Wednesday, June 06, 2012

After The Finger Pointing

Some Democrats will blame President Obama for their party's defeat in Wisconsin, gnashing their teeth over his refusal to come in and campaign with Tom Barrett. Some will blame the DNC for not jumping in the race with all its might. Some will blame the unions for wasting millions of dollars trying to anoint Scott Walker's opponent in a primary fight. Some will blame Russ Feingold for not accepting a role as savior. Some will blame young people for not going to the polls in droves the way they did in 2008.

When the scapegoating subsides, certain realities are left. The Democratic Party proved unable to beat Wisconsin's most polarizing political figure in living memory, one bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires, some of whom could vote in the election and most of whom could not. The nation's worst job-creation record and a mushrooming cloud of scandal and criminal investigations were not enough to prompt the majority of voters to find the Democrats' standard bearer preferable.

When the scapegoating subsides, the real question remains: Will the Democratic Party finally be forced to come to terms with how damaged its brand really is?

To most eyes, the Democratic Party is the party of government and government employees and their unions. Most people hate the government. How do you build a governing majority with a brand people hate?

You don't.

When the Democrats won the hearts of a majority of people in the past, it was because the party had a big hand in creating things that tangibly benefited everyone or at least directly touched every American family in a major way. Social Security and Medicare. Rural electrification. The GI Bill. The interstate highway system.

Today's Democrats have broken the sacred political law of universality. They may say we're all in this together and need to look out for each other, but people in places like rural Clark County where I grew up don't see them practicing what they preach. Most people in such parts of Wisconsin see today's Democrats standing for health and retirement security and better pay for a few, but not for most. This has created an opening for Republicans to build a rich-poor alliance . . . and a governing majority in Wisconsin.

Liberals dwell on how Republicans have used social issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun rights as wedges to splinter off low-income rural voters who used to vote for Democrats and now reliably support Republicans. The left overlooks the economic wedge the right has skillfully exploited.

Republicans ask people in places like Clark County if they have pensions, and the answer is invariably no. "Well, you are paying for theirs," they tell them. Do you have health insurance? No. Well, you are paying for theirs. Are you getting pay raises? No. Well, you are paying for theirs.

For years now Democrats have not plausibly made the case that they will deliver better health or retirement security or higher pay to all. Only the state's few government workers have so benefited from the Democrats' toil. What is the modern equivalent of the GI Bill that offers every family a path to vocational training or an affordable college education? Where is the digital age's equivalent of rural electrification or the interstate highway system?

We have one party that is scary and another that is scared. If one is paralyzed and afraid to lead, people will opt for the one willing to act even if the actions are overly extreme for most people's tastes. It doesn't mean they hold that party in high esteem or fail to see its faults. The truth is most people hate both parties. The ranks of the politically homeless are growing fast. More Americans refuse to align with either major party than at any time in the last 70 years.

In defeat there is still opportunity for the Democrats. But not if they continue to ignore the law of universality and fail to muster the nerve to really lead. And not if they remain resistant to the obvious remedy for their brand problem. The Democratic Party is the party of government, and most people hate the government. Why? Because increasingly they see it as corrupt, run by people they view as crooked. They don't believe government is working for them, and if it's not going to work for them, then they'd prefer to keep it as small as possible.

One party is seen as standing for big government, the other for no government. But neither is seen as truly working for the people. Both are seen as captive parties that owe allegiance to their big donors and ceaselessly cater to those wealthy interests.

For the Democrats, there is a clear way out of the trap they are in. Maybe their defeat in the recall election will be the wake-up call they need. When the scapegoating finally subsides, maybe they will finally come to terms with the cancer that is growing in the body of democracy and see the impact that disease is having on their party's brand.

I'm not holding my breath. After all, in the nearly 15 years I have been doing this work, a Democratic governor reached out to the Democracy Campaign and asked to meet with us only once. That was to read us the riot act for shining light on his campaign money. In all those years, a Democratic state party chair sought to meet with us one time. That was to ask if we would support legislation to significantly increase the limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties.


Anonymous said...

The reality is that money won the election. The Democratic Party needs a major overhaul in terms of it's vision statement, branding and possibly leadership. There also obviously needs to be a better model for fundraising. This can be accomplished by making the "message" more universal, as your blog implies. After the wounds are licked, the denial will have to be kicked to the curb so that the 40% in opposition of the current administration have a compass to move forward.

Anonymous said...

This article hit the nail on the head. When I was out collecting recall signatures, I often ran into low-income whites who were angry that public employees had health care and a pension, when they had neither of those things. Also, the teachers' union has not endeared itself to very many Wisconsin citizens (both liberal and conservative) over the years. Democrats do indeed need to fix their brand, and the suggested "GI bill" for vocational training would be a good start.

Anonymous said...

