WASHINGTON — The bitter fight over union pay and benefits in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin is more than a clash over an annual budget.
It's a sign of a country wrestling with fundamental change as it leaves the familiar moorings of the 20th century and struggles to forge a new economic and political order.
Working people have been watching their paychecks stagnate or shrink since the 1980s. Health care costs have been rising steadily. Jobs have been migrating overseas. The dream of upward mobility has slipped from many people's grasp. The rules seem to be changing.
Politicians from both major parties have responded with partisan solutions on party-line votes, unwilling or unable to forge consensus, leaving anxiety and bitterness in their wake. They've borrowed trillions to pay for wars and health-care benefits, bailed out Wall Street and auto companies, even as they cut taxes. As a result, debt has skyrocketed.
Amidst that shifting landscape, Americans have reacted at times with rage — in town hall meetings in 2009, outside the U.S. Capitol as Congress passed a health-care law in 2010, and in state capitols in 2011, as governors and legislators push cuts in pay and benefits for teachers and other public workers.
But there's more to the angst than the day's headlines.
"What's going on is something deeper within the electorate itself," said John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington. "People feel their rights are being taken away. People feel they're losing the American Dream."
Consider the case of "Joe the Plumber," the Ohioan who said during the 2008 presidential campaign that he feared Democratic candidate Barack Obama's proposed tax increases on incomes beyond $250,000.
Samuel J. Wurzelbacher actually made far less than that — $40,000 in 2006, according to the Toledo Blade newspaper. But he hoped to buy a plumbing business and move up. That, Republicans said, was what the American dream was all about. Anyone could move up and make more, so everyone had a stake in keeping taxes low on the wealthy.
It was that way, once.
For decades after World War II, middle class incomes rose rapidly, and the gap between rich and poor narrowed.
"The United States witnessed a period of strong and sustained economic growth, creating a rising tide that lifted all boats and ushering in an era of unprecedented prosperity," said a report from the Economic Mobility Project at the Pew Charitable Trust.
"In the last generation, however, an increasingly competitive global economy has caused the growth of median family income to slow notably."
By one measure, working Americans continue to do better. Eight out of 10 Americans make more in inflation-adjusted dollars than their parents did, Pew found.
But they're not upwardly mobile like their parents were in the 1950s and 1960s. Pew found that 42 percent of people in the bottom fifth of income now will stay in the bottom fifth, unable to move up the ladder even from one generation to the next.
"If America really is a country where people have equality of opportunity, not outcome, we would expect to see more movement," said Erin Currier, project manager at the Economic Mobility Project. "We would expect that people would not look so predictably like their parents."
At the same time, some are slipping downward, particularly minorities. Pew found that 16 percent of children in middle-income families will fall all the way to the bottom. Among African Americans, 45 percent will fall to the bottom.
"There is not equality of opportunity in the way we as a nation imagine there is," said Currier. "The American dream is struggling."
It has been since the mid-to-late 1970s. One key may have been the decline of unions in the private sector, which previously had helped increase wages not only for members, but for workers in some non-union businesses, by setting a benchmark.
Bruce Western, a sociology professor at Harvard University, said that middle-class incomes started to stagnate around the time that private-sector union membership started to decline. From 1974 to 2007, private-sector union membership dropped from 34 percent to 8 percent for men, and from 16 percent to 6 percent for women, according to Western.
At the same time, income at the bottom and middle of the scale started to stagnate, and the gap between rich and poor grew by 40 percent, he said.
Today, fewer than 7 of 100 jobs in the private sector are unionized. About 36 of every 100 government jobs are unionized, but workers there are under heavy pressure to take pay cuts and pay more for benefits, as their neighbors in the private sector also have done.
"We actually were looking to buy a house, and we stopped doing that because we don't know what our income is going to be," police officer Hope Rummell of Alliance, Ohio, told The Washington Post.
"We're strong middle class. We went to college and we do okay. But we have a real fear that this will kill out a large percentage of the middle class in this state."
She was speaking about the push in Ohio to cut public-sector spending and limit collective bargaining.
She could've been speaking for millions of Americans in similar straits.
Historically optimistic, Americans have turned pessimistic on one keystone measure of the American dream: they generally don't buy the idea that life will be better for the next generation.
On Election Day last November, only 32 percent of voters said they believed life will be better for the next generation of Americans, while 39 percent thought it would be worse and 26 percent thought it would be about the same.
That's not just the recession talking. Election Day polls going back to 1992 found similar results, with the exception of 2000, when optimism spiked momentarily at a rare moment of peace, prosperity and balanced budgets.
If such sentiments feed anger at the Republican governors of Ohio or Wisconsin, or at the Democratic president in Washington, the underlying cause is nonpartisan.
The feeling of betrayal by one's own government appears to run within both public-employee union members angry at efforts to roll back their benefits, and tea party protesters, who rallied first against government bailouts of Wall Street bankers, then at the Democratic health care law.
"There is a connection," said Western at Harvard University. "They're really angered by a violation of what they think is fair. ... In the tea party, it was connected to bailouts ... There was a real sense of unfairness at a time when people were struggling economically. 'Why were those people bailed out?' And that's exactly what was happening in Wisconsin. They see the idea that their bargaining rights would be stripped as unfair."
Beyond unfair, people see the government as turning a deaf ear to them.
Congress passed the health care law a year ago almost entirely with Democratic votes, using a legislative loophole to get past a Republican effort to block the vote.
The Wisconsin legislature voted with only Republican votes to strip teachers and many state employees of their right to bargain collectively, and used a legislative maneuver to get past the fact that they did not have a quorum because Senate Democrats had fled the state rather than vote.
"People believe they were disempowered," said White of Catholic University. "Tea party activists felt they were shut out of power. Now people in Wisconsin feel they were locked out of the process."
What will happen?
Politicians hope their partisan solutions will win favor and eventually grow into a public consensus behind them and their parties.
But so far, each side has misread the country. Obama rode a backlash against George W. Bush into the White House. Republicans rode a backlash against Obama into control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
At least for now, there appears to be no sign that either party has found the politically persuasive answer to the nation's pocketbook anxiety. The country is not rallying to either political party or coalescing into any kind of a solid majority behind either side's approach.
"Change has been the norm for our politics for three elections," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "There's a lot of ambivalence. On one hand, people want change. On the other hand, the people who push the change are criticized for overreaching."
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