Alexis de Tocqueville thought, as I observed in an earlier post, that after the grand principled politics of the earliest years of the Republic, American parties and politics would be about minor issues. About dividing up the spoils, not about the definition of what democracy is and how it should be enacted. His important insight was to distinguish between two different forms of political contestation. He correctly noted that American politics would be mostly about dividing the spoils, resting upon a general consensus about fundamental principles. But what he missed is that fundamental conflicts have a way, episodically, of reappearing, sometimes quite unexpectedly, and even with a slight of hand. Such is our present situation.
This became clear to me as I was surfing the web this morning and came across a post by Jonah Goldberg at the National Review online. He openly made the move from petit to grand politics in Tocqueville’s sense.
“The protesting public-school teachers with fake doctor’s notes swarming the capitol building in Madison, Wis., insist that Gov. Scott Walker is hell-bent on “union busting.” Walker denies that his effort to reform public-sector unions in Wisconsin is anything more than an honest attempt at balancing the state’s books.
I hope the protesters are right. Public unions have been a 50-year mistake.”
Goldberg argues against the very idea of public employee unions, going a step further than the aggressive Governor of Wisconsin. For Goldberg it is all about the principle, as he supports a politician who must get on with practical political concerns. As Max Weber would put it, Walker uses an apparent ethic of responsibility, fiscal balance, to hide his ultimate ends; attacking the public employees’ unions. Walker governs responsibly, moving toward the principled goal.
But there is more than meets the eye in Goldberg’s essay, which is framed around the idea that unions in the private sector fought a valiant and historic struggle against capitalist exploitation, while public unions just stand for stealing from the public coffers. On the page where his post appears, there is a standard right wing advertisement, that takes the issue one step further from fiscal responsibility to opposition to public employee unions by calling for an anti-union petition.
The libertarian call for anti-union ‘right to work’ laws has been standard fare at the National Review dating back to its founding in the fifties. Back then, it was a voice in the liberal wilderness, i.e. from its editors’ point of view. Back then there existed a social contract in the nation, supported by a broad spectrum of Democrats and Republicans alike, that prevented sustained attacks on workers’ rights. Goldberg presents an argument that purports to adhere to that position. But the anti-Obama, libertarian ad makes clear not all are interested in a social truce. It is not about the spoils but about a principled choice between individual liberty and the primacy of the right to property on the one side, and worker collective action and the struggle for social justice, on the other.
I suspect that Goldberg didn’t object to the ad’s placement, it communicates the logical conclusion of his and Governor Walker’s positions. It revealed to this reader what is at stake in the Wisconsin events.