Rustbelt Republican Governors Trample Democracy

T-Letterhe 2010 mid-term election, during which the Republican Party captured a stunning 63 congressional seats and 8 governorships, instantly illuminated the political landscape that we have been facing since that moment. Nowhere have the anti-worker and anti-democratic consequences been more visible than in the industrial Midwest, the traditional bulwark of industrial unionism, where the Republicans added four rightist governors—Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett—to the corporate-driven regime already established in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence, in 2013, succeeded the equally rightist Mitch Daniels, who signed “right-to-work” legislation in 2012 aimed at rolling back union rights. In each of these states, their actions have intensified the long-term trends for the highest levels of inequality in the U.S. since the Gilded Age.

It is in these once-liberal states where the Republicans have advanced astonishingly anti-working class measures and pro-corporate subsidies—to the delight of their donors—and enacted major cuts in education and environmental protections. Walker and Pence have also, at least partially, spurned additional Medicaid funding—available through the Affordable Care Act—for tens of thousands of poor citizens lacking healthcare, and pushed through anti-woman laws on reproductive rights that deliver long-sought goals for their voter base of social conservatives. In many instances, the team of Walker, Pence, Snyder, Kasich, and Corbett has relied upon the already-drafted, just-add-water legislative recipes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) lavishly funded by the mega-billionaire Koch brothers.

The Deindustrialization Disarms The Victims

These developments have done more than enrich the donor class on which politicians depend. They have weakened the capacity of its people to resist rising inequality. The outcome: a profound weakening of workers’ social cohesion and labor organizations, which have been such a critical part of American democracy.

The role of labor unions in forming independent perspectives and political/electoral strategies has been a vital force in a social landscape otherwise dominated by elite-run institutions and organizations. But when assessing unions’ political impact, conventional media pundits focus only on the often-exaggerated financial contributions of unions. In fact, unions were out-spent by corporations 15-1 in the 2008 federal elections. Similarly, mainstream social scientists like Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, have largely passed over the role of labor unions in creating avenues of discussion and effective political activism for low and moderate-income people.

But the place for unions in American democracy has shrunk as economic policies have resulted in the export of millions of family-supporting jobs in manufacturing. This massive shift of manufacturing has not only served to reduce the supply of family-sustaining work, but it has also significantly undermined the social structures essential to independent working-class challenges to corporate and government economic policy.

As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward soberly point out in The Breaking of the American Social Compact, “Changes in the location of production, as well as changing patterns of consumption and settlement, are also transforming the community and culture of even those who remain industrial workers. As industrial capitalism has reorganized domestically and dispersed globally, a primary impact has been disorganizing the working class and escaping its leverage.

“The old segregated enclaves and towns of working class life are giving way to more dispersed patterns of settlement. Television and a life organized around patterns of consumption replace the working class pub and working class traditions; and locally-based party organizations give way to national media campaigns. ”

“The impact of the recession-inducing Wall Street meltdown and the ongoing loss of industrial jobs in the U.S. have further atomized the working class. America lost fully 32 percent of its manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010, amounting to about 5.7 million jobs…. While a majority of jobs lost during the downturn were in the middle range of wages, a majority of those added during the recovery have been low paying,” a new report from the National Employment Law Project stated (NY Times, 8/30/12). Fully 40 percent of U.S. jobs now pay $20,000 or less.

But overall, the loss of family-sustaining manufacturing work has been pervasive and destructive. According to a new study of manufacturing employment by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, the loss of manufacturing jobs has been especially acute in the five Rustbelt states won by the Republicans in 2010, ranging from 12.9 percent in Indiana since 1979 to the staggering levels of 53.8 percent in Ohio, 56.5 percent in Michigan, and 59.3 percent in Pennsylvania.

Industrial workers—as well as a large chunk of white-collar workers who had envisioned themselves as holding down life-long middle-class jobs—have been forced to focus on insuring their individual families’ survival amidst high unemployment, a shortage of family-sustaining jobs, and sharply-increased insecurity about providing food and shelter. Even during the current “recovery,” median family income has fallen from $54,000 in 2008 to $51,017 in 2013, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Part of this trend can be traced to the demand for wage and benefit cuts by some of the nation’s most prominent corporations such as General Electric, Caterpillar, and Boeing.

