WISCONSIN, IN CONTEXT…. Once state employees in Wisconsin announced their willingness to accept benefit cuts, but not the revocation of their collective bargaining rights, the nature of the debate changed. It looked as if Gov. Scott Walker (R) was advancing a punitive, unnecessary union-busting agenda, but once his budget demands had been met, and he still refused to work with Democrats and his own state employees, appearances no longer mattered — this is a punitive, unnecessary union-busting agenda.

The next question is why Walker and other Republican leaders consider this such a high priority. The obvious answer is that the GOP has always been hostile to labor; it’s part of the party’s raison d’etre. But it’s worth taking the next step and appreciating what drives the antagonism.

Paul Krugman’s column today makes the case well.

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

I’m reminded, from time to time, of something John Boehner said in July, when he accused Democrats of “snuffing out the America that I grew up in.” This occurred to me in the wake of the GOP’s anti-union efforts because the America Boehner grew up in featured large union memberships throughout society, and the “right to form a union was broadly accepted.”

If Boehner wants to protect the norms of that bygone era, and prevent the “snuffing out” of the America he grew up in, the House Speaker is fighting for the wrong side.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.