By Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/matthewstoller.
On Tuesday, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker humiliated his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, by easily turning back a popular recall attempt sponsored by unions and liberal activists. The numbers in the election, which were supposed to be close, were ugly, in favor of the Republican. But this wasn’t just any Republican, Scott Walker is THE Republican, the politician who made his governorship a referendum on a hard right agenda, in a blue state. Walker waged a direct and very public attack on the major constituencies of the Democratic Party, rolling back rights for women, the working class, and the young with measures such as ending collective bargaining for state employees, privatizing state assets, and repealing Wisconson’s equal pay provisions for women. His agenda provoked a fierce reaction – – Wisconsin citizens occupied the Statehouse for months – and then a recall.
Yesterday, Walker’s agenda was ratified by the voters of Wisconsin, the state where public sector unions were born. It’s hard to overstate how bad this is – Wisconsin is now on the road to becoming a right-to-work state, in what is likely to become a right-to-work country. Right-to-work laws are provisions that allow individual employees to withdraw from unions, and they make it much harder for unions to organize.
And the deeper you look into the race, the worse it looks. By calling for a recall instead of a general strike after Walker stripped collective bargaining rights and cut benefits for workers, labor and Democratic leadership in the state diverted and then subverted populist energy, channeling it into an electoral process (at least one union, one very active in the occupation of the Capitol, stood apart from the electoral stupidity). Then, Barrett, an anti-labor centrist, won the Democratic primary by crushing his labor-backed opponent, Kathleen Falk. Finally, Barrett himself was destroyed by Scott Walker, who outspent Barrett 7-1 with corporate money. In other words, first, liberals lost a policy battle, then they failed to strike, then they lost a primary election, then they lost a general election to the most high-profile effective reactionary policy-maker in the country. The conservative beat the moderate who beat the liberal. And had Barrett won, he wouldn’t even have rolled back Walker’s agenda. Somehow, in a no-win electoral situation, Democrats and labor managed to lose as badly as they possibly could.
I wish I could say I had a new insight, but it’s basically the same problem I’ve been writing about for years. Put simply, it’s that Obama’s policy framework is now the policy framework of the Democratic Party, liberals, and unionism. Up and down the ticket, Democrats are operating under the shadow of the President, associated with unpopular policies that make the lives of voters worse and show government to be an incompetent, corrupt handmaiden to big business. So they keep losing.
It should be obvious that if you foreclose on your voters, cut their pay, and legalize theft of their wealth by Wall Street oligarchs, they won’t be your voters anymore. Somehow, Democratic activists continue to operate as if policy doesn’t matter to voters, or that policy evaluation is a Chinese menu of different stuff, some of which you like and some of which you don’t, as in “Oh I’ll take a pro-choice moderate, with a bailout, and gay rights. And a Pepsi”. But that’s not how it works – voters’ lives get better, or they don’t. And under Obama, stuff has gotten worse. Obama’s economic policies have made economic inequality sharper than it was under Bush, due to his bailout of banks and concurrent elimination of the main source of wealth of most Americans, home equity. With these policy choices, Obama destroyed the Democratic Party and liberalism – under Obama’s first two years, the fastest growing demographic party label was “former Democrat.” Liberalism demands that people pay for a government, but why should anyone want to pay taxes for the terrible governance Obama has implemented?
We saw Democrats lose elections badly in 2009 and 2010 because of this dynamic. They didn’t self-correct, instead doubling down on Obama. Then, in Illinois and Maryland in April, liberal labor-backed candidates were absolutely wrecked in primaries. I noted at the time in a piece titled “Why Is the Left Slice of the Democrats Getting Crushed?” that this is a consequence of Obama’s policies and a general discrediting of liberalism. In Wisconsin, the stage was much more high-profile, but the dynamics were the same. This quote could just as easily apply to either contest.
“I’m flabbergasted. I’m embarrassed. This is the biggest screw-up electorally that I’ve ever been involved in,” said one progressive activist still sorting through the wreckage.
But it’s not complete to say this is just Obama’s doing. Obama has done everything he’s done with the support of labor leaders, Democratic supportive groups like Moveon, foundations, liberal pundits, African-American church networks, feminist groups, LGBT groups, and technology interests. Any of these could have stopped him by withdrawing support and overtly attacking him, but only the LBGT community fought for their rights. This American labor bureaucracy, which simply does not strike and therefore has no leverage against capital, operates largely as a group of fragmented business unionists. Unfortunately, business unions don’t exist when business decides it doesn’t want unions. And that’s what global business elites have decided, as this piece published on this very site titled The Liquidation of Society versus the Global Labor Revival shows.
In September of 2011, I suggested that Democrats replace Barack Obama on the top of the ticket. My rationale was that Obama’s policy framework is a disaster, and the failure to stand up to him is causing a meltdown of institutional elements of the Democratic Party. Ahead of the Wisconsin recall, emails from liberal internet groups flooded supporters asking for money and time, saying your dollars or your vote matters. But they didn’t matter. And in terms of 2012, your voice won’t matter. Here’s what I said in 2011.
For Obama, the die is cast. He has put forward his economic program, and it will work to return jobs and income, and get the votes, or it won’t. Knocking on doors won’t change that, nor will a donation in a $6 billion election season.
That’s still true. Of course, that’s not what high profile Democratic consultants are going to tell you. Here’s former White House official and current Democratic SuperPAC operative Bill Burton, retweeting former Clinton political consultant Paul Begala.
Obama has largely insulated himself from the consequences of his policies, so far, with a strong and aggressive PR campaign that has kept his approval ratings high enough to potentially win in 2012. This PR campaign blames everyone else for policy failures, from Democrats in Congress to Republicans in Congress to the Eurozone. Regardless of what happens, Obama will reap enormous monetary rewards for what he’s done, as Bill Clinton’s $80 million post-election payday shows. And if Obama loses, the recriminations will start, and liberals will take the blame for not allowing Obama to be centrist enough. At this point, the Democratic Party is hopelessly broken and overrun by the same interests that are running the Republican Party. I hate to be the bearer of such awful news, so I’ll end this on an up note.
We are not alone, and the system is weak. There is an international movement, led at this moment by Alexis Tsipras of Greece (though he could betray or lose), to reject the destructive neoliberalism that has run our world for forty years. These movements are contagious. Meanwhile, the financial system is teetering on another meltdown, and meltdowns do create opportunities for new social movements and elite shifts in opinion. If we can figure out how to interrupt the stream of profit and commerce, or persuade a slice of the elites that they do not want to live in the nice gilded parts of what is increasingly becoming a global prison, then the revival can come much quicker than anyone imagines.
Thanks to Doug Henwood for the invaluable chart on strikes.