April 16

With the national debate over the minimum wage likely to intensify into 2014, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin has signed a law passed by the Oklahoma legislature that would forbid any municipality in the state from passing its own law setting the minimum wage higher than $7.25. Not only that, it forbids cities and counties from requiring employers to provide paid sick days or vacation days.

Above all, this is a reminder that in many ways, the minimum wage fight is taking on the feel of a culture war. Call it an economic culture war.

Whenever Democrats bring up the minimum wage, Republicans are sure to respond — or at least to feel — that it’s little more than a cynical attempt to pander to voters. After all, polls show support for an increase running between 65 percent and 75 percent of the American public. The issue puts the GOP on the defensive, not only because their opposition runs counter to the public’s wishes, but also because it pigeonholes them as advocates for those who want to pay workers as little as possible and against those who are working hard but find it impossible to get ahead (you try living, much less raising a family, on $14,500 a year).

It’s also a tough issue for Republicans because there is no Republican alternative to raising wages, other than vague notions about “creating jobs.” So where do you go if you’re only position is “No”?

The real meaning of Governor Fallin’s latest move is that it is a response to this question. She isn’t just saying No to a minimum wage hike. She’s saying No with a sneer — adopting an unusually mean-spirited and overtly ideological stance.

That’s what makes this a real economic culture war. You rarely see a politician being so forthrightly hostile to low wage earners. And you have to wonder whether other states – where Republicans control the governors’ office and have healthy majorities in the legislature – will go forward with similar initiatives.

Fallin was responding to an effort in Oklahoma City to get an initiative on the ballot raising the minimum wage in the city. Such local minimum wages are a relatively recent development; Santa Fe passed one in 2003, and in the decade since about a dozen other cities and counties have followed (there’s some background here).

But the real momentum is at the state level. Just this year, increases in the minimum wage have been signed into law in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. As of now, there are 21 states plus D.C. that have minimums higher than the federal $7.25. As many as eight more states could have minimum wage initiatives on their ballots this November, and if the past is any indication, most of them will succeed.

Meanwhile, it may be some time before the federal government passes an increase in the nation’s minimum wage. As long as Republicans hold the House, the chances of a minimum wage boost seeing a vote are pretty low (even though lots of Republicans have supported increases in the past). That means the issue will continue to resonate in a big way at the state level, where you’re likely see even more ballot initiatives.

And so, on the minimum wage, progress is being made around the country. We’re seeing a backlash in the form of what happened in Oklahoma, and there may be similar efforts at resistance elsewhere. But I’m skeptical of how far they will really go. Even in GOP strongholds, Republicans may look at an idea like Fallin’s and decide there’s only so far you want to go in kicking the working poor.