by AFT Political Action VP Jim Miller

“We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship” – Grover Norquist

On February 10th, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled into San Diego and staged a speech in an unused rental car lot where he mugged for the cameras in front of two Brinks trucks overflowing with money bags which he used as a graphic illustration of the “sweetheart pension deals” enjoyed by teachers and other state employees who deserved a plan that was no longer “gold plated.”  Welcome to special interest status.  Now the public sector and public sector unions are enemy number one for the Governor whose “reform” agenda is taken right out of the playbook of the likes of Bush Administration confidante and anti-government zealot, Grover Norquist, whose agenda has long been the radical dismantling of the public sector, the destruction of the power of public sector unions, and the elimination of the collective power of public pension funds to check corporate abuses. When Norquist advised Republicans nationwide to turn state capitals into battlegrounds he was articulating a strategy that reveals the ultimate goal of the Right—to fundamentally and permanently reshape American political and economic life on the national, state, and local level. 

This is not a conspiracy theory.  In his September 2004 article for the Washington Monthly, “The Democratic Party is Toast,” Norquist quite overtly and plainly argued that the Democratic Party could not survive a second Bush term and that the key to eviscerating the opposition, which he calls “the Dependency movement” composed of “the coercive utopians—the radical environmentalists, animal rights activists, feminists” as well as “government workers,” “middle managers in state and federal government,” “local government,” and especially “labor unions,”  was to starve the beast.  For Norquist, the attack on government is an end in itself and his shrewd Machiavellian logic is simply that eliminating government will eliminate Democrats and unions.  As he puts it, “Every worker who doesn’t join a union is another worker who doesn’t pay $500 a year to organized labor’s political machine.” 

If you are not a union worker or supporter of unions, all the better, for it will be just that much easier to eliminate or privatize your position.  As for pensions, the more one transfers the risk of retirement savings from the government to individual workers the more Republicans you create.  In Norquist’s estimation, “Every demographic group, including race, gender, age, and income becomes more Republican with stock ownership.”  The goal of eliminating Social Security or the State Teachers Retirement System is not economic reform or the public good, it is a purely ideological move designed to consolidate and increase right wing hegemony.  Hence, like it or not, Democrat or Republican, we are all in the crosshairs of the coercive market utopians who see every public sector worker, whether they be teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, food service workers, office workers, or any other “public servant” (remember that quaint notion) as public enemy number one in need of a good dose of Social Darwinism. 

As historian Mike Davis has noted in a Sacramento Bee article, the Governor’s rhetoric is evidence of the “rising tide of libertarianism in the GOP . . . His proposals for the privatization of non-instructional school services, stringent performance reviews of state programs and the consolidation or elimination of state agencies were quoted chapter and verse from the ‘Citizen’s Budget’ crafted last year by Carl DeMaio, the resident guru for government reinvention at the Reason Foundation.”  Like Norquist, the Reason Foundation folks (who are the men behind the curtain for the Governor), seek an anti-bureaucratic revolution that moves toward “market-based government” based on the same principles that brought California the marketplace utopia of energy deregulation. Unfazed by such failures or the larger lessons of American history before the New Deal and Progressive Era Reforms, the libertarian right maintains a rigid ideological faith that the golden era of the past before big government was better for everyone from the Robber Barons to child laborers and the majority of Americans who never went to college and spent their old age in wholesome poverty free from the burden of government handouts. 

Such notions would be laughable if they weren’t driving Schwarzenegger’s efforts at “reform” in the name of “the people.”  Sadly, the Governor’s reform crusade borrows its rhetoric from an earlier era when Governor Hiram Johnson favored big government as a buffer against the excesses of corporate greed and abuse.  As Peter Shragge has pointed out, California’s first Progressive Republican reformers would find the current brand of pseudo-Populist grandstanding to be inconceivable.  Even less ancient conservative notions such as deficit reduction have been thrown overboard by the corporate anarchists running the show today.  Indeed, as we ponder the fact that despite massive borrowing via ballot measures, the Schwarzenegger deficit now exceeds the Davis deficit, it becomes clear that deficits are not altogether unwelcome for these reformers.  By refusing to ever address the problem by bringing in new revenues, the Governor and state Republicans are showing their hand. 

As Ed Kilgore has noted of the New Right’s affection for debt, no tax pledges and debt are “good in themselves because they will ultimately force a shrinkage in government—without the pain or controversy of identifying specific cuts in popular government programs.”  Hence, by refusing to even consider increasing taxes on the wealthiest Californians or corporations and by calling for the creation of an automatic trigger for budget cuts when expenses exceed revenues, the Governor’s plan would create a permanent scarcity model for state services.  It would, quite effectively “starve the beast” (as David Stockman once called the strategy), as privatization or elimination of services as well as the radical restructuring of existing programs and pension funds would become a necessity.  The driving force here again is not hard reality but an inflexible ideological agenda.  When Schwarzenegger’s own appointees disagree with his pension proposals he simply fires them rather than listening to opposing arguments.  Such actions, along with the Governor’s reneging on the Proposition 98 deal he struck last year, his backtracking on equalization, and his assault on teachers’ tenure, are a clear signal of his true intentions.

Governor Schwarzenegger is not the moderate he plays on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; rather, he is a pretty front man for a radical agenda at odds with the interests and priorities of most Californians.  As the dog and pony show in front of the Brinks trucks in San Diego illustrates he is perfectly willing to demonize teachers and other state employees and call on Californians to terminate the “special interests.”  It is now clearly incumbent upon us to not just defend ourselves but to offer an alternative vision that honors the work of the public sector and calls on Californians to value education, opportunity, and social justice over the politics of demonization and division. 

As the Governor and his allies on the right seek to eliminate unions, assail the public sector, destroy retirement security, and reshape the political and economic landscape to ensure their partisan advantage, we need to:

 1) Assert the historical and present value of unions as builders of the American middle class and defenders of the rights of all Americans.

2) Insist on the indispensable value of the public sector in education and elsewhere.  We are “big government” and we make peoples’ lives better. 

3) Stand up for retirement security for all Americans. 

4) Unmask the assault on the public sector for what it is: a naked political power grab that does not serve the interests of most of our fellow citizens, but favors a narrow political agenda and the interests of the most powerful at the expense of most of the rest of us. 

Write the Governor today and tell him to keep his hands off our pensions and to stop demonizing teachers and other government workers.