The Automaton Factor: Zero Sum Politics

One of the more interesting political stories in the past two weeks has been the “right to work” controversy in Michigan, with the Republican Legislature there passing a (right to work)bill in the closing days of their session, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder signing it into law.

The political ramifications are clear, with Wisconsin like battle lines being drawn. There are many different pieces of this story that can be talked about, but the one I am interested in is the Governor. Governor Snyder had been on record as saying that “right to work” was not on his “agenda”, and that any attempt to impose such legislation would be “divisive”. The Governor really seemed to be trying, as a Republican, not to stir up that hornets nest. But in the end he signed, and went on a public relations tour trying to sell the idea that right to work actually would be helpful to unions. Why the switch? I must attribute it to what I call the “automaton” factor.

What the hell am I talking about? Snyder was faced with certain realities relative to the powerful Republican donor class, who are truly behind this move. With Snyder you can see a moderate trying to escape from the ideological straight-jacket, but he just could not get loose. Why is that? Leaving aside the issue of the donors for just a moment let us imagine that we are in the room as Snyder and his advisers consider what his response should be.

Snyder’s political folks will be telling him that his re-elect will be strongly opposed by the same unions that have so much riding on this legislation. I can hear them saying that it would be great to de-fang them, because they will oppose you even if you veto this legislation. Since no matter what you do they will work to defeat you why help them now? The assumption that the unions are now “automatons” for the Democrats must produce “automatons” for the Republicans. And then there is the money.

Today’s New York Times talks about the money poured into Republican efforts to win control in Michigan and other states, highlighting the huge infusion of cash by the DeVos family to defeat a pro-union ballot initiative, and then to push Republicans to adopt the “right to work” legislation. Think that one billionaire cannot exert huge influence? Listen to DeVos brag about his role in the Times story.

Although Mr. Obama won Michigan handily, Republicans had kept control of the Legislature. A union-backed ballot measure to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the State Constitution was defeated, thanks to an aggressive campaign against it that was financed in part by $2 million of DeVos family money.

The time had come, Mr. DeVos told Republican lawmakers, for the bold stroke they were considering: a law banning requirements that workers pay union dues or fees, in the state where the modern American labor movement was born. If the lawmakers later found themselves facing recalls or tough re-election fights, Mr. DeVos told them, he would be there to help.

“That was when I started to say, you know what, this thing could happen,” Mr. DeVos said on Friday. “These people really are serious and committed.”

So what was Snyder looking at? Not only, from his perspective, did he see no upside to a veto, but should he have issued that veto he would likely have seen a well financed Republican opponent with plenty of DeVos money behind that candidacy in a primary. The ability of Republicans to peel off Democrats, and vice versa, is diminishing, leaving someone like the Governor in a difficult situation politically. I thought the Governor should veto the bill, because it is not the right prescription for Michigan. But the middle of the road is becoming tough political terrain for members of either party. That fact is making politics in our country much more of a zero sum game, and deviancy from party orthodoxy much harder to sustain for elected officials. The Republicans have upped the ante on fighting unions, and ultimately even folks like Rick Snyder must march in lockstep, or switch parties a la Charlie Crist. Our party system is producing “automatons”, and with that dynamic real deals are harder to come by. Getting robots to change perspective, even a little, can be very difficult.

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