What Mideast Autocrats and Midwest Governors Have in Common


News for the past month has been fixed on two political crises - the uprisings in the Arab world and the protests in the Midwest. But do the two situations have any real comparisons beyond the ridiculous?

Probably not, at least as far as severity and human rights abuse goes. Yet, maybe it is worth considering the two narratives for a second and what’s driving them.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) let slip a few weeks ago that “it’s like Cairo moved to Madison these days,” and Stephen Colbert later poked fun at it in his segment “Turmoil in the Middle East and Turmoil in the Middle West.”

In the Middle East/North Africa, uprisings and even civil war continue against years of economic and oppression at the hands of corrupt dictators. And in the Midwest, namely Wisconsin and Ohio, protests continue in defense of years of progressivism and union tradition from budget plans by Republican governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

But could the Wisconsin governor really become the Midwest’s own dictator, Darth Vader, or the “Imperial Walker,” as many protestors in Madison suggest?

Again, unlikely (at least by the literal definitions). However, what is clear from Wisconsin and the Arab world is that economic hardship and social justice are driving forces. And the longer the “leaders” in power cling to their deeply partisan solutions and ignore the opposition, the more stubborn (and often theatrical) they get, blinded of the facts and core issues on the ground.

We saw this just last week in the dairy capitol, where Walker unveiled his full budget-repair proposal. According to him and fellow Republicans, the plan would alleviate a projected $3.6 billion deficit over the next two years by stripping collective bargaining rights and increasing health and pension costs for public workers. The governor said he’s not union busting, rather “making the long-term decisions to balance our budget,” allowing more “flexibility” to deal with the cuts he is proposing.

Yet, union leaders have already said they’d make the financial concessions Walker demands as long as he ditches his proposal to do way with the bargaining rights. But, the governor has rejected this and now wants to also slash billions in state aid to public schools, the University of Wisconsin system, local governments, and Medicaid programs.

Meanwhile, when it comes to unions and freedom of association in the Arab world, repression has already been the norm, more than almost anywhere in the world. Only now are we seeing mass kickback.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), in many Middle Eastern countries, governments impose excessive control over union activity, especially over collective bargaining. In Lebanon, for example, the authorities control all trade union elections, and in Jordan and Egypt (at least until this month), all strikes are illegal unless workers get prior government approval.

The Saudis make it easy by banning all unions. And in Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, the ITUC and UN also report that collective bargaining is illegal.

In these Arab countries, autocratic governments maintain control by quashing – if not killing – their opposition. The ITUC reports that this includes allowing only certain sectors and industries to unionize – those that pose the least “threat” to the regime are often in its own corporate interests.

In Wisconsin, it seems Walker wants to do the same thing. The fact that his budget proposal would exempt police and firefighters from the limits on collective bargaining hints the governor is going beyond simple fiscal goals to openly attack the opposing party. Republicans are well aware that unions represent some of the strongest voter and financial backing for Democrats. If Walker’s proposal passes, the attacks on public sector unions could ripple out to other Republican-controlled swing states. Just look at Ohio and Indiana.

But let’s not also forget about corporate corruption. In the Badger State, Walker’s bill contains several hidden clauses that would give the governor new sweeping powers to boost privatization and corporate control over several local state sectors, including power plants, schools and even Wisconsin’s Department of Commerce!

At the same time, in the Middle East and North Africa, many are now pressing to investigate the hidden (and mostly stolen) fortunes of former dictators, such as Mubarak’s anywhere from $2 billion to $70 billion in assets. According to a recent New York Times report, much of this corruption stemmed from when Mubarak privatized his country’s economy in the 1990s, allowing his family and several wealthy elite to hold “stakes in the sale of state assets and in new business ventures.”

Obviously, this type of looting is different than our system in the U.S. Here, while Republicans and Tea Partiers cry the need for less government and more privatization, the stealing usually is done on Wall Street by private corporations or by those, like billionaire Tea Party backer David Koch, who fund public officials to set pro-corporate policies that only make them richer at the expense of the middle class.

Walker still won’t budge on his proposal, though like his counterpart strongmen in the Arab world, he’s showing signs that he could be getting desperate.

The governor’s actions are clearly not at the level of Muammar Qaddafi killing his own people, or the Iranian government’s arresting two of the main opposition leaders (and their wives) ahead of planned protests against the Islamic Regime. But there are comparisons.

On Friday, Walker vowed to lay off 1,500 state employees if the 14 Democratic state senators don’t return, and a day earlier, he and fellow Republican State Senators ordered the arrest of their “colleagues,” who fled the state to avoid voting on the bill. And to top it all, Walker was secretly recorded saying that his office was considering planting “troublemakers” among the peaceful, union-backed demonstrators - later joking that he would use a baseball bat to go after public opponents. Good thing local lawyers and the police are now looking into that!

It all really comes down to power, fear, and adherence to old, ideological objectives that ignore reality.

In this sense, Walker and fellow Republican leadership in the Grand Old Party do share a lot in common with the Mideast autocrats and even the Arab League. Both sets of right wing leaders have exploited certain crises to push through agendas that have nothing to do with actually fixing the crises and everything to do with personal gain.

For the Arab League, decades of obsessing over “stability” and “liberating Palestine” has masked years of unemployment, human rights abuse, and poor education (especially among women), as oil profits continue to soar.

The stability couldn’t last forever, and the new generation in the Arab world has shown that.

In the U.S., the Republican Party and its leaders have found the economic crisis to be the perfect opportunity. Instead of investing in long-term sustainability (alternative energy, health care reform, education and public infrastructure), Republicans like Walker have seized the moment to push the age-old Republican agenda: tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, boosting corporate power and union busting.

Having swept the Wisconsin legislature and executive office last election, Walker and the Republicans might have assumed they had a mandate for this type of agenda. Yet, poll after poll after poll show that the majority of Americans aren’t buying the governor’s arguments.

Robert La Folette, one of Wisconsin’s great progressive governors and senators, once said that, “it is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”

In the Arab world, that might just be the case. But in Wisconsin and states like Indiana and Ohio, if public outrage fails to move the stubborn leadership, unfortunately it could be the opposite. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons