Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On recall elections, pay equity and symbolic political performance

There are two major political performances taking place on the national stage today that I'm personally paying very close attention to: the recall election of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and a procedural vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act in the U.S. Senate. Both of these performances* are working on multiple levels in terms of what's at stake.

In the case of the recall election, the material conditions of the citizens and labor unions of Wisconsin are at stake, as is the political atmosphere of a potential swing state in the 2012 Presidential election. In the case of the equal pay legislation, there is the fact that passing the bill would open up structural pathways for women to actually fight for equal pay (as opposed to the grossly unjust 77 cents to the male dollar they currently make for doing the same work as their male counterparts) alongside the equally relevant fact that in all likelihood the vote will fail along completely partisan lines, thus introducing the question of motive for bringing this bill to vote in the first place.

If you know me you can pretty much guess that I support both the recall of Gov. Walker and the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Rather than talk about why I support the successful completion of the expressed goals of these performances, I'd like to talk a little bit about ways of reading these events of today as multi-level performances.

 First, let's talk about the recall election.

In the middle of the storm of media coverage and commentators that talk about the race in the language of general political values and principles, it is important to remember that ultimately this election is about the people of Wisconsin -- what they want and what their lives will be like. As a New Yorker, I want to see Walker out of his seat because I believe he is ideologically bankrupt (i.e. he's wrong), but ultimately I do not have to live in Wisconsin with Walker as my governor.

Having said that, though, on another level, this recall election is a national performance at the same time that it is a state one. While what Wisconsin voters want is not necessarily representative of what American voters across the country want -- and thus the results of this election do not necessarily indicate the national sentiment about labor unions -- the political discourse surrounding the election is of national concern, especially because Republican (and some Democratic) governors across the country are on a similar mission to Walker in terms of dismantling the power of unions.** If Walker retains his seat, this could be an opening for more aggressive action across the country by governors and mayors in dismantling union power. It could also mean that Wisconsin may not be the safely blue state it's been for the last five Presidential elections. Since being soundly beaten on the national stage in 2008 in the battle for voter enthusiasm and mobilization, conservatives have been growing stronger in mobilization. If Walker retains his seat, this could be an affirmation that the advantage the left had in 2008 could be overcome in this year's nation-wide election, which in turn could also mean that the anti-union sentiment expressed by Walker's administration could find a nest on the national level with a Republican president who may feel indebted to the interests that helped Walker keep his seat. And that would be felt by all.
 From one performance whose conclusion is still up in the air to another that has come to an end: The Paycheck Fairness Act failed today in the Senate.

But we knew that would happen, right? So why does carrying out the performance matter if there's already a foregone conclusion?

Because performances have symbolic as well as material impact (and the divide between the symbolic and the material is often much less clean that my language there suggests). While ideally the bill would have been passed and the material conditions of women in the U.S. economy would have been changed, the failure of the bill sends a loud and clear symbolic message about the platforms of our country's two major political parties.

Specifically, the GOP re-confirmed for us (as if we needed re-confirming) that at its most fundamental levels, their ideology is rooted in a commitment to the absolute sacrosanctness of property and business at the expense of any and everything else. In a letter to Senate leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups wrote: "The Paycheck Fairness Act would impose unprecedented government control over how employees are paid at even the nation's smallest employers."  In line with this criticism, many Republicans opposed the legislation because it would make it too easy for women to sue their employers and would welcome in an influx of frivolous lawsuits. Of course, when women still only make three-quarters of what their male counterparts make for doing the same work, I think these lawsuits that (hopefully!) would have come along would have been anything but frivolous.

Now, are the Democrats purely heroes in this? Well, since we're talking about a party of politicians, probably not. It's fairly clear that this was mostly a political move to set up a dialogue where Democrats could appeal to women voters by pointing to Republican obstruction of women's rights legislation. But I'd suggest that playing politics is not as evil as we make it out to me. Just because a performance is done for no reason other than to gain political capital, that does not mean the performance is disingenuous or worthy of vilification. Take this bill. Symbolically, it is clear that the Democrats have equal pay for equal work on their party platform and it is equally clear that Republicans only support equal pay for equal work secondarily to protecting the interests of business owners over their employees (cf. some strains of anti-union sentiment, by the way). That is important information.

So are the Democrats just trying to get votes from women? Maybe. But when you look at what this performance means, it's pretty clear that there is one party willing to put forward legislation that would improve the material conditions of segments of the population even when they're sure to fail because of opposition and one party that is willing to kill any legislation that would impede on current freedoms of business (to discriminate if they so choose).

People versus businesses. That's the symbolism. Continued entrenchment in old privileges for men (and whites -- but that's another entry) while bullshitting about freedom and equality as core values of our country versus real, tangible equality in actual material conditions. That's the "real." And they're totally tightly connected.      

*note: When I say something is a "performance," I do not at all mean to invoke negative connotations such as insincerity or fake-ness. I read most actions, events, and even texts through the lens of performance, simply because in communication there is usually an audience of some kind that needs to interpret the performance. I mean to use the term as a neutral descriptor, then, not as an adjective loaded with a value-judgment.

**Just a link to an interesting opinion piece on CNN.com re: labor unions. Like big corporations, large unions need to be watched for abuses of power, but they absolutely cannot be destroyed or dismantled to th extent that Walker wants to dismantle them. 

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