A major part of the leverage used to extort wage and benefit cuts is based on the threat of relocating production overseas. The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel, using Commerce Department figures, reported (4/19/11) that, “U.S. multinational corporations that employ 20 percent of all U.S. workers, are increasingly hiring overseas workers…. U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers, have been hiring abroad while cutting back at home, sharpening the debate over globalization’s effect on the U.S. economy…. The companies cut their work forces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million, new data from the U.S. Commerce Department show. That’s a big switch from the 1990s, when they added jobs everywhere: 4.4 million in the U.S. and 2.7 million abroad.”

Private sector union membership has been slashed to 6.7 percent, primarily the outcome of de-industrialization and a non-stop crusade against unionism. Already in 1994, Business Week has announced, “US industry has conducted one of the most successful antiunion wars ever.”

Experts reviewing national polling by the New York Times/CBS News concluded, “Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.” A Wisconsin poll by Public Policy Polling showed a 65 percent level of opposition to Walker’s bill. Pro-union crowds of up to 150,000 massed at the State Capitol to protest Walker’s legislation. But Walker ignored the displays of popular sentiment and signed the bill into law and then withstood an historic recall attempt—which gathered nearly one million signatures in a state of about 6 million—by raising an estimated $60 million to dominate the airwaves.

In 2012, in Mitch Daniels’ Indiana and Rick Snyder’s Michigan, the Republicans short-circuited a major public debate over “right-to-work” laws explicitly aimed at attracting more investment by driving down wages. “Right-to-work” laws are not aimed at protecting workers from “forced unionism”—which is illegal anyway—but from permitting unions to collect dues for services, which by law they are obligated to provide to all workers, dues-payer or not. Ultimately, right-to-work laws open the door for employers to approach individual members with threats or promises and thereby deplete unions of members and funds.

Faced with massive public outrage at their state capitols, the Indiana and Michigan Republicans moved swiftly to enact “right-to -work” laws before opposition could become even more intense. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett has recently proclaimed his support for a “right-to-work” law, outraging thousands of union members who gathered at the Capitol in Harrisburg.

In Ohio, however, majority opinion was able to triumph over the power of concentrated corporate power. In November 2011, a referendum against Gov. Kasich’s law severely restricting public-employee unions was overcome by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin, a result which closely mirrored the public-opinion polls cited above.


Contempt For Democracy

But generally, the five Midwestern governors have been able to employ a variety of undemocratic means to ram through unpopular legislation over Democratic legislative minorities and the opposition of a majority of a fragmented public. Before the five Rustbelt Republicans assumed power, formal American democratic institutions had already been hollowed out by the growing dependence of political candidates on large contributions from a fraction of 1 percent of the electorates.

The five industrial state governors escalated these attacks, tossing aside democratic procedures, stripping state agencies and local governments of democratic powers to act in the public interest, and striving to shrink the electorate through voter-suppression measures.

Again and again, Republican governors and legislators in the five industrial states—as elsewhere around the U.S.—have trampled on democratic procedures to ram through measures like Wisconsin’s Act 10 straitjacketing public unions and the once-unimaginable passage of right-to-work laws in Michigan and Indiana. To achieve these ends, the Republicans have not hesitated to ignore public-notice laws, cut off the microphones of Democratic opponents, restricted public access to state capitols, threatened opponents with $1,000-a-day fines if they prevent establishing a quorum, and enacting highly unpopular major legislation by lame-duck representatives who can never be held accountable by the voters.

In Michigan, the lame-duck Republican-dominated Legislature in late 2012 discarded the results of a referendum repealing the highly unpopular Public Act 4, which empowered Gov. Rick Snyder to declared “fiscal martial law” and appoint hand-picked administrators empowered to displace elected public officials and to tear up existing labor contracts. The Legislature merely passed a new version of the law which has been used by Snyder to take over control of almost-entirely black Benton Harbor and to force the bankruptcy of Detroit.

Republicans’ win-at-all-costs methods were perhaps most grotesquely symbolized by a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice choking a female colleague who opposed Gov. Scott Walker’s measure to strip public unions of meaningful rights.


Taking Power From The People

The Republican agendas across the Midwest states have been profoundly anti-democratic, denying a voice to the public in decisions which profoundly affect their lives. Snyder’s takeovers of financially-troubled municipalities and the discarding of democratic procedures have brought together the assault on labor with the offensive against democracy. In Detroit, the Snyder-forced bankruptcy threatens the pension and health benefits of municipal retirees like police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, and other city employees who averaged just over $17,000 in annual payments.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, helped to pass $1.7 billion in tax breaks to Royal Dutch Shell (2013 profits: $16.8 billion), a firm deeply involved in the environmentally-destructing practice of “fracking” to gain access to oil deposits. Corbett also signed into law a prohibition against local governments enacting rules designed to prevent the damage to water supplies caused by fracking.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Walker and the Republicans have been eagerly trying to promote a proposed iron-ore mine in northern Wisconsin as a key economic initiative. But the mine has aroused widespread opposition among local governments and the Bad River Band of the Chippewa, who are fearful that the mine tailings would contaminate the both the headwaters of a major river and Lake Superior.

