Wisconsin’s Troubling Message for Progressives

madison protestsIt’s great to see the mass protests in Wisconsin. Labor activists have not been so publicly militant since the 2008 elections, and some see the rallies as part of increasing worker resistance across the globe. But much as I appreciate efforts to link Cairo with Madison, a very troubling message underlies the Wisconsin fight. A Republican Governor is using the 2010 election results as a mandate for attacks on organized labor, a key progressive and Democratic Party constituency.

Yet after Democrats won far greater voter support for change in the 2008 national elections, President Obama failed to declare a similar mandate to mobilize public support on behalf of labor unions and other constituencies responsible for the sweeping Democratic victory. Instead, Obama emphasized “bipartisanship” — a foreign concept for single-minded Republicans. Wisconsin again shows that Republican politicians are far more committed to their agendas — and that, unlike their Democratic counterparts, they play to win.

As progressives cheer those fighting to save collective bargaining for Wisconsin’s public employees, let’s recognize the actual terms of the fight. As a result of a single midterm election that brought Republicans control of the Governor’s office and Legislature, public employees will incur steep drops in state contributions to their pensions and health care.

And that’s the best-case outcome.

The worst case is Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees, a position for which he claims a voter “mandate.” Yet Madison-based correspondent John Nichols of The Nation told Pacifica’s Democracy Now last week that Walker never promoted this during his fall campaign.

I looked in vain for other media to highlight Nichols’ point, but to no avail. In fact, most of the media accepted Walker’s claim of a mandate to end collective bargaining. Hardball’s Chris Matthews even expressed opposition to, and was shocked by, the very idea that Wisconsin’s public employees were required to pay union dues (so much for MSNBC’s “lean forward” campaign.)

Republicans Ruffle Feathers

Scott Fitzgerald, Republican majority leader in the Wisconsin State Senate whose brother is speaker of the Assembly, told the New York Times that “Scott Walker and I and my brother Jeff went into this session with the understanding that we had to deliver on campaign promises, that people wanted the Republicans to make change, that the more feathers you ruffle this time, the better you’ll be.”

When is the last time one heard a powerful Democratic politician pledging to ruffle feathers? Hasn’t Fitzgerald heard about the importance of bipartisanship?

Walker, Fitzgerald and other Republicans understand that justifying actions as “mandated” by election results is a powerful frame. And as George W. Bush showed after losing the popular vote and securing the White House solely via judicial fiat in 2000, and then narrowly winning 2004 (by a margin less than Obama’s in 2008), one can use even the most questionable “mandate” to reward political allies and punish opponents.

That’s what the Wisconsin furor is all about. Walker and his crew know that simply cutting compensation to public employees is not enough; they want to weaken public employee unions so that they have fewer resources to support Democrats against Republicans in the 2012 election and beyond.

That’s what is called a game-changer. And it’s what Republican politicians in Ohio, New Jersey and other states are also seeking, which is to use a temporary political edge to permanently weaken the Democratic Party rather than remaining satisfied with smaller reforms.

To use a football analogy: Republicans are throwing deep passes down field while Democrats rely on three yards and a cloud of dust. In a system where election victories routinely shift between parties, this always leaves Republicans with better field position.



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