum of these protests die down. Just because the battle is lost does not mean the war is over. If efforts to recall Governor Walker and the State Senators who voted to pass his democracy-destroying legislation manage to succeed, other governors will have to seriously consider putting the brakes on their plans to do the same things in their own states. The protesters have already succeeded in scaring some of these governors like Chris Christie in my own state of New Jersey (who is, incidentally, much admired by my conservative parents) into backing off for now, but if the people of Wisconsin and their supporters all just pack up and go home now that they’ve lost this fight, we may have lost our last change. If the massive amount of campaign contributions these Republicans will now be receiving allows them to prevail in upcoming elections against Democrats who will no longer be able to look forward to quite as much funding from labor unions, you can rest assured that the same kind of legislation that Wisconsin lawmakers just rammed through their state will be back on the table everywhere else.

It’s up to us, America. We can either let our right half keep our much-larger left half stuck to the bottom of the pot while we all boil together, or we can keep reaching for the rim and trying to pry both halves out in spite of the other side’s misguided resistance.

It’s time that the middle class on both the left and the right realize that we’re both part of the same frog, and that we need to stop fighting ourselves when the real enemies are those who are trying to cook us.

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