Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Gentler, Bipartisan WMC? Hmmmmmm.

Some have wondered whether Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce might change its negative electioneering activities after the public drubbing it has taken for its nasty political ads, particularly in the 2007 and 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court races.

Well here's an interesting item. The state's largest business group has sponsored mailings in support of two incumbent Democratic senators who rarely support WMC. Senators Dave Hansen of Green Bay and Robert Wirch of Kenosha each received a 21 percent rating - on a scale of zero to 100 percent - on WMC's legislative report card in September. The report card rated legislators on how they voted on proposals WMC supported and opposed in 2007-08.

Hansen and Wirch got the low ratings because the pair voted the way WMC liked on only three of 14 bills on WMC's agenda.

But maybe this has less to do with turning over a new leaf and more to do with reading the political tea leaves. Wirch and Hansen are safe, token endorsements in two ways. Both Democratic incumbents appear likely to win in November and the Democrats do not appear likely to lose control of the state Senate.

What It Means To Be Nonpartisan

"Nonpartisan, my ass."

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard those words over the last 10 years, I'd be a rich man.

Who says it depends on whose ox we've gored most recently. As Jason Stein of the Wisconsin State Journal observed back in 2006, it's amazing how partisan operatives can call the Democracy Campaign nothing but a political puppet one minute and then a respected nonpartisan watchdog the next.

To partisans, we're nonpartisan only when it benefits their side.

Ah, politics.

To anyone outside of the political class, though, nonpartisanship means a little bit more. Let me start with what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean you're agnostic on public policy or, in the Democracy Campaign's case, neutral on what's best for the health of the democratic process in Wisconsin. We have an agenda. It's just that putting politicians of a particular stripe in power is not part of that agenda.

Being nonpartisan means not endorsing candidates. It means not having a political action committee for making donations in partisan races. It means not sponsoring phony "issue ads" to get favored candidates elected, or engaging in any form of campaigning aimed at influencing the outcome of elections. It means not having any favorite candidates.

For us, nonpartisanship means blowing the whistle when we see wrongdoing, no matter what party the offender belongs to. That doesn't mean the whistle has to be blown half the time on one side and half the time on the other. It means it has to be blown whenever there is serious wrongdoing. If it happens all those being flagged are Republicans, so be it. Or all Democrats. The chips will fall where they may. As it turns out, plenty of chips have fallen on both sides of the fence.

Democracy is party politics, but it also is much more than that. It is a living thing, and like all living things, it will die if not cared for. Whether the Democracy Campaign has been faithful in aspiring to be that caretaker – and faithful in its nonpartisanship – is for many to debate, and many already have decided.

What I am certain of is that there is a place for nonpartisanship in politics. And it is possible and indeed essential that some practice it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Democracy Or Republic?

A letter I received today from a Lake Mills resident touched on a subject that has been debated since the founding of our country and expressed a view I often hear from people who are not fond of the Democracy Campaign's work. The letter started on a positive note, saying "I like what I see and hear of your doing to get big, often crooked, money out of politics. Badly needed."

The writer continued: "But I am of the belief that we are a republic, NOT a democracy." He went on to say I seem to worship "the many" and voiced worry about what he called the "crowd culture."

Personally, I don't believe a republic and a democracy are mutually exclusive. Put another way, it is possible to be both a republic and a democracy, and I believe that is what America was intended to be.

It's worth remembering that when Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was famously asked: "Well, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?" He was not asked: "Well, what have we got – a republic or a democracy?" A republic is the opposite of a monarchy, not the opposite of a democracy.

After reading the letter, I checked a few dictionaries. One defined a republic as "a state or country that is not led by a hereditary monarch but in which the people have impact on its government.” The word comes from the Latin res publica, which translates as "public thing" or "public matter." Another dictionary defines a republic as "a state in which the sovereign power resides in the whole body of the people, and is exercised by representatives elected by them; a commonwealth." Yet another defines it as "a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them."

The term "democracy," on the other hand, is alternatively defined as "government by the people" and "rule of the majority" and "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." Under these definitions, it is obvious that what the founders chose to create could be described as either a republic or a representative democracy or both.

