The Political Advantages of Not Caring

Near the end of a column on the Michigan “right-to-work” coup, Jonathan Chait offers an important insight on why Republicans are willing and able to pull these sort of stunts:

Last year, the Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing activist group, explained, “We fight these battles on taxes and regulation but really what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.” Republicans understand full well that Michigan leans Democratic, and the GOP has total power at the moment, so its best use of that power is to crush one of the largest bastions of support for the opposing party.

Obviously, one should always be suspicious of theories that attribute malicious will to power to the other side while absolving one’s own allies of the same. I don’t think Democrats abstain from this behavior (to anything like the degree the GOP employs it) because it’s made of angels. Rather, the Democratic party comprises an economically diverse coalition, including not just labor but business as well. Even if Democrats could come up with a plan to crush the political power of business — which is hard because business is way larger and stronger than labor, even in Michigan — huge chunks of the party would object. Whereas nobody in the GOP cares about labor at all, so it’s easier to unify them behind the kind of political/class war strategy we’re seeing here.

It’s kind of important to understand that this total hostility to the labor movement–the kind of thing that makes it unremarkable when a Nikki Haley flatly tells unions (who are still, so far as I know, legal everywhere) to stay out of her state as though they were crime rings–is relatively new, and very new outside the Deep South. No, Republicans as a whole were never big fans of labor, but you didn’t have to be a union-hater to call yourself a Republican, and a self-proclaimed “moderate” like Rick Snyder would have regarded the fanatics of Americans for Prosperity as troglodytes and political poison. Lest we forget, in 1976, The Sainted One Himself, Ronald Reagan, chose a man (Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania) with a 91% voting rating from the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education to be his pre-convention running-mate. Yes, this was an audacious move designed to create a mind-bending ideological coalition ticket between opposite wings of the GOP, but the point is there was a pro-labor wing of the GOP that people like Reagan not only had to respect but actually wanted to pull into their tent. All that is way gone, and Chait’s right, it’s why Republicans feel no compunction about picking up the nearest weapon and going for the kill.

Most Democrats do not want their own party to become so hammer-headed, and it’s diverse enough that this is hardly an option anyway. But being the party of people who all pretty much look alike, sound alike, think alike, and bend the knee before the same gods secular and religious, has its tactical advantages when it comes to how to approach outsiders, for whom they need not care at all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.