Walker is pushing the project as a major job creator, although the entire region of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula is dotted with the deserted remains of boom-and-bust mining operations. But this project, led by Gogebic Mining, threatens to leave a more permanent and disturbing legacy caused by the asbestos and iron sulfide found in preliminary exploration of the mining site.


Privatizing Corporate Handouts

Important decisions over issues like the distribution of state “incentives” to business were shielded from public oversight as state economic development agencies have been privatized in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. Also privatizing economic development has been Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Texas. All but Rhode Island have Republican governors. The outcome is summarized in the title of a report called “Creating Scandals Instead Of Jobs” by Good Jobs First, a Washington, DC-based group which monitors corporate subsidies.

Privatization has created a shield against public accountability. In Indiana, for example, a Reagan-appointed Equal Employment Commission in Ohio where its “hiring example, the economic development “corporation” refused to provide Indiana legislators with information about the racial makeup of the workforce at a Honda plant, the recipient of about $149 million in state and local subsidies. Honda, which had previously been forced to pay a $6 million fine by a Rea radius “for workers eligible to apply for jobs excluded areas with any substantial African-American population. In Indiana, the hiring radius was barely larger, adding the county containing Indianapolis (27 percent black) with 19 conservative southern Indiana counties averaging populations that were less than 4 percent African American. In Wisconsin, the Economic Development Corporation has been unable to track all of its grants to corporations, although research groups have traced incentives to corporations that have provided Gov. Walker with $439,000 in campaign contributions.


Artificially Amplifying Conservative Voices

The Republicans in each of the states, relying on a $30 million REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) program launched by the Republican State Legislative Council on redistricting held every 10 years by each state, produced new district lines that effectively allowed the GOP to select the voters in both legislative and House races. “Along with Walmart and tobacco companies, the RSLC’s largest funders in 2010 were the Chamber of Commerce and American Justice Partnership, which gave a combined $6.5 million,” according to a ProPublica report. The RLSC openly boasted about the clearly undemocratic effects of REDMAP: “Obama won reelection in 2012 by nearly 3 points nationally [actually 3.9 points], and banked 126 more electoral votes than Governor Mitt Romney. Democratic candidates for the U.S. House won 1.1 million [actually 1.7 million] more votes than their Republican opponents. But the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is a Republican and presides over a 33-seat House Republican majority during the 113th Congress. How? One needs to look no farther than four states that voted Democratic on a statewide level in 2012, yet elected a strong Republican delegation to represent them in Congress: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.”

 Despite vote totals that produced state level majorities for Democratic House candidates, the GOP gained a disproportionate share of seats. Michigan found itself with 9 Republican and 5 Democratic House seats, although the Democrats won over 200,000 more votes for House candidates. Pennsylvania voters cast 50.7 percent of their ballots for Democratic House candidates, but were startled to discover that they had elected only 5 Democratic and 13 Republican House members. Where the Republican House candidates gathered more votes, their share of seats far exceeded their vote total: in Indiana, the Republicans converted 52.3 percent of the vote into a 7-2 ratio of House seats.

Similarly in Ohio, the Republicans’ 52 percent vote for GOP House candidates became an absurdly imbalanced 12-4 majority of House seats. The impact of REDMAP on the makeup of state legislatures was typified by Wisconsin, where Democratic candidates for the State Assembly won 174,000 more votes, yet the GOP walked away with a stunning 60-39 majority. The Republicans achieved these results by hiring a Republican-tilted law firm with $1.9 million in public funding for the redistricting conducted every 10 years.

Silencing The Electoral Voice Of Opponents

The five Rustbelt governors presided over efforts to silence the voices of potential opposition through voter suppression measures. The most common measure is the requirement of a photo ID, most often a driver’s license which, for example, 78 percent of young black males in Wisconsin lack, backed up by hard-to-obtain supporting documents like birth certificates. Among those most heavily targeted are African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, the elderly, and college students, all primarily Democratic constituencies.