It's particularly important to remember that at the time of our nation's creation, the whole idea of a "democracy" and a "republic" was radical and frightening and hard to imagine actually working, which explains why the Federalist Papers were published anonymously. The Federalist Papers made it quite clear that most of the founders wanted America to be a democracy. But many also feared the possibility that the American experiment could turn into mob rule. Some founders, such as Alexander Hamilton, advocated for a strong central government and even a monarch, with George Washington as king (something Washington resisted with great passion).

It is both safe and fair to say that in the end the consensus was that America should not become a direct democracy, but rather should have a representative form of government.

The Founding Fathers were revolutionaries and were taking a great leap of faith with no direct experience to confirm their faith that a democratic government could be established on a large scale. They had seen democracy work well in small populations, like the Greek city-states, but had no idea whether such a model could be extended to a new institution governing what was at the time a massive population.

The genius of the founders' creation was how they balanced the idea that the will of the people shall be the law of the land with strong protections for individual rights. Clearly, there are certain rights and laws that should not be disregarded at the whim of the majority. The system of checks and balances that is central to the design of American democracy was created not only to prevent any individual or any branch of government from gaining excessive power, but also to prevent a tyranny of the majority and to protect the rights of those in the minority.

I stand accused of worshipping "the many," as if democracy is a dirty word. Actually, I worship the delicate balancing act that the Founding Fathers performed to give us a system that is both a republic and a democracy. I do believe people should matter more than money in politics, and I am deeply wary of privilege – especially the political privilege that accompanies great wealth. I am concerned that too much power has been concentrated in too few hands in recent years.

That's why the Democracy Campaign and I are working to make our system more truly democratic. And more authentically republican.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Swiss Banks Of Wisconsin Politics

Swiss banks are known the world over as the place to stash ill-gotten gains, keep questionable finances one step ahead of the law or otherwise stockpile riches with no questions asked.

So-called "issue ad" groups are their political equivalent.

We've been updating the Hijacking Election 2008 section of our web site pretty much daily as we learn of new under-the-radar smear campaigns in state legislative races being run by groups like All Children Matter and Building a Stronger Wisconsin. They are creating a traffic jam on the low road, stuffing mailboxes and in some cases filling the airwaves in key battleground districts with paint-by-numbers attacks. All Children Matter assails Democratic candidates, claiming they all support health care benefits for illegal aliens. Building a Stronger Wisconsin attacks Republicans on the grounds that they don't care about school kids and rape victims.

The money raised to fund these smears is not disclosed to the public. Voters have been kept entirely in the dark about who's paying for this gutter campaigning.

Four groups – Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Greater Wisconsin Committee, Club for Growth and the Coalition for America's Families – raised and spent two out of every three dollars in the last two state Supreme Court elections and accounted for nearly 90 percent of the television advertising in this year's race.

Voters have been given no clue about where the money came from to pay for all those ads either.

Electioneering by trade associations, lobbying organizations and party front groups abounds in state elections now, and who pays the bills is a secret.

It's secret because of a gaping loophole allowing special interest groups to operate outside the laws requiring disclosure and limiting political contributions. To operate like Swiss banks. And in so doing, to effectively take the "r" out of free speech.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Too Close To Be Legal?

State law says independent expenditure groups cannot cooperate or coordinate with political campaigns or candidates they support on outside electioneering activities like mailings, broadcast or newspaper ads and automated phone calls.

So is it possible to abide by that law when the candidate is on the board of directors of the organization doing the campaigning on his behalf?

That's the scenario involving the Fond du Lac Association of Commerce's political action committee which filed documents September 29 saying it intends to make independent expenditures on behalf of 18th Senate District Republican candidate Randy Hopper who is also on the group's board of directors, according to its website and Hopper's campaign website.

In addition to that cozy relationship, the Young Professionals of Fond du Lac, a division of the chamber of commerce, is hosting an October 16 forum featuring Hopper and Democratic challenger Jessica King to air their views.