There can be no sugar coating the fact that last Tuesday’s recall elections in Wisconsin were a tough loss and massive disappointment. But the results in Wisconsin have also galvanized some lessons that it is important for Democrats and progressives to take to heart so that future political fights can turn out more favorably. In addition to being a great reminder of why we all must vote in every election, here is what Winning Progressive thinks are the three most important of such lessons.
1. Getting Money Out of Politics is THE Issue
The Wisconsin recall elections are perhaps the most blatant example to date of how vast sums of campaign cash can impact and corrupt our political system. Scott Walker is still sitting in the Governor’s mansion because of a massive financial advantage. Walker’s campaign had more than $29 million, plus over $18 spent by outside groups, for a total of at least $47 million of mostly out-of-state money that it used to purchase a flood of advertising, voter suppression robo-calls, and GOTV efforts.
Such spending undermines the legitimacy of our democracy by demonstrating that money, not people, run the system. It also makes progressive change much harder to achieve, both because corporate interests can always swamp an effort at progressive political change with a flood of opposition money, and because even the most progressive of politicians are limited by the need to raise large amounts of money in order to stay in office. If we want politics to respond to the interests of the people and advance progressive values and policies, the Wisconsin recalls demonstrate just how critical it is that we get money out of politics. That means reversing Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions equating corporate political spending with speech and pushing for publicly financed campaigns. It also means recognizing that achieving those goals will take a massive, focused effort by progressives, and that we have to support whichever candidate in an election is best on issues of campaign finance even if they are far from perfect.
2. We Must Start Playing For Keeps
Walker’s first two years as Governor of Wisconsin have been a textbook example of the GOP’s strategy of using government policy to dismantle the infrastructure of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Walker attacked public employee unions because they are the largest remaining sector of the labor movement, which provides substantial organizing and financial support for the progressive movement. And he pursued voter ID legislation in order to reduce the number of people from Democratic-leaning groups who will be able to vote. And this strategy, which is being repeated by the GOP throughout the country, is supported by virtually all elements of the conservative movement, which realize that dismantling the infrastructure of the left will serve all of their interests. In short, the right is united behind a well-coordinated effort to achieve complete political victory over the left.
Progressives and Democrats have nothing close to the kind of unified effort aimed at political victory. Instead, many of us on the left are motivated by interest in a particular issue rather than an adherence to an overall progressive movement. And too many progressives appear more interested in attacking some Democrats for being too centrist than in taking on the right, while too many moderate Democrats appear more interest in distancing themselves from progressives than in challenging the GOP. As a result, folks on the left spend most of their time working on individual policy issues or engaging in infighting rather than building a progressive movement that will advance all of our goals.
Progressives and Democrats have to start playing for keeps just like the GOP has been doing. That means we need to realize that, regardless of our policy differences, liberals, progressives, and Democrats are all in the grand scheme of things on the same side. Because if we do not, the right is going to roll all of us.
For progressives, that means realizing that Democratic elected officials are virtually always substantially and materially better than Republicans, even if those Democrats are not as progressive as we would like. And for establishment Democrats it means understanding that progressive activists play a critical role in advancing our shared interests and that, therefore, their activism should be encouraged, not shunned. And for both groups, it means realizing that our real political enemy is the conservative movement, not each other.
Playing for keeps also means prioritizing good policy ideas that help to build the progressive movement. Examples include policies that make it easier for people to vote, that rebuild the labor movement, and that create paths for more immigrants to become citizens of the US. Now we have to make sure not to mimic the Republican approach of prioritizing building the conservative movement and undermining the progressive movement no matter what the merits of the policies being promoted are. But where we have a large number of policies that are justified on their own merit, prioritizing the pursuit of those policies that also provide political benefit is an appropriate and necessary step.
3. We Should Encourage, Not Discourage, The Type of Activism We Witnessed in Wisconsin
It has been disappointing to hear Democrats such as Barney Frank and Ed Rendell call the Wisconsin recall effort a “mistake.” Yes, the effort fell short of its ultimate goal of replacing Walker. But the recall put the State Senate back in the hands of the Democrats, at least for the next five months. And more importantly, the effort fired up Democrats and progressives like they have not been in quite a long time, leading to months of sustained protest, the collection of nearly 1 million signatures in the petition process, and the inspiration of progressives throughout the country. Progressive change is always a long, hard struggle that includes many victories and setbacks along the way. The activism that we witnessed in Wisconsin over the past two years is the necessary core for sustaining progressive efforts through such struggle and ultimately for advancing the progressive cause. As such, we should be thanking the folks in Wisconsin who took on the conservative juggernaut and came up short only after an onslaught of out-of-state campaign cash, and encouraging others in the progressive movement to use the Wisconsin effort as an inspiration for further grassroots organizing throughout the US.
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