Walter Russell Mead writes the best postmortem of the Walker Recall effort in Wisconsin. In it he explains how government solutions bind the disparate groups together on the Left, and how the public sector unions provide the glue.
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.
The problem is that this alliance has damaged the Left and turned it into a backward looking conservative group.
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 failure of this group to win the recall, an election that it chose in a state where it thought it could prevail, makes Walker’s survival (and the survival of his lieutenant governor and three of four state senators who also were on the ballot) so damaging to the Left. Unfortunately the Left has chosen to ignore the lesson, viewing the loss as a conspiracy between corporations, the GOP and the Supreme Court (which struck down prohibition against corporate donations in the Citizen’s United case.)
After reading about the recall results from several different sources, I’ve noticed that funding sources supporting Walker are identified as coming from outside of the state: “Democrats and organized labor spent millions to remove Walker, but found themselves hopelessly outspent by Republicans from across the country who donated record-setting sums to the governor’s campaign,” (AP). “Unions pointed to Walker supporters’ outspending his opponents by a more than 7-1 margin, 70% of it from outside the state,” (CNN). “Gov. Scott Walker’s victory Tuesday night in a recall election in Wisconsin raises tough questions for President Obama and Democrats nationally as they scramble to assess what it means for the enthusiasm of their voters, the power of their ground game, and their ability to compete against the huge sums of money Republicans have been raising,” (NY Times). Mead counters this, writing, “For one thing, the left had more money on its side in Wisconsin than many reports acknowledge; $20 million from labor groups,” according to an estimate by the MacIver Institute that shows how Big Labor allotted close to $16 million that personally targeted Walker. It is doubtful that this money came from within Wisconsin.
Where did the “outside spending meme” come from? “Adding to this gargantuan challenge of recalling only the third governor in American history was the flood of secret corporate cash distorting our democracy—a dangerous example of a post-Citizens United America,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said. While $20 million may not be a flood to a well-heeled union leader like Trumka, it’s not exactly a drizzle to those who aren’t as wealthy as a union boss.
Mead worries that the Left has missed the point of the election. “(T)he 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.” While I agree with him that a healthy, dynamic left wing isn’t a bad thing (seriously, it’s not to a libertarian like me who supports pieces of what has been tarred as the “liberal agenda”), I do hope the Left stays distracted from the truth by misreading the lessons of this recall election until after the election in November. Then after that I hope it gets its act together and presents Americans with choices that aren’t torn out of the UK’s Labor Party platform circa 1955.
Be sure to read Mead’s entire article in its entirety here.