In politics, business as usual

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2012 - 5:51 PM

Despite the apparent political insurrections of recent years, we're shocked, shocked to learn that the spoils of legislation are going to some very familiar recipients.

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Illustration: Democrats and Republicans playing games.

Photo: Mark Weber, Tribune Media Services

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The revolution came to Minnesota in November 2010. For the first time in modern history, Republicans swept to majority control in both houses of the Legislature. And not just any Republicans. The energizing wave of newcomers was crowded with take-our-country-back, government-is-the-problem, live-free-or-die constitutional conservatives.

Meanwhile, the state elected as governor Mark (Tax-the-rich) Dayton, who's been flogging the 1 percent for its fair share since long before the idea inspired nationwide protests.

Thus it was that a colossal collision seemed imminent in St. Paul -- a clash between post-Great Recession America's two angry, insurrectionist factions, united only in demanding profound and immediate change.

None could predict what the state might look like when it was over.

Now, at the end of the two-year legislative session, we can finally peer into the settling dust from the epic battle and see who the big winners were in the transformative struggle: 1) a professional sports team owner (who gets a subsidized stadium); 2) construction trades unions (who get to build said sports palace, along with other projects funded in the second borrowing bill in two years); 3) the business community (which will get some tax cuts, if Dayton signs the bill lawmakers passed), and 4) the teachers union (which fought off, through Dayton's veto, a major push from school reformers for restrictions on teacher tenure).

Curious. Not exactly an unrecognizable political landscape, is it? It's more like business as usual -- and with the usual suspects. What's up with that?

We tend to view politics almost entirely as a struggle between ideologies, the left against the right. But just now, in America and beyond, there's another kind of conflict underway as well, pitting those who recognize a need for significant change in governments' priorities and finances against forces that tend always to preserve and protect the status quo.

Advocates for change are a herd of contrasts and contradictions -- extremists and moderates, progressives and conservatives, pragmatic incrementalists and utopian idealists. The more elemental and immutable forces that support business-as-usual are universal self-interest and what you might call the law of political gravity.

Well-organized and well-financed interest groups will usually, sooner or later, get their interests tended to. And large numbers of voters will seldom be subjected to real sacrifice if politicians can avoid it, or delay it.

It's true that "business-as-usual" has come under unusual pressure in the wake of the Great Recession -- especially from the Tea Party right. Moderates have been driven from politics. Public-employee unions in some places have had rights and benefits clipped. Much big talk and a few bold proposals have suggested rolling back America's vast entitlement programs (and in Europe real action has been taken to scale down bloated social-welfare states). What's more, on the other side of the ledger, health care reform and financial regulations have been passed that are at least somewhat displeasing to the industries involved.

But in case you hadn't noticed, it's not just in Minnesota that the business-as-usual empire is striking back.

Beyond the successes of familiar high-clout interest groups in St. Paul, look just to the east, to Wisconsin. There, militant small-government Republicans scored a more complete victory in 2010 under Gov. Scott Walker. They saw it as a mandate and forced scorchingly controversial changes on public employees. And ever since, they have been fighting to stay in office in the face of a barrage of recall election campaigns. Next month Walker himself will face a referendum, and the polls show it will be close.

In Europe, too -- in France, Greece and elsewhere -- leaders who imposed austerity budgets in the face of a debt crisis have suffered the wrath of voters. The backlash seems to reflect not just a sense (shared by some economists) that necessary reductions in Europe's unsustainably generous social programs may have been pursued too quickly or too aggressively, but for many a wholesale rejection of the idea that any real change is required from business-as-usual.

As for Washington politics, Republicans' central battle cry in their crusade to oust President Obama is for a kind of return to business as usual, a vow to repeal his signature changes in health care and finance. Democrats, for their part, demonize proposals to rein in the costs of business-as-usual in Medicare and Social Security. And for all the sound and fury, little of substance is done to cut spending or raise taxes and avoid Europe's trajectory.

As an emblem of the power of business-as-usual to resist seemingly irresistible demographic and technological change, it's hard to beat the recent decision of the nearly bankrupt U.S. Postal Service to yield to congressional and public pressure and keep open thousands of money-losing small rural post offices.

Defenders of business-as-usual are by no means always wrong. Abrupt and radical change, especially in service of rigid dogmas, often makes things worse. But difficult change is needed in what government does, how it does it and how it pays for it -- in Washington, in Europe, in Wisconsin, in Minnesota.

Today's impressive backlash of the status quo against seemingly potent winds of change dramatizes the essential stickiness in the way things are. The power of entrenched interests and the universal resistance to letting go of benefits and promises that have proven unaffordable makes almost any meaningful, lasting change seem improbable.

The business-as-usual empire may even erect its most impenetrable fortifications against the best kind of change -- thoughtful, measured, practical, fair -- which almost by definition lacks the emotional and tribal firepower needed to overcome inertia.

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D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor. 

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