Much is being made, and appropriately so, about the extremism of the Republican presidential field when it comes to reproductive rights and the ripping down of Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state.
It is not just Rick Santorum. Three of the four Republican contenders for the party’s presidential nomination — the exception is Ron Paul — are running campaigns that position them as theocratic extremists of a far more radical bent than religious-right contenders such as Pat Robertson in 1988 or Gary Bauer in 2000.
But there is an ever more arch fundamentalism on display among the Republican contenders.
Like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Maine Gov. Paul LePage, they are anti-labor extremists whose opposition to free trade unions goes to extremes not seen since Southern segregationists sought to bar unions because of their fear that white workers and people of color were being organized into labor organizations that would threaten Jim Crow.
When the candidates debated last Wednesday night in Arizona — a state where Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and her legislative allies are advancing a package of anti-union measures — there was no mercy for working Americans or the unions that represent them.
As usual, that went double for Newt Gingrich.
The former speaker of the House — and noted advocate for overturning child labor laws — compared unions that represent public school teachers with rogue nations that attack the United States.
“It’s increasingly clear (education unions) care about protecting bad teachers. If you look at (Los Angeles) Unified, it is almost criminal what we do to the poorest children of America,” he said. “If a foreign nation did this to our children, we would declare it an act of war because they are doing so much damage.”
That’s a typically incendiary remark from Gingrich, whose bombast is exceeded only by his inaccuracy.
The union that represents teachers in the country’s second-largest school district, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), is not at war with the United States. Nor is it damaging the poorest children of Los Angeles, or America. It’s advocacy over the past four decades has been on behalf of stronger curriculums, safer classrooms and the best interests of those poorest kids.
That’s actually what bothers Gingrich. The union proudly notes that it has “successfully backed candidates for the school board who have vowed to place top priority on students and the classroom.” And it says: “UTLA is determined to do what’s best for the classroom and the kids in them and will protect the budget ax from falling on the classroom.”
By advocating in the workplace and in the electoral process on behalf of budget priorities that favor low-income children, UTLA and unions like it — including Madison Teachers Inc. — upset the anti-government agenda of the political and economic elites that form the base of the Republican Party forged by Gingrich and his compatriots.
So Gingrich is striking out at the unions, using language usually reserved for condemnations of rogue states and international terrorists.
While Gingrich is a little bit more extreme than his fellow contenders, the distinction is of scant consequence.
In Phoenix on Thursday, sometimes front-runner Mitt Romney declared he would pursue so-called “right to work” legislation, while forbidding unions from using dues money to advocate for pro-worker policies and candidates. He’s also promising to eliminate requirements that federal contracts go to firms that treat their workers with respect.
“If I become president of the United States, I will curb the practice we have in this country of giving union bosses an unfair advantage in contracting,” Romney told a national gathering of the Associated Builders and Contractors at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. “One of the first things that I will do — actually on Day One — is I will end the government’s favoritism toward unions in contracting on federal projects.”
Romney also promised to stop listening to organizations that represent working people during negotiations over trade policy.
Accusing President Obama of dragging his feet on our free-trade agreements — a comic charge regarding a president who has led the charge for major deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea — Romney said Obama was slow to advance free trade “because organized unions didn’t want it, don’t want it, and so bowing to them he holds off on trade. We’re going to have to change that policy and make sure that instead of having a president that bows to the demands of special interests, in this case union interests, that we have a president that bows to the interests of the American people.”
Free-trade pacts, which clear the way for the offshoring of U.S. jobs and manufacturing facilities, are not popular with the American people. And for good reason. They favor the interests of Wall Street speculators while undermining the economic stability of traditional manufacturing centers.
To his credit, Rick Santorum was once skeptical about these sorts of deals — and modestly sympathetic to the concerns of working Americans. Santorum has abandoned his former principles, becoming a GOP “team player.” But Romney continues to attack him as an insufficiently anti-worker candidate.
When it comes to the anti-union orthodoxy of what remains of the party of Lincoln — who famously declared that labor is always superior to capital — there is no forgiveness for past sins.
The economic fundamentalism of the new Republican Party is every bit as absolute as its religious fundamentalism. And every bit as unsettling.