Posts Tagged ‘Citizens United’

The Lessons of Wisconsin

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

After a heartbreaking election loss in Wisconsin last week, here’s some thoughts.

Republicans will have you believe that the recall election was about Scott Walker’s attempts to balance the budget, or about changing the amount that public employee unions would have to contribute to their retirement, but there is something much more serious going on here. E.J. Dionne notes that, Walker and his cronies are part of the new wave of GOP politicians that used their 2010 election victories to decisively tilt the playing field to benefit their own party in future elections.

The most obvious way of gaming the system is to keep your opponents from voting in the next election. Rigging the electorate is a surefire way of holding on to office. That is exactly what has happened in state after state — Wisconsin is one of them — where GOP legislatures passed new laws on voter identification and registration…

But Walker and his allies did more than this in Wisconsin. They also sought to undermine one of the Democratic Party’s main sources of organization. They sharply curtailed collective bargaining by most public employee unions and made it harder for these organizations to maintain themselves over time.

As Rachel Maddow has detailed succinctly, the Democratic fund raising model relies heavily on the support from unions, and particularly from public employee unions. John Heileman has called the union movement in America “the last actual muscle that the Democratic Party has nationally,” and noted that “If [Republicans] can strip collective bargaining from the unions in Wisconsin, they will try to do it in every state in the country and destroy the union movement as a political force, not just as an economic force.”

Republicans, of course, counter that there’s something inherently corrupt about the idea of public unions, whereby money is diverted from the paychecks that are paid by the state to union coffers, who then help elect politicians that are friendly to them, who then appoint negotiators who sit across the table from the unions and negotiate even better contracts, etc… It’s hard to argue against that, but if we are going to force the Democrats to give up their main source of funding, shouldn’t we also go after the corporate and billionaire contributions that fund Republican (and Democratic) candidates who then gut regulations, freeing up even more money to be re-invested back into the political system for even more legalized bribery? In effect, what Walker and his corporate benefactors are advocating is a unilateral disarmament of the Democratic party while they build an even more powerful arsenal with the tools the Republican Supreme Court has given them in Citizens United.

The power of that arsenal was on display in Wisconsin last week. The pro-Walker forces outspent the Democrats by 8 to 1 in Wisconsin. To put the spending in perspective, the $63 million that was spent on this election was almost as much as as the $67 million Al Gore and George Bush each spent across 12 swing states in 2000.

But Democrats need to be honest with themselves as well. Despite 8 to 1 fund raising advantage, it wasn’t just money at play in Wisconsin. Turnout was actually quite strong in Wisconsin (which usually helps Democrats) and perhaps the most important statistic to explain the results was that close to 60% of exit poll respondents said that recalls should only be allowed in the case of official misconduct, and 10% said that recalls should not be allowed at all (which calls into question the unions’ judgement in expending such effort and money on this recall election). Just as clearly, the Wisconsin public didn’t buy that assertion that an attack on public employee unions is the same as an attack on working people. In fact, 30% of union members voted for Walker and only 51% of people who lived with a union member voted for the recall. In other words, about half of union members couldn’t even convince their spouses that an attack on unions was worth defending against. These polls should serve as warning signs for the unions: A) they’re not as popular as they think and B) they’re more effective when they’re part of an electoral coalition than when their own benefits are up for a vote. 

On a national level, progressives need to wake up to the new reality in this country. The Republicans have used their electoral success at multiple levels to attack the bases of democratic power. In the long run, amending the Constitution and repealing Citizens United needs to be a top priority for Democrats and it can be a great organizing tool for progressives. In the meantime, we need new models. Perhaps in part because organized labor has taken up the slack so much, middle class progressives have not been in the habit of contributing to political parties. It’s time for them to wake up and reconsider (Wisconsin has finally gotten me off my ass and I’ll be contributing today). It may be unrealistic to think that we’ll will be able to compete with billionaire contributors, but Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries showed the ability of small contributions and on the ground organizing to make a big difference in electoral outcomes.

Most importantly, progressives can’t afford the sense of complacency that they have sometimes shown since the election of Barack Obama. The Koch Brothers and their Tea Party enablers are elated by their win in Wisconsin. But they won’t be happy until they claim President Obama’s scalp in November; and if they are able to completely take the reigns of national power, Wisconsin may prove to be only the beginning.

Time for America to wake up.

Enlarging the Strike Zone

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

The seeds of the Reagan/Bush years are finally coming to fruition.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his confirmation, famously likened the job of the Supreme Court to that of a impartial umpire, calling balls and strikes. If the results of the Court’s last term are any indication, a better metaphor for what Roberts is doing is enlarging the strike zone while the monied interests are pitching against the American people.

As then Senator Barack Obama noted during Judge Alito’s conformation hearings, Alito, as a federal judge, had “consistently side(ed) on behalf of the powerful against the powerless; on behalf of a strong government or corporation against upholding American’s individual rights.”

Now that Alito has joined Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy on the court, it’s becoming clear what the real world consequences of that worldview are.

It’s also shown the hollowness of the Republican arguments against “judicial activism.” For years they used that term as a sword against liberal justices, but the Citizens United case is every much as judicial activist as any of the Warren Court’s decisions. The only difference is that the Roberts court’s judicial activism is creating new rights for corporations while it whittles away at the rights of individuals on the margins.

Unfortunately, the nomination of Elena Kagan is unlikely to change that dynamic. Aside from not altering the liberal-conservative math, Kagan’s nomination seems to be part of an existing pattern of Republican presidents generally picking young, strong conservatives on the Supreme Court while Democratic presidents pick candidates from the center left.