Eight Civics Lessons from Governor Walker

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has taught the nation some very important civics lessons. The price is high, but we should pay careful attention to what he teaches by example.

The first lesson: Citizens should not be hoodwinked by rhetoric. Governor Walker said that the state was broke. He said that public sector workers had to make larger contributions to the cost of their pensions and health care, even as he handed out generous corporate tax breaks for the same amount. Doing a reverse Robin Hood, he took from the middle class to enrich the powerful. The unions promptly agreed to pay what the governor proposed, effectively cutting their compensation, but the governor would not take yes for an answer. He insisted on breaking the unions, even though no financial issues were involved.

Lesson two: It is really important to vote. Only 51.7% of eligible voters in Wisconsin cast a ballot last November, and they ended up with a governor and a legislature who are wreaking havoc on state government and decimating vital public services.

Lesson three: Voters should listen carefully to the candidates and ask for details about what they will do if they win. Scott Walker promised to balance the budget but he didn't reveal his intention to strip away collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. Journalists and citizens should have asked how he planned to balance the budget.

Lesson four: Politics in a democracy is different from politics in an authoritarian state. When there is strong opposition to their decisions, they negotiate and compromise. Negotiation and compromise are not signs of weakness, but of the disposition needed to build consensus.

Lesson five: Leaders in a democracy do not crush their opposition. Politics is not war. Leaders may not agree with the people on the other side of the aisle, but at the end of the day, they recognize them as "my loyal opposition," not my enemy. That spirit of comity is at the heart of our democracy. Elected officials do not destroy those with whom they disagree.

Lesson six: Citizens should not believe politicians who talk "school reform" yet plan to cut $1 billion from the state's education budget, while privatizing public schools. Schools will be devastated by the cuts. Class sizes will soar. Programs that children need will be eliminated. And for-profit operators will find a way to make money from a dire situation. This is not school reform.

Lesson seven: Governor Walker's attack on teachers has galvanized millions of demoralized teachers across the nation. The fact that Wisconsin's teachers organized and protested in the face of insuperable odds has inspired their colleagues across the nation. Teachers realize that it is not only their collective bargaining rights that are at risk, but their profession. Wisconsin will lose many senior teachers -- the master teachers needed in every school -- who will retire to save their pensions, their old-age security.

Lesson eight: In his effort to destroy public sector unions, Governor Walker joins in common cause with other Republican governors, including those in New Jersey, Ohio, Idaho, Tennessee, and Indiana and elsewhere. It's time to remind them that the International Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, contains Article 23, section 4, which says: "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." When the Declaration was passed, only eight nations abstained, not only the Soviet bloc, but also South Africa -- which opposed the pledge of racial equality -- and Saudi Arabia -- which objected to the pledge of religious toleration.

So Governor Walker and his fellow anti-union governors have decided to demolish one of the pillars of a democratic society: the right to join a trade union for the protection of one's interests. Totalitarian societies ban unions outright or create faux unions without any collective bargaining rights. Not a club that good Americans should want to join!

By his negative example, Governor Scott Walker has reminded us about the rights and obligations of citizenship, about the importance of standing up for the right of children to attend a good public school, and about the dangers to our democracy of the path that he has charted for his state.

Now it's up to us to learn from those civics lessons and get our democracy back on track.

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