Friday, 20 January 2012

The biggest American political story Europeans haven't heard of

The US presidential primary race has attracted its usual amount of fascination here in Europe, and yesterday’s developments - with the Iowa race being re-called for Santorum and Rick Perry dropping out - were front page material. But behind the spectacle of the drawn-out US primaries, there is a far more interesting story going on in the state capitals.

Of course it’s not surprising that the European media is ignoring these huge developments at state level, because the Washington beltway media has also ignored them. They also ignored the unprecedented political revolution in 2010 that the recent events are a reaction to. While in Europe the media tends to ignore ‘federal’ (EU) politics and focus only on member state politics, in the US it is the opposite. The US media (even local state media) tends to focus on federal politics in Washington and there is little interest in what goes on in state capitals.

Thus, when the Republicans enjoyed an unprecedented victory in the 2010 midterm elections, the focus was almost entirely on the fact that they had taken control of the US House of Representatives. What was largely ignored was the fact that they had at the same time taken over state legislatures with unprecedented majorities – giving Republicans the most power in state governments they have had in decades. Republicans wrested six governorships from Democrats, giving them control of 30 of the 50 state executives. Five states saw both legislative chambers (state senate and state house) switch from Democrat to Republican majorities. In seven other states they gave themselves control of the entire legislature by picking up huge majorities in an additional chamber. The elections left Republicans controlling the entire government of half of US states, leaving them with Hungary-like majorities capable of passing whatever state legislation they like.

So what have they done with this unprecedented power in a time of economic crisis? Though the they were swept into office on a wave of pro-austerity fervour with pledges to fix the economy, the Republican state legislators have instead largely focused on old social causes that have nothing to do with the economy. They’ve pushed through anti-abortion bills (a record number in 2011), union-busting bills, ‘emergency manager’ laws taking away local government in mostly black cities and voter-ID laws (considered by opponents to be voter suppression methods because many African Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, do not have drivers licenses to show at the polling booth). MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has been virtually the only mainstream media journalist covering these developments, and she did a great summary last March:


As Maddow has been reporting, what has followed has been a huge public backlash to these efforts. The efforts to strip unions of collective bargaining rights in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio was met with the largest public demonstrations seen in the US since the run-up to the Iraq war. Before ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was even a spark in anyone’s imagination, union demonstrators literally took over state capital buildings in protest of the coordinated Republican effort to dismantle American labour.

But the most incredible developments in the backlash to Republican state efforts have come this week in Wisconsin. Opponents of the new Republican Governor Scott Walker (elected in the 2010 Republican sweep) have managed to collect the required 500,000 signatures in order to force a public recall vote for the governor. In fact they didn’t just collect the required number. They doubled it, turning in more than one million signatures on Tuesday- a quarter of the state’s voting-age population. More people have now signed the petition to recall Governor Walker than voted for him in 2010. This follows a public referendum in Maine which annulled the Republican legislature’s bill ending same-day registration for voters (another perceived effort at suppression of Democratic voters, since young first-time voters tend to vote Democratic).

Though the number of signatures was a shocking development, the news barely registered in the US national media – and therefore was ignored in the rest of the world’s media as well. But its implications are huge. As Maddow noted on Tuesday’s show,
“Voters in the states governed by Republicans cannot wait until the next election to undo what they have done. They want these politicians and their main priorities out, and they want them out now.”

Republicans have shown how they govern. They inherited unprecedented political power in 2010, both nationally and at state level. Voters have watched what they’ve done with that power, and evidence suggests a majority don’t like what they see. The Republican-controlled congress has been the most inactive in American history, blocking any and all legislation during an economic crisis in an effort to unseat President Obama in 2012. The state legislators have done the opposite, pursuing an active agenda to accomplish long-held ideological goals like union suppression and anti-abortion laws.

The common wisdom in Europe may be that the dire economic situation in the United States is bad news for any incumbent, and Barrack Obama will have a tough time getting re-elected. But don’t forget that the Republicans are the incumbents over there as well. They control the House of Representatives and hold a blocking filibuster-majority in the Senate. They control the majority of state governments. And their policies over the past two years have done nothing to help the US out of the economic crisis, leaving the US congress with its lowest public approval rating in history.

Americans may be feeling disillusioned with Barrack Obama, but that’s not the complete picture. The Republicans will have a tough time defending not only what took place during the Bush era but also what they have done since then, and the Obama campaign will be keen to drive that message home.

All eyes will be on the recall election in Wisconsin this summer as a harbinger of things to come. Only three governors have ever been successfully recalled in US history. If public anger against the actions of Republican state lawmakers is strong enough to win a recall, it will not be a good sign for the GOP going into the November presidential election.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So good to see Americans fighting back against these insane policies. In Europe, whether or not you agree with the conservatives in power and their austerity push, at least they're trying something. Why are Republicans wasting time with abortion bills and voter ID??? We are in an economic crisis! It's this reason why I have more long-term faith in Europe than in the US. Even if we're wrong about austerity, at least we tried something. American government is just broken.