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Belmont Club

Now what?

February 18th, 2011 - 1:02 pm

“Now Bahrain,” writes the New York Times, arguing that the US should pressure the Sunni minority rule kingdom to give the Shi’ite majority its share of power. “the grievances of its Shiite majority are longstanding. They compose 70 percent of the citizenry but hold only four of 23 cabinet slots. They are excluded from serving in the police and army. In last October’s election, the Shiites won less than half of the seats in the National Assembly, raising charges of vote-rigging. … Bahrain’s brutality is not only at odds with American values, it is a threat to the country’s long-term stability. Washington will need to push harder.”

‘American values’, as expressed in rule of the majority, may be a good idea in Bahrain but not so desirable in Wisconsin. As EJ Dionne of the Washington Post explains, an elected majority taking on the public sector unions constitutes “overreach”.

This is an effort by a temporary majority — I use the term because in a democracy, all majorities are, in principle, temporary — to rush a bill through the legislature designed to alter the balance of political power in the state. You don’t have to be an “apologist” for “bureaucratic special interests,” to use Chuck’s words, to have a problem with that. You don’t even have to be a fan of public employee unions. Walker engaged in overreach, and he’s paying the price.


Charles Lane
, also of the Washington Post, expressed dismay, saying that he thought democracy meant that “the voters get to pick their government every few years, and then that government gets to make policy until the next election”.  Where would he get that idea? Elections only count if they are of the right kind. Some aren’t. Jim Moran (D-VA) told an Arab TV network that “that Republicans gained 63 seats in the House ‘for the same reason the Civil War happened in the United States.’” The elections of 2010 were racist, and therefore temporary.

It is an amazing glimpse into a universe where Abraham Lincoln gets to be a kinda, sorta Democrat, Lenin and Stalin are “right-wing” and the public-sector unions, which are the ultimate example of a special interest group, get to trump the wishes of a “temporary majority”, just like the Sunni kings of Bahrain, because the narrative says they should. In this universe, passing Obamacare is “historic”, and attempts by the succeeding majority to alter policy are hurtful, while attempts to disestablish unions are “overreach” that can be stopped by minority legislators by simply going to the mattresses. It’s a world of heads I win, tails  you lose.

Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post says that we forget who’s overreaching. “Overreach would be choosing extra-legislative means (flight) to prevent the voters’ elected representatives from working their will. Overreach would be threatening Republican officials in their homes. Overreach would be a flurry of Hitlerian imagery … Overreach would be a massive sick-out, in essence a dishonest strike.” And if that sounds suspiciously like tyranny, then it shouldn’t because people on the correct moral arc of history are never wrong.

But Dionne, Lane and Rubin are really missing the point of both the crackdown in Bahrain and the events in Wisconsin. It was never about right or wrong but about who got to call the shots. That is captured in the phrase “by any means necessary”. The beat-downs in the Gulf are a power play, as is the thuggery in Wisconsin. In both cases, the key question is not “who is right” but “who’s side are you on?”. The difference is that democracy was never part, even in theory, of absolutist rule in Bahrain, but was the very bedrock of the system that governs Wisconsin. In Bahrain, protests by the majority are an insurgency. In the case where the minority tells the “temporary majority” what to do the term is something else.

In rising to the defense of Shi’ites in Bahrain and union thugs in America, liberal talking points have reached such a state of incoherence that they’ve managed to invert the classic Marxist critique of America from “liberty at home and repression abroad” to “liberty abroad and repression at home”. But don’t worry, if the narrative calls for a flip, it will flop. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. But in so doing they’ve missed the real dilemma posed by Bahrain? What does a majority do when it feels the minority decides to impose their will by any means necessary? How does the political system react when a very basic challenge to the status quo emerges?

That is the terrible question posed by a crisis of legitimacy in all its forms. Whatever the Bahrainis do, the same problem is before the Tea Parties. Should they counter-mobilize and rush to Wisconsin and meet numbers with numbers? Or do they let the unions rampage and destroy what credibility they have left in the belief that this will lead to electoral advantages in 2012? Sit tight or double-down? Both courses of action are fraught with complications. The answer is likely to be supplied not by any political leaders, but by emergent events. Things have a way of happening, often in unintended ways.

When a system is in crisis, it loses the ability to automatically return to the center. And then a butterfly, lighting down on one arm of the balance or the other, can change it all.

The Houston Chronicle reports that “Democrats on the run in Wisconsin avoided state troopers Friday and threatened to stay in hiding for weeks, potentially paralyzing a state government they no longer control.” The Daily Telegraph says “Bahrain’s ruling family has defied mounting international criticism by ordering the army to turn on its people for the first time since pro-reform demonstrations erupted five days ago.”

It’s a waiting game now, almost as if one were driving toward a dawn that might bring anything, like a character from a suspense movie. “The future, always so clear to me, has become like a black highway at night. We were in uncharted territory now… making up history as we went along.”


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