When Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at the funeral of slain New York City police officers, thousands of officers in attendance turned their back on him. Since then they have engaged in a series of work stoppages.
Their grievance? The mayor, in the wake of the Garner case, expressed sympathy toward protestors concerned about police violence. New York police, and more specifically the police officers’ union, is threatening to compromise public safety over the mere suggestion that they be subject to additional oversight by the people they serve.
Police brutality is not the central issue at stake in the wave of demonstrations in New York and elsewhere. Dig deeper and you find a core disagreement about the accountability of our public servants and the unassailable power of public employee unions. Substitute teachers for police officers and this problem has exactly the same contours, featuring the same political alignments and the same exploited victims.
Republicans are being handed the kind of wedge issue that comes along once in a generation and they are utterly oblivious to the gift. The last great Democratic Party constituency, African-Americans, is pitted against the party’s last great organizational bulwark, public employee unions. The waves of protests over police brutality that ignited nationwide over the killing of Michael Brown have focused on race. Protestors so far have failed to appreciate why police, like so many other public employees, are consistently shielded from accountability to the people they serve.
No one seems to have thought to combine the protests over an unaccountable police force with the protests by some of the same people in some of the very same neighborhoods, over the failure to provide a decent public education to poor and minority communities. Both problems have the same root cause – unions that shield their members from accountability.
Media narratives have simplified these protests to fit stereotypical party alignments. Republicans are seen taking their usual law-and-order stance alongside the police while Democrats advocate for social justice and civil rights. That divide is not so clear on the ground.
All of the major officials involved in the Ferguson case, from the Governor down to the local DA are Democrats. The officials investigating the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland (keep an eye on that one) are Democrats. Only in the Staten Island case are there any Republicans in decision-making roles.
Debates over urban access to effective public safety or effective public education are exclusively intraparty fights among Democrats. Despite the black community’s importance as a Democratic voting bloc, African-Americans always lose that fight with the unions. Every. Single. Time.
When the Democratic Party is faced with a conflict between a public employee union and a black urban population desperate to gain access to the public services that union is supposed to deliver, the union wins. This is the civil rights logjam that has blocked black communities from access to the prosperity that they deserve. Republicans do not own this problem and they should not help perpetuate it.
Unions provide workers with higher incomes and job security. They impose costs not only in wages, but in inertia, making it difficult for a unionized industry to adapt to changing conditions and serve its customers. A union collectivizes power, but along the way it also collectivizes accountability, creating an inherent incentive toward mediocrity and shielding the worst actors from the consequences of their actions. It is very hard to fire a worker who is protected by a union.
In an old-fashioned labor union for coalminers or steel workers, the costs of a union are born by wealthy capital owners. The benefits flow to lower income workers who otherwise have little access to power and limited opportunities to support their families. That’s an outdated vision of a union’s mission which died a long time ago.
Now turn those conditions around. What happens when the beneficiaries of the union are college educated, white professionals and the people bearing the cost of unionization are politically powerless and economically exploited? Try to fire an incompetent or crooked police officer and watch what happens.
An institution that collectivizes the benefits and accountability of factory workers imposes some moderate, but generally tolerable costs. An institution that collectivizes the pay and accountability of police officers gets people killed.
African-Americans and other low-income, under-represented constituencies find themselves on the losing end of a carefully structured racket. More-affluent white citizens can flee to suburbs that have been structured to limit the power of public employee unions. Smaller municipalities and school districts combined with well-connected, well-educated voting population help level the playing field for white suburbanites with money. Meanwhile back in the city center, those most in need of public services to enable upward mobility find themselves at the mercy of institutions with far more political muscle than they can match.
This is an historic opening for Republicans to profit by doing the right thing. We could defend the basic civil rights of an oppressed community. Along the way we could we undermine a policy we generally loathe, mandatory unionization of public employees. In the process we would further our goal to broaden the opportunity for all to seize opportunities in a market economy. We haven’t been able to recognize, much less exploit this opportunity due to some very serious problems we are unlikely to address.
Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise made news over the holidays when his deep, old ties to white supremacist organizations surfaced. This is important because it is the rest of the story.
We are all supposed to pretend that the Republicans won the South because Southerners coincidentally discovered some fresh interest in low taxes and “liberty” at the same time that the Federal government started enforcing Civil Rights legislation. It’s a lie and everyone knows it’s a lie, but it has taken on a Santa Claus quality as a sort of public myth necessary to maintain the basic legitimacy of our political order.
Republicans now control Congress, something that eluded us across most of the 20th century. Almost half of that majority comes from Dixie. Sixty percent of it comes from places that failed to outlaw slavery prior to Lincoln. None of it comes from a major urban area. The party isn’t going to do anything substantive about Steve Scalise because it lacks the leverage to free itself from white supremacist ideology. And that brings us back to our problem.
There are too few Republicans who possess even the most distant understanding of the concerns of the black community to even recognize the shape of this opportunity. And if they did, it would be monumentally difficult to muster a core political bloc inside the GOP that cared. For Republicans, white supremacy will not pay the bills forever. Somehow the party will have to find a broader base on which to build a political appeal. Despite the sugar-high of the 2014 election, the clock is ticking and the outlook is miserable.
An opportunity exists and there are a few Republicans in the North with some potential to tackle it. New Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois could be particularly well-positioned to win on this issue if he has the insight to even recognize it. That remains to be seen. Most Republicans seem content to respond this historic political opening by keeping their backs turned.