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Political Reality and Wisconsin

Here is my recent op-ed that appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.


When you agree to live under government, and especially when you agree to be a government official, you recognize that you may lose from time to time.

And when you live in a representative system of government, you will lose if you are in the minority. Checks are in place to prevent majority tyranny, but for the most part, if you lose a vote, your position loses until you can garner more support for your position.

Since the Democrats took the majority in the U.S. Senate, Republicans have used the veto —excessively some might say. The veto in the Senate is one of those mechanisms put in place to help keep the majority from running roughshod over the minority. The Republicans have been roundly criticized by their opponents for taking advantage of this constitutional maneuver.

From the criticism lobbed at the Republicans, we might expect Democrats to be more supportive of the majority’s right to rule, even when they are in the minority. Then came Wisconsin. Following in the footsteps of Democrats in the Texas legislature who, almost a decade ago, fled the state to prevent a quorum when they disagreed with the manner in which the Republicans were redrawing district boundaries, Wisconsin Democrats have fled the state to prevent a quorum so that there can be no vote on the budget cuts they disagree with.

This is the political equivalent of taking your ball and going home.

There are times in which a government acts so unjustly that disobedience is not only acceptable, but encouraged. Rebelling against a police state that has randomly abused and imprisoned opposition voices for More than 30 years is a good example. Getting rid of your favorite government program is not.

It’s as if the Democratic senators in Wisconsin were watching a PBS special on poverty in Africa, then complained that it was not in high-definition.

What has happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa is worthy of protest and disobedience. What is happening with the budget in Wisconsin is grounds for disagreement and hurt feelings, but it is not grounds for undercutting the fundamental values of democratic government.

Democratic governments are fragile, as they are built only upon the consent of the people. If the people are not willing to withdraw their consent, and suffer the punishment that usually comes when they decide to withdraw it, a government can go on indefinitely. But, when the people have had enough and are willing to risk punishment or worse, they can topple governments by denying its legitimacy and acting as though it has no authority over them.

Therefore, the primary job of government is to earn and maintain the people’s consent. To do so ethically is what we call good government.

Government officials should be less hasty than average citizens when deciding whether to withdraw their consent, for they have deliberately accepted the responsibility to act lawfully and set an example for moderate behavior when they agree to take office. Governments were created so that we could live under more secure conditions than what exist without government.

To set the bar low, then, we might say government officials have the obligation to make sure that living under the current government is better than no government at all. So when government officials act contrary to the norms, laws and institutions that define government, they fail to meet this very low standard for they have effectively withdrawn their consent from government and dissolved the necessary bonds for maintaining its legitimacy.

Those who support the Wisconsin senators have lost the ability to criticize conservative judges who overrule health-care reform or Republicans who stop legislation with the use of the veto. 

The Wisconsin senators and their supporters should accept political reality that in politics there will be losses, and only when the losses are so great that you can say you have endured what the people of Egypt or Tibet have endured can you argue that rebellion is just.


Kyle Scott is a lecturer at the University of Houston, with a doctorate in political science, American political theory and public law. He has written two books, and a third, “Federalism: Theory and Practice,” will be available in the spring. kascott@uh.edu 

3 Comment count
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ah it has just been a couple of weeks your being a bit dramatic

Scott Walker has forced the issue about workers rights and the peaceful protest has been very impressive. Are you saying that people do not have the right to protest peacefully? Isn't that called free speech? If they manage to get a recall vote of Scott Walker he would lose today.

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"People", meaning those who are non-office holders, should speak up. Make banners, take to the streets, etc. Elected officials speak when they cast their ballots for or against a proposed bill. Elected officials are the makers and upholders of our laws. When they break them, they undermine the system for which they were elected to uphold. If they want to protest, then resign from office and join the protesters; but don't break the law. Elected officials should act differently and be held to a different standard than 'the people.'
The second point of the article is a cry for perspective. Those who have compared what is happening in Wisconsin with what happened in Egypt prior to the revolution have no idea what true tyranny is.
The third point is an attempt to point out the hypocrisy within our current political system. Democrats derided Republicans for the (over)use of the veto and conservative judges who overruled health care reform. The charge was that using the veto and judicial review was undemocratic and undermined the right of the majority to rule. Now a similar (though illegal) tactic is being used by the Democrats. So which is it, the majority only has the right to rule when I am in the majority?
I am not expressing a preference for Walker's policy or opposition to free speech but rather a call for our elected officials to respect the institutions they were elected to work within, a call for perspective, and an appeal for a consistent set of principles. Political polarization is ever increasing and both sides are willing to sacrifice the sanctity of our laws, reason, and consistency to gain a political advantage.

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and also 9 republicans in a recall in Wis.

They are also trying to do this same stunt in Florida.