How to Boil a Frog

The Republican Party, buoyed by the recent election, is on the move, writing its agenda into law. In many states, it’s public sector workers and unions. Republican governors backed by Republican legislatures are eliminating collective bargaining rights for teachers, firefighters and all other state employees, as they reduce their job benefits.

In Maine, it’s art and labor. The Republican Governor has removed a large historical mural in the lobby of the Department of Labor, because it depicts Maine workers, from colonial apprentices to paper mill workers striking in 1986. He is renaming the conference rooms, because they honor Frances Perkins, the nation’s first female labor secretary, and César Chávez, the migrant worker organizer.

In Wisconsin, it’s historians. William Cronon, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, recently identified the source of Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation as coming from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of Republican elected officials which has been promoting model conservative laws since 1973. Cronon demonstrated that long-standing Republican ideology, not Wisconsin’s budget, lay behind the new laws. Two days after he posted his blog, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see Cronon’s emails, trying to find something they could use to attack him for abusing his state account for partisan purposes.

In Washington, DC, it’s public broadcasting. Republicans in the House passed legislation which eliminates federal funding of PBS. It also forbids your local public station from buying National Public Radio programs using the federal funds.

In South Carolina and Arizona, and recently in Washington, it’s light bulbs. Republican legislators are fighting a federal law, passed under President Bush, that mandates better energy efficiency of light bulbs. It is part of their larger strategy of opposing every response to global warming and every attempt to reduce our dependence on petroleum products.

In each case Republican politicians say that all they are trying to do is balance budgets. But these facts say otherwise.

Removing art, turning off Sesame Street, and reducing regulations on big business will not save us a penny. This is about ideology, an ideology that has never won an election. Roper polls show that PBS is Americans’ most trusted source of news and information. USA today found a month ago that more than 70% of American families had bought energy-efficient light bulbs and 84 percent were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with them. If Sesame Street and public news can be silenced, if the memories of labor struggles for a decent wage can be erased, if historians can be intimidated, if unions which tend to support Democratic candidates can be crushed, then maybe eventually that ideology will eventually be the only one we hear.

If you are in the broad American middle class, though, don’t worry. The disintegration of the public school system will take many years, as classes get bigger, skilled teachers leave the profession, and buildings crumble. Most of the nation’s bridges are fine, or at least not about to collapse, like the one in Minneapolis. Bankers, food conglomerates, energy companies released from the regulations that have curbed their single-minded drive for profit, will probably not promote risky investments, market substandard foods, or pollute our air and water, at least not right away.

You might not notice the rewriting of our history to eliminate discussion of slavery, remove references to labor, and promote the achievements of great white men, because the pesky historians who would point it out will be silenced by government intimidation.

The rich funders of this agenda will get richer, but don’t they deserve it?

You’ll be just fine. The climate may get a bit warmer, as it has been doing for decades, but you can just turn up the air conditioner a notch. It all happens so gradually, you’ll hardly notice. Just like a frog in a pot, the warm water will feel good. Until it doesn’t. And then it will be too late.

Steve Hochstadt

Published by the LA Progressive on April 6, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."