Wisconsin: a Citizens United Test Case

Wisconsin is a canary in a coal mine.

The Republican party far outstripped the Democratic party in national fundraising last month, and in the Age of Citizens United the disparity is probably worse than that, since we cannot know how much anonymous non-party money will be spent on behalf of each party – although you can be sure that corporate money will mainly go to the pro-oligarch Republican party.  Money has long been a critical political resource for winning elections, especially in an era when expensive big media advertising is necessary to persuade voters.  The decades are long past when activists and unions members could keep concentrated wealth to heel by the hard work of licking envelopes and knocking on doors.  Advertising is proficient at persuading people to vote against their own interests, or to vote on jingoism, prejudice, fear, and hatred, in order to produce elections results different from what would occur if people voted deliberatively and rationally.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, in effectively removing limits on political spending, has biased the political playing field towards concentrated wealth and thus towards Republican big-money donors.  Now, whoever has the most money will almost always win.  Oh, there will be a few left-leaning or centrist candidates who succeed based on personal charisma, but the structural momentum of our politics will henceforth trend towards full-blown oligarchy: government of, by, and for the wealthy.  It will still be called a democracy on paper, of course, but without effective democratic institutions the quality of government will decline and authoritarianism will grow.  

My dear progressive friends:  Left and center-left political parties cannot compete in these structural conditions.  Changing the rules of political campaign funding should be on the top of your mind, constantly.

The failure of the campaign in Wisconsin to recall Governor Scott Walker is a case in point.  How is it possible that a governor whose brazen arrogance provoked mass mobilization and a historical recall drive a brief time ago could pull out a victory?  The traditional, diffident Democratic hand-wringing has occurred about the loss, but it's clear three major factors were to blame: 1) outside corporate money; 2) the false consciousness it produced in working voters (especially in the approximately one-third of union members who voted for Walker); and 3) lack of national-level support.  The Republicans were able to outspend the Democrats in this race by a whopping eight-to-one ratio.  How is that a fair competition, by any measure?  Political scientists know that people tend to believe the last political message that they hear advertised, so that there must be a vibrant back-and-forth debate in the public sphere for good choices to be made.   How can a people deliberate rationally, weighing and balancing the different candidates and their proposals, when they are hearing one message so much more often than the other?

The failure of national Democratic party to invest in the recall was strategically self-defeating.  The criticality of winning Wisconsin was a no-brainer: this was a nationally symbolic race that will set the tone for the rest of the election year, and the national party and its supporters should have put an all-out effort into it.  To quote Napoleon: “The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack.”  The Democrats just made the re-election of their president harder: everybody loves a winner, and winning Wisconsin would have even brought in more money for the party this year. And once again the Democrats have demoralized their base: how can it be that the party did not support the hundreds of thousands of protestors and activists who put such an effort over the last year?

I suppose the consultants in Washington looked at how difficult it has historically been to recall a governor and decided it wasn’t worth the effort.  That is a self-fulfilling prophecy: you cannot win if you do not try.  Even if the Democrats couldn’t have matched the Republicans dollar-for dollar, an all-out effort, in which the money was more balanced and in which national party figures made frequent campaign appearances both in the state and on national television, would have certainly improved the odds.  I have written that the politics of protest alone are not enough to win, and that political party organizing to win election victories and in legislatures to pass laws is necessary too.  This was a failure by the national party to do the latter.  It was a typical centrist-Democratic failure not only of political will, but of political foresight.

A few other observations on the Wisconsin race: 1) Factionalization in the state is high, which does not bode well for the state in the long term.  Wisconsin had been a pretty civil and decent place for a long time, left-of-center and with a progressive tradition of political open-minded experimentation going back to Robert LaFollette.  Now families are divided and people are bitter.  2) The silver lining is that the state Senate flipped, which at least allows Democrats to block at least some of the further damage intended by Walker.

How to proceed with confidence?  Think long term and always keep one eye on the ultimate goal: a progressive ideological, political, and social victory in which most of society is persuaded to adopt Left-wing values, which become established in policy and entrenched in institutions.  How do we achieve that as soon as possible?  Our first task must be to overturn the Citizens United decision and institute a fair, equal public funding systems for political campaigns, so that political party competition is based on competing ideas rather than on competing war chests.

Let me use a sports analogy: Professional football long ago passed baseball as America’s most popular sport, in part because it has revenue sharing so that competition is based on athleticism and on good coaching rather than on having a big TV market and a big war chest.  Baseball failed to use revenue sharing, creating a top tier of big-market teams that are competitive for the pennant, with the rest having little or no hope.  National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that revenue sharing was “a form of socialism.”  We need revenue sharing in politics just as in football, or we run the risk of passing and inflection point in which elections are literally almost always won by the Republicans; when that point is passed we will for all intents and purposes be a one-party state.  Even before Citizens United the only Democrats able to win for the last generation had to be pro-corporate.  Public funding for campaigns will have to be done through a constitutional amendment – let’s call it a “Clean Elections Amendment” – to make it permanently and beyond big money’s powers to destroy or dilute it.  Achieving such an amendment will have to be done through combined mass mobilization and political organization.

In my view, a Clean Elections Amendment is so important that it is the only issue that progressives should focus on for the next two-to-five years until it is achieved.  It has to be the central issue that we all focus on, because ALL else depends upon it: if you are an environmentalist, feminist, African American, social democrat, labor activist, whatever, you cannot achieve what you want without it, so drop what you are doing and focus on public financing of campaigns.  Whether you care about stopping rape, preventing global warming, promoting gay marriage, ending poverty, or fighting racial prejudice, I know that your is critically important.  Which is precisely why I say EVERYONE on the progressive side has to, for now, make their pet issue secondary and make a Clean Elections Amendment primary, because nothing else will change without it. 

As goes Wisconsin, so goes the nation.  Have the courage and unity to create the political will to Occupy Our Elections.

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