The deep cynicism about government is just what the radical right wants: When people stop believing government can solve problems, they'll stop voting, and stop voting for government support of our infrastructure. That leaves us with the corporate-ruled politics we now have.

clyde said...

You pinned the tail dead center on the donkey, Mike, and on the dysfunctional, discredited system that nourishes the two permitted parties.

We are near the point where the powers pulling the strings that operate the two parties, are going to need to "rescue" the Democratic Party. Their hoax requires two adversarial parties on stage, eternally vying (low fifties versus high forties percent) with the sponsors and with the bemused public for top billing, in order to keep presenting this flim-flam medicine show.

They are simply "Governing People for Profits", their greed knows no bounds, and they will stop at nothing until they are stopped.

ginnyb said...

Thank you Mike, for the most salient analysis of the recall election yet! I don't hold out much hope for the Democrats to rebuild their brand in any meaningful way. Everybody's too busy chasing the big money. If only people would stop worrying about "throwing away" their votes and grow the Green Party or start some other populist third party movement.

Anonymous said...

They simply need to adopt the solution Henry George detailed back in 1879 in the greatest American economic text ever written, Progress and Poverty. But they won't. Their selfish (as opposed to enlightened) self-interest will continue as sure as night follows day.

Denny said...

Denny Caneff here:

I almost called Mike this morning to say "Right on, dude!" and then upon further reflection, decided not to make that call. Did the Dems sell their soul way back in the late 70s when they decided to chase money, thinking they'd keep up with Republicans, making them no different? Is that why Mike's Clark County people voted for the rich guys' party instead?

Unions may throw around a lot of money, but at least it's collected from ordinary people. How is it that the Clark County auto mechanic doesn't see common cause with the elementary teacher in Neillsville: simply because she has health insurance, and he doesn't? How does that make the mechanic closer to the surgeon in Whitefish Bay, who voted for Walker? The Dems need a lot of work on their message, but they won't, and can't, unilaterally disarm on campaign money.

Anonymous said...

Mike, Thank you for this clear writing of the root cause behind our political troubles. I find your perspective positive and enlightening!

CurtOlaf said...

It's sad to realize that we are now two generations removed from when 50% of the working population were members of a union. That meant that it was commonplace for most workers to have employer paid healthcare and pensions. My father was a tool and die maker who retired in 1975 with a substantial monthly paycheck for life, along with a paid up health care plan that paid for 90% of his care.

Since the generational changes public employee unions continued to enjoy benefits that at onetime all workers enjoyed, usually retaining quality healthcare by taking less in salary.

So now it seems we are engaged in a race to the bottom (if I don't get healthcare, you shouldn't either), instead of raising the standard for everyone.

Hopefully the democrats can reorganizes themselves to raise the common standard.

James L said...

Correct Mike, the Democrat
Party must become meaningful to very many more people.
On the failed recall: Although Walker got about 53%, that does not mean the same percentage approved of his actions. I, and I believe 70% of those who voted, indicated they did not like recalling a gov. (no matter how much he and his agenda is disliked) on the basis presented. I voted to remove him because he committed a great lie of ommission... a stunning lack of integrity.


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. Right on. I'm hopeful that Russ Feingold's Progressives United and similar groups continue to raise public consciousness of the damage the Citizen's United decision is doing to our democracy. Plutocracy will replace democracy if it stays in place.


Estella said...

Mike, You are doing wonderful work for democracy in WI, but I just attended the Democratic Party Convention and I's venture to say that not a single person there would accept your account of the Democratic Party! Our "brand" has never been more clear and consistent. We support every possible program to restore a strong middle class, to give all citizens but esp. children "a hand up, not a handout," a good public education, a decent income, affordable health care, safe food, water and air, a sustainable approach to energy, a civil society that requires a fair share of taxes from everyone and a good government to use those revenues to benefit the many rather than the few. If you do not recognize our brand, it is because it has been distorted beyond recognition by the Republican spin machine that operates 24/7 not only on conservative talk radio and Fox News but also in WI media. In a state like WI where registration by party is not required, the parties have fewer members than in other states (less than 1% of the population are Dem Party members), so it is not possible to identify and reach all voters despite the Herculean efforts of some county parties. We have a great brand. Who will help us to get out that news?

Pete said...


Thank you! Here's to Awakening! See

In Gratitude,


Jim Hasse said...

Great article, Mike.

I grew up in rural Wisconsin, too (Hill Point), and I think you accurately describe the opportunity that has always been there during the last 50 years to "divide and conquer."

Walker seized that opportunity at a time when people are especially feeling the pinch economically.

Barbara Lawton had an interesting vision for this state but was not able to forcefully get it across to the average citizen.

Since then, the Democratic agenda has been flat and uninspiring.

Thanks for outlining what progressives need to do.