Capitol Idea: The Protests Are No Surprise; The Wonder Is Why They Didn’t Happen Sooner

When the public employee protests erupted back in his home state of Wisconsin, Congressman Paul Ryan now-famously mused that it was “like Cairo has moved to Madison these days.”

While Ryan, a conservative Republican, certainly didn’t have it in mind when he spoke, there is something of a romantic quality to revolt breaking out in the American midwest in the immediate aftermath of the Egyptians’ courageous toppling of strongman Hosni Mubarak.

The real question, though, is why the heck the worker protests — which have now spread like wildfire through America’s midsection — didn’t start much sooner. After all, it took decades of repression and deprivation for Egyptians to finally decide to risk standing up against Mubarak, who until the end would tolerate no public dissent, and routinely would use brutal force to knock it down.

And yet, the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to peacefully assemble and protest any time we want, and where have we been?

Where were the throngs in the street two or two-and-a-half years ago, as Wall Street melted down and unemployment began it’s long, painful climb? Where were they as the foreclosure crisis began to mushroom, even before that? I admit that I’m not the first one to ask these questions.

The venerable academic on the left, Frances Fox Piven, has wondered the same thing. She published a piece in The Nation back in late December titled, “Mobilizing The Jobless”:

So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? After all, the injustice is apparent. Working people are losing their homes and their pensions while robber-baron CEOs report renewed profits and windfall bonuses. Shouldn’t the unemployed be on the march? Why aren’t they demanding enhanced safety net protections and big initiatives to generate jobs?

Musings such as these prompted right wing commentator Glenn Beck to launch such vicious and unrelenting attacks on Piven that she became the target of death threats.

And, of course, it’s not just the unemployed who should be out on the streets, just as the protests sweeping the nation are really about more than just union rights.

“There are a lot of folks out there who say, ‘It doesn’t impact me, I`m not a union guy, I`m not a teacher, I’m not a civil servant.’ Let me tell you how it does matter to you,” says Sen. Bernie Sanders, another stalwart defender of workers and the middle class. “Wages are going down in this country for everybody. When you destroy unions there will be no standard at all, nobody left to negotiate decent jobs for the middle class.”

Piven, too, understands this, given, as she notes in her piece, the “decades of stagnating worker earnings, high consumer indebtedness, eviscerated retirement funds and rollbacks of the social safety net.”

Everyone who is middle class, used to be middle class, or aspires to be a part of the middle class, should all to be descending on their state capitals, and Capitol Hill too, to fight for basic fairness and quality-of-life. Conservatives like to rail against “class warfare,” except that it often has been the wealthy, and politicians who support them, who have been waging a war on the rest of us. It’s about time we fought back.

Piven closed her piece saying, “We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.”

Now, finally, it’s here. Get out there and join it.

Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as The Protests Are No Surprise–The Wonder Is Why They Didn’t Happen Sooner on Blogcritics.

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