The American left as we have come to know it suffered a devastating blow in Wisconsin last night. The organized heart of the left gave everything it had to the fight against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: heart, shoe leather, wallet and soul. The left picked this fight, on the issue and in the place of its choice; it chose to recall Walker because it believed it could win a showcase victory. That judgement was fatally flawed; it is part of a larger failure to grasp the nature of American politics and the times in which we live.
The left gave this fight everything it had. It called all the troops it could find; it raised all the money it could; it summoned the passion of its grassroots supporters, all the moral weight and momentum remaining to the American labor movement and every ounce of its strength and its will.
And it failed.
The tribes of the left danced and rallied in the streets of Madison. They knocked on doors. They staffed phone banks. They passed fliers. They organized on social media. They picketed. They sang. They brought in the celebrities and the stars; they marched seven times around the city blowing the trumpets and beating the drums. They hurled invective; they booed; they cheered.
And they failed.
For labor, this was a key test of strength and clout. Scott Walker attacked the American labor movement where it lives: the public sector unions are the only bright spot in the dismal world of modern American unions. They have the growth, they have the money, they have — or they had — the hope.
The Walker reforms hurt AFSCME in Wisconsin almost as badly as Ronald Reagan hurt PATCO, the air traffic controller union he famously crushed in 1981. Public sector workers have deserted their unions in droves since the state clipped union bargaining rights and stopped automatic collection of dues. After a string of bitter, humiliating and expensvie defeats, labor in Wisconsin will now be a shadow of its former self, lacking the troops, the money and the morale.
The public sector unions are critical to what remains of the American left. The power of the public service unions in Democratic politics pulls the entire party to the left and gives ideas that are important to the left an access to power that they would otherwise lack. But more important than that, they provide a kind of center to a movement that otherwise threatens to fragment into antagonistic cliques.
The New Left of the 1960s and 1970s rapidly devolved into different factions. There are environmentalists, civil rights and Black activists, poverty activists, feminists, intellectuals in the academy and the arts, gay rights advocates and many other groups whose agendas often don’t overlap and sometimes conflict.
Two big things unite them: a general sense of being on the same side in opposition to the economic and social right, and the belief in a strong, well-funded state. Some want the state to enforce mandates and empower them to reshape and uplift the bitter clingers. Others want the state to fund their universities, create jobs for their communities or otherwise provide concrete benefits. But for all of them the progressive, bureaucratic government machinery of the 21st century is both the prize for whose control they struggle and the agent they hope will make their dreams real.
This is exactly what public sector unions believe in and want: more government mandates and more government jobs — with more security, higher wages and better benefits all the time.
A Democratic Party dominated by its public sector unions is a party married to government and to bureaucracy. To the degree that the public unions shape its agenda, the Democrats become a lobby for the servants of the state. For the unions who represent its employees, the bureaucratic, civil service state is a solution permanently in search of new problems to solve and new worlds to conquer. The power of the public unions within the party pulls Democrats much farther to the left than they would otherwise go.
This is one reason the Wisconsin reforms stimulated such a powerful and united emotional wave of push back from virtually every section of the left. The threat to the public unions isn’t just a threat to a powerful source of funding for left-liberal candidates and to strong organizations with political experience and muscle; it’s a threat to the heart of the left coalition and to the structures that give the left much of its power in Democratic and therefore in national politics.
But the dominance of the public unions in the left had consequences for the left itself — bad ones. In contemporary America, the public sector unions are essentially a conservative constituency. That is, their core goal is to get more resources in order to fight all but superficial change in the structures their members inhabit. They want ever growing subsidies to the postal service, the public school system, the colleges and universities, even to health care — but they do not want the kind of reforms that could make these institutions more efficient, more productive, more serviceable.
To the extent that these unions shape the Democratic agenda, Democrats aren’t just the party of government; they are the party of inefficient, expensive, unresponsive, bureaucratic government. They are the party of government workers first and foremost, and if there is a clash between the interests of the providers of government services and their consumers (between, for example, unqualified, unmotivated life-tenured public school teachers and kids), the unions come at these issues from the standpoint of protecting workers first, others second.
In terms of the blue social model, they are the party of the bitter clingers: the power of public sector unions among Democrats is a power that inhibits Democrats from putting forward innovative, future-facing ideas (about schools, health care, and so on) and keeps them focused firmly on the defense of the past.
The left’s analysis of its loss in Wisconsin resorts to some classic tropes: it is despair masked as defiance in order to avoid deep introspection. The rhetoric of resistance is employed to describe the substance of collapse in an effort to insulate conventional pieties and beloved assumptions from withering critiques. Thus from Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation and a deeply engaged and thoughtful person of the left, came an op-ed published in the Washington Post. Contemplating the imminent defeat in Wisconsin, she titled her article “Wisconsin gives progressives something to build on.” She is clear about the nature of the threat:
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.
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.