Our modern twist on the old world political death spiral

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 6:54 PM

The events unfolding in the Arab world over the past month offer some hope that democracy, freedom and the rule of law may finally be taking root in the sandy political soil of that part of the world.

The irony is that, just as these countries are becoming more like us, we are becoming more like them, embracing the kind of winner-take-all political struggles associated more with Sunnis and Shiites than Republicans and Democrats.

It wasn't so long ago that a change in political power in the United States may have signaled a modest shift in policy direction within the context of a broad political consensus and stable set of laws and institutions. But today, many of those who win elections believe they have both the right and the obligation to revisit all the controversies of the recent past, toss out anything they don't like and stick it to the losers in ways that help ensure they will never regain power again.

The latest manifestations of this histrionic political disorder can be found in the Republican caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives and among some of the newly elected Republican governors, who aim to use a serious budget crisis as a pretext for driving a stake through the heart of government, the labor movement and the "enemy" party. It's not just the Republicans, however - this tribalism afflicts both parties and has been getting worse for decades.

You can see it not just in legislative battles, but increasingly in the federal appeals courts, where judges divide into predictable voting blocs on controversial cases, and court majorities think nothing of throwing out long-held precedents to reach preferred political outcomes. In the wake of cases such as Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, even justices of the Supreme Court are viewed as nothing more than political hacks.

The disease has spread to what were once considered fiercely independent, highly professional regulatory agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Leading the way has been the National Labor Relations Board, which is charged with overseeing collective bargaining in the private sector and like many independent agencies is structured to give a one-seat majority to the party of the president in power.

In recent decades, the NLRB has decided that graduate teaching assistants at universities don't have a right to unionize, then do have them, and now don't have them.

It has ruled that nonunion employees do not have the right to have a co-worker at disciplinary hearings, do have that right and, most recently, do not have it.

It has made it easier and harder and easier and harder again for temporary workers to organize.

And late last year, a new Democratic majority on the board indicated its interest in overturning a Bush-era ruling allowing some workers to challenge a card-check certification agreed to by a company and majority of its workers.

To most of us, these decisions seem rather narrow and technical. But in the furtive imaginations of labor lawyers, union organizers and business lobbyists, they are the first steps on the slippery slope toward either the end of capitalism or the extinction of the middle class. Whichever the case, they are the occasion for whipping up the troops for a holy crusade.

At the NLRB, the polite phrase for all this flip-flopping is "policy oscillation," and academics, labor lawyers and even members of the board itself have complained about it for years. But since neither side is ever willing to forgo the opportunity of undoing the "wrongs" of the past administration, it never gets fixed.

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