First of all, I want to direct everyone's attention to a guest post over at the Monkey Cage by Katherine Cramer Walsh, a political scientist who has been conducting qualitative interviews with citizens of Wisconsin since May 2007. In other words, long before the current blowup. Her main finding, as she describes it in the item, is that "outstate" residents saw a symbolic divide between Madison and Milwaukee, on the one hand, and where they live, on the other -- and that they lumped public-sectors unions with those two cities, all of which they saw as leeching off of the hard work of the rest of the state.
That's a good lead-in to a Kevin Drum post highlighting polling showing that union members in Wisconsin have shifted their opinions dramatically since the fight over unions began.
What strikes me about the Wisconsin fight, and about the federal budget fight, is that there's an odd mix of symbolic and non-symbolic issues involved, in a way that in my view at least is likely to work out quite badly for Republicans.
This relates back to the point I made last week, that most people don't pay very much attention to most of the things that happen in politics and government. What I didn't say is that some people do pay quite a bit of attention to one or two issues -- the issues that affect them personally. What Republicans are risking through their attacks on public employee unions, and through budget cuts in state and federal governments, is to...well, to get them to pay attention. It's not that union members previously were in favor of GOP plans about unions and have now changed their minds; what's almost certainly happening is that people who may previously have thought of themselves primarily as outstaters envious of Madison, or as right-to-lifers, or as any one of their other possible political identities, are now thinking of themselves as primarily union members. And, of course, as union members they oppose attacks on unions.
You can see, I hope, how that relates to the federal budget. If you cut funding for even totally useless government spending (say, a military contract that the Pentagon doesn't want), the people who lose jobs as a result may well know exactly why they lost their jobs, and hold someone responsible. That goes, too, for someone who finds her Planned Parenthood clinic boarded up, if it were to come to that.
Let me put this another way. This is basically "us" vs. "them" politics. But because the benefits for most of the GOP "us" are symbolic (cutting spending,, or, hypothetically at least, balancing the budget), it's unlikely to produce lopsided Republican voting majorities. On the other hand, if the costs are very tangible and specific, the groups in "them" are apt to produce very large and energized Democratic votes.
(And yes, of course, there is a group in the GOP "us" receiving very tangible benefits from Republican budget priorities -- rich folks, who get substantial tax cuts -- but they're a very small group, and as much as they may matter in terms of money in politics, they don't have that many votes).
I'm not exactly making a prediction here; there are lots of things that go into voting, and we'll have to see exactly how this works out in practice. I'm just saying that there's a real danger here for Republicans, and it's related to the normal political behavior of individuals and groups.