By attacking labor unions, flooding Wisconsin with outside cash and trying to cleanse the electorate of people who don’t look, earn or think like him, Walker has taken aim at more than a single campaign cycle or a series of policies; his real targets are the pillars of American progressivism itself.
But contemplating the likelihood of defeat, she calls on her allies to take the long view. The very long view. They must contemplate history with the eyes of faith.
Elections are over in a matter of hours, but movements are made of weeks, months and years. The Declaration of Sentiments was issued at Seneca Falls in 1848, yet women did not gain the right to vote until seven decades later. The Civil War ended with a Union victory in 1865, yet the Voting Rights Act was not passed until a century later. Auto workers held the historic Flint sit-down strike in 1936-37, yet the fight for a fair, unionized workforce persists 75 years later.
Victory is inevitable, though perhaps not for another two generations. Build the movement; fight the fight. The message at once consoles the faithful and acknowledges the scale of a historic defeat. When she tries to sound positive about what the long, expensive, draining, bitter, losing fight in Wisconsin accomplished, she waxes eloquent but not, I think, convincing:
Just as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt motivated people around the world, including in Wisconsin, the occupation of the Madison statehouse helped inspire the occupation of Wall Street a few months later.
This seems at once grandiose and hollow — like Donald Trump, though without the vulgarity. And the fight in Wisconsin gives us an example, she enthuses:
…in the last 15 months, Wisconsin’s progressives have shown us that the battle against bankrolled austerity can be bravely waged by an army of dedicated people committed to protecting working families. They’ve reminded us that good organizing is our only chance to withstand the blitzkrieg of corporate funded advertising — and better yet, leave a lasting mark. Their movement, with thousands of new Wisconsin activists mobilized, energized and educated, can be permanent — and it can keep growing.
Yes, they can do all that, and they can lose. Big time. They can fail to get their favorite candidate nominated by the Democratic voters, they can fail to move public opinion on the core question of the Walker labor reforms, and they can fail to move the state or the country towards their point of view.Vanden Heuvel’s analysis of why the left lost in Wisconsin is simple, and if it is true, the left looks doomed. The answer is money, she says, reflecting a very widespread line of analysis. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the right is able to outspend the left ten to one, ensuring that the left can never win.If the argument is correct, then this really is a “Seneca Falls” movement — and the left is doomed to generations of marginalization or, as The Nation would more optimistically put it, “struggle.” If the right can “flood the zone” with dough, the left will never be able to win enough presidential and senatorial contests to reverse the Supreme Court’s trajectory. If the American people are really so stupid and clueless that they docilely follow the big bucks and the deceptive campaign ads of their clever class enemies on the right, then the right is pretty much set for a long spell of power.The reality is more complicated. For one thing, the left had more money on its side in Wisconsin than many reports acknowledge; $20 million from labor groups, according to this estimate. More importantly, money does matter in politics, but money alone is rarely enough, especially on an issue which voters care deeply about. When the left — or the right — can summon popular passion and energy to its side, it can not only put up a noble fight. It can win. This actually happens quite a lot in American politics: poorly funded campaigns with charismatic candidates tap into some deep reservoir of popular sentiment and they deal out bitter defeats to the pallid, colorless but well-moneyed Establishment candidates. This has been happening relatively frequently in Republican politics of late. There have been times in American history when it happened also on the left. Milwaukee, Wisconsin has had Socialist mayors.The left’s problem in Wisconsin wasn’t that the right had too much money. The left’s problem is that the left’s agenda didn’t have enough support from the public. Poll after poll after poll showed that the public didn’t share the left’s estimation of the Walker reforms. Many thought they were a pretty good idea; many others didn’t much like the reforms but didn’t think they were bad enough or important enough to justify a year of turmoil and a recall election.The left lost this election because it failed to persuade the people that its analysis was correct. The people weren’t a herd of sheep dazzled by big money campaign ads on TV; the Wisconsin electorate chewed over the issues at leisure, debated them extensively, considered both points of view — and then handed the left a humiliating, stinging and strategic defeat.[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEwXa197uBU’]What happened in Wisconsin last night wasn’t, as a distraught young voter told CNN in the video above, the death of democracy in America. But it was an important stage in the death of an old vision of what America is about. What was once a common vision of the future — the “liberal” utopia of the last fifty years — is behind us now. We need a new future because the old one has turned into the past.Governor Walker and Mayor Barret both gave good speeches last night, and both called for an end to the bitter divisiveness that has polarized Wisconsin for the last 18 months. Both, in a characteristically American way, spoke of the need to put the past behind us and work to build a better tomorrow.There has never been a greater need for the American faith that leads us to embrace change. The old certainties don’t work anymore, the old institutions are too expensive and too slow, and the old economy isn’t coming back. In Wisconsin, the left embraced the visions and the hopes of the past, but the voters were ready to move on.Voters in Wisconsin didn’t reject a role for the state in regulating the economy and easing the harshness of life in a market economy. But they turned decisively against the argument that well-paid armies of life-tenured bureaucrats can produce enough good government to justify the cost. And the lesson of the election isn’t that the right has too much money; the lesson is that while the left still has plenty of passion and fire, it has, thanks in part to the power of public sector unions, largely run out of compelling ideas.[Image: Shutterstock]