It was an ugly spectacle in Lansing, Mich., the other day. A Republican lawmaker predicted blood on the streets. Profanity-spewing Chamber of Commerce goons went after union demonstrators. Anarcho-capitalists tried to push their way into a state building protected by the police.
The events chagrined editorialists around the country, and Sunday show producers scrambled to book the most excruciatingly thoughtful guests they could find to hold forth about the importance of civility in politics.
Of course, none of these things actually happened. The inflammatory rhetoric and small-time thuggery in Michigan were all the work of the left in response to a new right-to-work law and will surely go all but unnoticed by the people who always tsk-tsk about “the tone” of political debate.
“Civility” is one of the most absurdly abused of our political values. It is always centrally important to our functioning as a democracy — right up until the time someone proposes crossing the unions. Then, it goes from “Can’t we all get along?” to “Nothing to see here.” Then, out come the Hitler signs, the accusations of dictatorship, the sit-ins, the threats and even the fists, and all anyone can think to say is, “Isn’t it a shame someone had to go and get the unions angry?”
Democratic State Rep. Douglas Geiss achieved his 15 minutes of notoriety by taking to the floor of the Michigan Legislature to warn “there will be blood” in response to the right-to-work law. He couched his prediction in terms of past corporate-union conflicts. But why would Michigan companies want to beat anyone up over a right-to-work law? Come to think of it, why would anyone consider a law allowing people hired at a unionized shop to decide freely whether or not to join a union an incitement to violence? No one is forced to join the Rotary Club, yet Rotarians still go about their business peaceably.
Outside the Michigan Capitol the day of the vote, union protesters tore down the large organizational tent of the pro-right-to-work, free-market group Americans for Prosperity and punched Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. It could have been worse. Crowder sustained a chipped tooth and a small cut on his forehead. But it was notable who was doing the punching.
At least it should have been. Some on the left have condemned Crowder for having the temerity to get assaulted (or as Stephen Douglas said of Charles Sumner before he was caned by Preston Brooks: “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool”). A writer at the website Gawker argued, in effect, that it was really stupid of Crowder to get in the way of a mob involved in the good, clean work of trashing other people’s property.
Opponents of right-to-work complained of the rapid legislative action in Michigan during a lame-duck session. But Michigan’s GOP legislators didn’t want to repeat the experience of Wisconsin, where lawmakers were hounded and personally threatened in a drawn-out fight over collective bargaining. The business of banging drums, shouting and occupying buildings is not about rational persuasion so much as a show of muscle to intimidate.
These aren’t tactics favored by the right, and if they were it would be an ongoing national scandal. It was considered a danger to the republic at the inception of the Tea Party when constituents merely asked sharp questions of the late Sen. Arlen Specter and booed at a town-hall meeting.
The same standards will never apply to the unions. Not that they would abide by them. Too much is at stake. For them, the Wisconsin and Michigan fights are fundamentally about power. They need the coercive power of the state to force as many people as possible to become members and cough up dues. And they need the dues to fund the election of politicians who will protect their interests. By inserting worker choice into the equation, right-to-work risks crimping the whole enterprise.
So they will fight and claw — civility be damned.
Rich Lowry is a King Features syndicated columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org