This article from Alternet on 12 Things You Need to Know About the Uprising in Wisconsin is chock-full of good information, but I’d like to focus in is this bit at the end, which gets at a key issue:
The Right has made great political progress getting Americans to ask the question: “How come that guy’s getting what I don’t have?” It’s the crux of the politics of grievance. Progressives need to get Americans to ask a different question: “What’s keeping me from getting what that guy has?” At least part of the answer is the Right’s decades-long assault on private sector workers’ ability to organize, and the latest battle is being waged in Wisconsin.
I think that’s an important point. Some people seem to find the idea of teachers and other public workers having decent, middle-class salaries and good benefits a kind of affront. But that’s what we should want for everybody! The fact that such a small percentage of Americans now belong to unions is one reason for this attitude. Instead of unions being seen as “us” they’re perceived as just another special interest. No doubt the unions themselves are partly to blame for this, but more influential, I’d argue, is the notion that we should all just throw ourselves at the mercy of the free market and trust that individual pluck and talent will lead to economic success, despite all evidence to the contrary. This is the conservative-Reaganite gospel in a nutshell that’s been used as a justification for weakening unions, cutting taxes and regulation, and blowing holes in the social safety net for over 30 years. (Not coincidentally, pitting segments of the working- and middle-classes against one another ultimately redounds to the benefit of the wealthy.)
Another example of this phenomenon is highlighted here by the Slacktivist (via Jeremy). Apparently the budget priorities favored by evangelical Christians in America are cutting spending on foreign aid, unemployment benefits, and environmental protection. Again, the underlying idea seems to be that some “others” are getting some good stuff they don’t deserve and the only way we preserver our own well-being is by taking away it from them. Never mind that none of these three areas are major drivers of the U.S. budget. Foreign aid in particular is laughably small, especially if we’re talking about genuine humanitarian aid, as opposed to the military aid we give to countries like Egypt, Israel, and Colombia.
All of this highlights why the value of solidarity is so important for the Left (and, I’d add, Christian social thought). It explicitly denies that it’s each man for himself. On the contrary, solidarity means we’re all in this together. If it stands for nothing else, the Left stands for the belief that social improvement through collective action is possible and that our interests are inextricably bound together. If instead people see themselves as isolated atoms and society as a zero-sum game, progress becomes virtually impossible.
ADDED 2/22: Michael Lind makes the point well in today’s column:
In the divide-and-rule politics of the American right, public employees have for the moment replaced “welfare queens” and illegal immigrants as symbols of parasites who exploit working-class taxpayers. Never mind that the deregulation of finance and global trade imbalances caused the economic crisis and the subsequent cratering of revenues for state governments, not public sector unions. Never mind that it is illogical to assert that fairness requires not the upgrading of private sector worker rights and benefits until they are as decent as those of public sector employees, but the reduction of everyone’s rights and benefits to a miserable lowest common denominator. Resentment has its own logic, captured by a medieval Viking proverb: “One oak gains what is peeled from another.” In times of crisis, populations often prefer scapegoats to explanations, and the right is ready to provide a scapegoat in the form of public sector unions.