Indiana, with then-Gov. Daniels signing the legislation, led the way on voter suppression with a restrictive law requiring photo IDs in 2005. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law with Justice John Paul Stevens arguing that “there was no evidence the law kept a single person from voting,” and that “reaction split down partisan lines.” Stevens’s sole evidence for the existence of voter fraud: one case in 1868 and a single more recent case of impersonation-style voter fraud in Washington State.

On its website, the Koch-funded ALEC smugly describes how the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision makes it easy to impose new restrictions on voting rights: there “was no requirement that Indiana show prior evidence of impersonation fraud in Indiana to justify a voter ID law.”

The Wisconsin law signed by Walker has been held up by court rulings. The law requires state-issued voter IDs, voter signatures, longer residency requirements and other procedural barriers to voting, and has been described by Common Cause State Director Jay Heck as “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.” Trying to circumvent several lawsuits, the Republicans are now moving to sharply cut back on early voting in Milwaukee, where blacks and Latinos comprise a majority.

In Pennsylvania, Corbett and his allies have also enacted restrictive “Voter ID” laws that were nakedly partisan in their intent. These laws, publicly boasted GOP majority leader Mike Turzai in 2012, would deliver Pennsyl- vania’s crucial electoral votes to Romney. Of course, the best efforts of Corbett and Turzai were overcome by large voter turnouts among people of color, the poor, and college students—all groups whose access to the polls they had hoped to block.

Ohio, under Kasich, has enacted voter ID legislation which, as former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous stated, “amounts to nothing more than a modern poll tax,” a ploy used in the South to prevent poor blacks from voting. Ohio has a sordid history on voter suppression which Kasich has been eager to extend. In the 2004 presidential election, results in the decisive state of Ohio were skewed by widespread efforts to suppress the black vote. To cite just one example, the allocation of voting machines in and around the state’s largest city of Columbus was strategically polarized along racial lines. The Columbus Free Press found that white Republican suburbanites, equipped with a surplus of machines, averaged waits of only 22 minutes, while black urban Democrats averaged 3 hours and 15 minutes

But recently, Kasich signed new legislation eliminating registration and early voting on the week before Election Day, known in Ohio as “the Golden Week.” The practice had been particularly popular among African Americans, who accounted for 77 percent of the early voters in Ohio in 2008.

The Republican mentality was revealed in the remarks of a GOP election official, Doug Priesse: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter turnout machine.”

The evidence of voter-impersonation fraud is almost entirely nonexistent. Federal records “show that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005,” according to “The Politics of Fraud,” a Project Vote report written by political scientist Lorraine Minnie. Similarly, the Brennan Center for Justice concluded, “It’s more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” Nonetheless, reported the Brennan Center, in 2013, 33 states introduced 92 restrictive bills on votng rights.


Losing Legitimacy

However, all of the Rustbelt Republicans’ anti-democratic measures do not assure them a continued smooth reign. First, the closing-off of traditional democratic channels—from voting rights to highly disproportionate redistricting to contempt for traditional democratic norms—deprives these Republicans of legitimacy as the chosen representatives of the majority. This loss of legitimacy has been reflected in relatively low approval ratings for the GOP governors.

Second, the Republicans’ reliance on unprecedented levels of financial support from billionaires like the Koch brothers and others with stratospheric wealth calls further attention to the economic and political inequality that first ignited the Wisconsin labor uprising of early 2011 and later the massive Occupy movement, whose participants have since presumably gained in strategic understanding. Third, the ever-intensifying effects of economic inequality and insecurity—the cuts in wages, the job insecurity, the fear of losing retirement benefits, worry about home foreclosure—will eventually lead working people to discover new forms of organization and political leverage, as it has through history. Attempts to simultaneously re-distribute income upward and deprive people of any recourse has produced rebellions like the 2011 Wisconsin labor rebellion led by public employees, the overwhelming repeal of Kasich’s similar law in Ohio at the polls and, more broadly, the Occupy movement.

Despite enhanced public awareness of the destructive impact of the unequal economic and political power held by major corporations and the investor class of the top 1 percent, the Right has succeeded in blaming economic insecurity solely on President Obama. The Obama administration, shaped in part by the Democrats’ reliance on Wall Street and other corporate funding, has hardly provided a bold alternative to the shrill anti-worker and anti-democratic direction of the Republicans both in the Rustbelt and nationally.

This vacuum presents both an enormous opportunity and a daunting challenge for progressives. The Left must not only formulate a new progressive economic strategy for the nation as an alternative to the Right’s support for increasing inequality and Obama’s neo-liberalism, but must also construct new institutional forms that re-assemble a now-fragmented working class in the battle for economic and political democracy.


Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Common Dreams, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus.