Isthmus, the People’s Republic of Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper, is not as interesting a read as it used to be when it carried the “Ursula Understands” column written by the late Kathleen Shanahan Foster.
Isthmus also lost any credibility in offering opinions other than its own when it ended the column of non-conservative David Blaska. Proving that blogging well is the best revenge, Blaska moved his blog from Isthmus to IBWisconsin.com. (Where someone else occasionally blogs.)
In the past week, though, it’s been instructive, for those who don’t align themselves with the left and/or avoid Madison like the plague, to read the points of view coming out of Madison in the wake of the June 5 recall election.
Begin with Matt Rothschild, who seems to reverse the famous observation of Cassius to Brutus in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:
There were many opportunities available to challenge Walker’s policies with mass civil disobedience.
One was when the Department of Administration refused to allow the occupation of the Capitol to continue.
Another was when the Department of Administration closed the Capitol doors.
And certainly when the bill was shoved through, that was an occasion to call for mass civil disobedience.
But the call never came.
Nor were more creative strategies tried. The Teamsters with their 18 wheelers, whose support was so emboldening, could have driven down Interstate 90 and 94 at 45 mph all day long for a week’s time to demonstrate that workers in Wisconsin weren’t going to take this lying down.
No coordinated workplace strategies were adopted.
Every union in the state could have caught the blue flu, so that workers in one trade after another would call in sick on alternating days.
Or unions could have told their members simply to “work to rule” — doing the bare minimum that their contracts required.
But none of these options were taken, and the only channel that all of the people’s energy was poured into was the very narrow and murky channel of the Democratic Party.
There was a failure of imagination, and a failure of nerve and a failure of process. …
And fundamentally, progressives and unionists in Wisconsin also have to wrestle with the obvious problem that union members, to an astonishing degree, actually voted for Walker. According to the exit polls, 38% of union households in Wisconsin voted for him — even more than last time!
Something is seriously wrong with the union movement in Wisconsin when so many of its own members actually vote for the guy who’s got his boot on their throats.
How can that be?
Have members become so disengaged from their unions that they don’t know why they exist?
Rothschild lays out a strategy to have made the Walker margin over Barrett even wider. Does he really believe the millions of Wisconsin workers who are not union members would not have been outraged at rolling sick-ins and working to the rule?
A reader with an apparently tighter grasp of reality than Rothschild (who I’ve known since our joint Wisconsin Public Television appearances in the late 1990s) pointed out:
Yours is an amazing and addictive infatuation with confrontation, boycotts, more trashing of the Capitol, sick ins with fake doctors’ notes, etc. — even truck driver slow downs on the Interstate (my god, I drive back and forth to Michigan every two or three weeks. I cannot tell you how enraged that would make me – at the LEFT, not at Scott Walker). You seem utterly unaware of or indifferent to the seething outrage among the 53% who voted for Walker at the spectacle they had to endure for a year of such things already. You really think more of that would have produced any change at all? How?
Which prompted a thoughtful response:
… some of the anger in the movement can be alienating to some people, and I do think that’s something that should be considered. … I do think that people might keep in mind that they have to sell the issue that is so important to them, and reflect a bit on the best way to do this. … [T]hese are citizens and individuals, not politicians, and when people feel disenfranchised they’re going to express their discontent. We’ve seen that from the other side of the political spectrum as well. Individuals displaying bad behavior is not unique to any partisan position. And it concerns me that the personality of politics might concern some people more than the actual issues. It’s a complicated thing, because as a citizen you have a right to be outraged with your government, and I would argue that you have a responsibility to express that outrage as part of our democracy. So how do you express it in a way that doesn’t alienate people who might otherwise listen? That’s a good question to reflect on I think.
As for union members’ alleged self-betrayal, it may shock Rothschild that many union members are in unions because membership (and dues) is required, not because they’d choose to be a member. How should a union member who’s a hunter have voted? Barrett’s party (and certainly Rothschild’s fellow travelers) are violently anti-firearms and anti-hunting. How should a union member who doesn’t agree with the Democratic Party’s position on abortion rights have voted? How should a union member who thinks he pays too much in taxes have voted?
What Rothschild really fails to grant, however, is that maybe the recall elections failed not because of style, but because of substance. Former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who has experience in winning and losing elections (to the same candidate, Mayor-for-Life Paul Soglin), pointed out the day after the election:
I have some experience with losing elections. It’s crummy. It feels like somebody died. There’s a period of something very like mourning that you just have to go through.
But eventually you figure out that nobody did die. That life goes on and you love your home, and you want to be a part of your community, and so, eventually, you reengage.
Madison is a successful community — it demonstrates that decades of progressive policies work.
I would argue that Madison works in spite of, not because of, progressive policies. But be that as it may, Cieslewicz followed up with the truth progressives may not be able to handle:
… I am a little alarmed to see so many Democrats at last weekend’s state convention picking up the theme that the only reason they lost was because Wisconsinites don’t like recalls. I’m not saying that they’re echoing what I wrote. They’re coming to this conclusion all on their own and that’s the problem.
So let me clarify. My party lost because the other guy got more votes, and because a majority of Wisconsinites like most of his policies. I believe that in a regular election that was a straight up or down vote on Scott Walker’s policies the result might have been different, but probably not.
This is important, because to the extent that we allow ourselves to fool ourselves that we lost because the other guy had more money (he did, but almost everybody had their minds made up long before the air war started), or our candidate was weak (he wasn’t, Tom Barrett was our best shot), or Republican voting procedure changes suppressed turnout (which was massive), or the Koch brothers did it (these guys have been blamed for everything from high gas prices to the Brewers’ streak of injures, but they’re not that powerful), than we excuse ourselves the necessity of confronting our own unpopularity.
The public isn’t buying what Democrats have to offer and it’s time we stopped whining about it and complaining about how stupid our customers are. UW political science professor Ken Mayer made this point really well in Saturday’s State Journal.
What’s needed is some kind of movement, preferably within but possibly outside of, the Democratic Party. A movement that appeals to the vast majority of people who are not party activists, not especially ideological one way or the other, and just want a government that listens to them and works.
Chanting that “The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated’ just doesn’t cut it among the big middle. That kind of stuff just turns them off.
The Democratic Party and its allies were never better organized and focused than they have been the last eighteen months. This result wasn’t about the techie side of politics. It was about substance. And it’s substance that we need to change.
What the public doesn’t get from either party right now and from most interest groups is honest discussion of the issues in language that doesn’t condescend or pander.
Give me a politician who says what he thinks and makes a case that what he thinks is intelligent. Give me a politician who isn’t afraid to disagree with his own friends and supporters when he thinks they’re wrong. Give me a politician who reaches out to the other side and tries to understand them, not just vilify them.
That’s the style of politics that the vast middle wants. Is my party capable of giving it to them?
Which prompted this comment:
Kudos to you Dave, it’s about time a Democrat said this out loud. Ever since What’s The Matter With Kansas was published that was all you heard, that voters were stupid and voting against their own interests. But what they actually meant was that voters were voting against what leftists thought was their best interests and the leftists were getting it wrong.
The ability of political partisans to self-deceive — not to mention the ability of some true believers to believe any opinion other than theirs is wrong — may be why those who consider themselves political independents are growing in number.
It also demonstrates that Democrats and leftists need a columnist, commentator or blogger willing to criticize not merely the Democratic Party (which Rothschild did) but Wisconsin’s whole left side when they’re wrong. (Yes, Wisconsin’s right side needs one too.)