Sunday, December 30, 2018
Isn’t it interesting that a president who claims to be for workers is willing to, during what he claims is a vibrant economy, freeze federal workers’ wages? He touts that his policies are bringing prosperity to steelworkers and coal miners (despite evidence to the contrary). But then the one group of workers for whom he has a direct control sees their wages stagnate.
If you looked at the rhetoric of the right wing over the past 40 years, you’d think that the ranks of federal employees has become so large that it has choked our economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, federal workers comprise 1.79% of the nation’s workforce. Despite claims of a growing and bloated federal workforce, it’s one of three employment sectors that BLS predicts will decline between 2016 and 2026. The other two declining sectors are manufacturing and self-employed agriculture, two sectors of the economy for which the president reserves his most serious pandering. In contrast, federal workers have been part of the right wing’s symbolism for decades. They get pilloried along with “welfare moms” and liberals. As is the case for all of these other generalizations, federal workers are a convenient target, and how they’re caricatured is far from reality.
That’s how divisive politics works. Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981. It was a symbolic act more than anything else as he showed his “strength” against unions. It was politically expedient and a significant shift from his time as governor California in 1968 when he signed the nation’s first law giving public employees the right to bargain collectively. After all, Reagan had been a union member of sorts, having served extensive terms as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild. By 1981, though, he saw a chance to make political gains by attacking those air traffic controllers. In the time since, right-wing politicians learned a valuable lesson as they discovered a convenient enemy that could be readily mocked, demonized, and easily blamed.
It’s actually how bullies always operate: Pick on someone whom you can defeat and call that a victory. The belief is that then others will defer to your superiority. Federal workers, because they are relatively few in numbers and have lost much of their collective bargaining power over the last three decades, are any easy target for a bully.
And that’s what’s really going on here. Yes, the current administration gave away billions to the wealthy and now claims that there isn’t enough money to pay workers. But that’s been the pattern for failed trickle-down Republican tax policy for decades. This focus on federal workers is more than just that; it’s a symbolic statement. It is intended to show that the president is powerful and in control. It’s the fundamental lesson that any bully seeks to send.
So let’s be clear here. Federal workers have become a tool, here, for a dangerous message by a despotically leaning president who’s using them to show his superiority and willingness to push them. The president doesn’t care that these folks have made career commitments to service. When he was out night clubbing, bragging about assaulting women with impunity, and golfing, these folks were keeping the business of government operating and forming the steady foundation for our democracy. It’s clear that the president doesn’t care about their cost in the overall federal budget. As he does with most of his actions, he’s sending a message that he’s in control, and that no one other than him can lead this nation – that he, as a person of action, offers the answers. There’s no thought to the people who will be affected or how this act diminishes their service and dedication. It’s the same megalomaniacal beliefs that purportedly led Mussolini to declare:
“Democracy is talking itself to death. The people do not know what they want; they do not know what is the best for them. There is too much foolishness, too much lost motion. I have stopped the talk and the nonsense. I am a man of action. Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy. You in America will see that some day.”
Although this quotation may be apocryphal, it rings true to Mussolini’s overall approach to governance as cited in many of his speeches and writings. The echoes to comments from the current president demand that we pay attention.
Refusing cost-of-living raises to federal employees is about strongman optics. That’s done in the corporate world all the time. A CEO will “hold the line” on workers’ wages to earn favor with the board of directors and stockholders. It may be tolerated there, but in a representative democracy, it’s a dangerous gamesmanship that defies the nation’s egalitarian ideals. No group should be targeted for use in politically expedient lessons. The idea of a strongman government where the leader can so easily target one group should be abhorrent to us. Mussolini was wrong to cavalierly dismiss democratic systems in favor of his own judgment, and so is the president.