After America’s Dairyland rallied in impressive numbers to retain the services of its union-busting, austerity-besotted Gov. Scott Walker, the nation’s pundits clamored to declare Wisconsin’s June recall vote a stinging setback to the re-election plans of Barack Obama. Major-party operatives on both sides dubbed the Walker ballot the “second-most important election in the country this year,” the Washington Post’s Dan Balz reported. By rolling up a margin of support even greater than he amassed in his initial 2010 election campaign, Governor Walker was supplying nothing less than a “template,” Mr. Balz observed, for the national GOP as it seeks to fine-tune a winning 2012 presidential strategy: “big money, powerful organization and enormous enthusiasm among [the] base.”
Meanwhile, progressive-minded commentators and political leaders drew obsessive attention to the first of these factors, noting that out-of-state Super PACs and national GOP organizations helped Governor Walker roll up more than a seven-fold funding advantage, pulling in nearly $30 million compared to something shy of $4 million for his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “If you have enough money, you can put out not only an alternate message,” lamented Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, “you can put out an alternate set of numbers, an alternate story, an alternate reality … trying to convince everyone that the reason they’re not doing better is because school teachers have pensions.”
The influence of campaign cash is indeed a toxic and disfiguring force—but as Governor O’Malley himself went on to note, the recall vote faced other daunting obstacles, chief among them the procedural objection that Governor Walker shouldn’t have faced a recall in the first place. Even though his assault on public-sector unions was wildly unpopular—stoking dramatic mass protests outside the state Capitol the previous winter—some 60 percent of Wisconsin voters told pollsters that recall campaigns should be reserved for cases of ethical and/or criminal misconduct.
More fundamentally, though, doting on campaign cash or the strategic merits of the anti-Walker crusade changes the subject in the face of the true, distressing moral of the failed mobilization of a grassroots left in Wisconsin: the Potemkin façade of progressive politics in our age. National Democrats never really galvanized money or balloting power behind the recall, for the simple reason that the Democratic Party stopped serving as a persuasive advocate for wage-earning Americans about two decades ago. When unions bitterly contested Governor Walker’s ultimately successful bid to rein in collective bargaining among government employees, the Madison rallies had the look and feel of a bona fide economic uprising of the disenfranchised, akin to the spontaneous protests of the Occupy movement. So one might expect national Democrats to harness their wagon behind an energized corps of voters seeking to strike a blow for fundamental rights in the workplace—especially in a presidential election cycle providing precious little in the way of energizing economic progress. (For just the most recent current example, see President Obama’s stunning bid over the weekend to channel John McCain, circa September 2008, and pronounce that the American private sector is “doing fine”—news, certainly, to the 12.7 million or so Americans still unable to find work in it.)
Yet union campaigns and workplace representation count for very nearly nothing in the sanctums of national Democratic strategy. As early as 1992—the cycle in which Bill Clinton and his cohort of “third way” economic strategists shook off the alleged stigmas of the Democrats’ “anti-business” image—polled majorities began to identify the Democrats as the party of the rich. By the last presidential cycle, the evidence unambiguously supported that view: A 2009 USA Today analysis of Census data found that Democratic lawmakers represented 57 percent of households earning $200,000 or more in annual income; in 2005, the GOP had represented 55 percent of that income demographic. Small wonder that President Obama could rouse himself to back the Walker recall only long enough to send out a solitary, belated pro-Barrett tweet—a suitably distracted, digitized and managerial response to a historic material reversal in the cause of worker self-determination.
This shift simply punctuates the steady migration of the Democratic leadership class away from the party’s historic working-class base. Once he was in office, Clinton wasted little time in selling the interests of union Democrats down the river with the ratification of NAFTA and the erection of the executive branch’s current job-hemorrhaging protocols of free trade. Obama followed the same new Democratic bait-and-switch playbook in the early months of his presidency; after booking at least $200 million in union donations to his 2008 campaign, the president quietly shelved labor’s prime legislative goal: “card check” legislation to streamline organizing drives in workplaces, and thereby (so labor leaders hoped) to begin reversing the disastrous decades-long decline in private-sector union membership. Instead, Obama prioritized a health-care overhaul riddled with boondoggles for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries—a law that Democrats are now scared to highlight in their own campaign dossiers, even if the Supreme Court manages to uphold it later this month. Card check never even came up for a floor vote.
And in a political version of battered-spouse syndrome, unions largely played along with the strategy. Andy Stern, then the president of the 2.2-million-member Service Employees International Union, was the most frequent visitor to the White House during the height of the health-care battle in Congress. On one level, Mr. Stern made his own narrow political accommodation to the lobbyist-first ethos of the Democratic nomenklatura—the SEIU, which kicked in a cool $60 million to the 2008 Obama campaign all by itself, represents a good share of workers in the health-care industry. Still, it’s impossible to imagine, say, Charles and David Koch, the energy barons who’ve engineered their own multimillion-dollar backing for today’s conservative movement, sitting placidly by while Republican leaders announced that, while they very much appreciate the truckloads of coal and oil money the Kochs have backed into the loading docks, well, offshore drilling just can’t be a prime order of business before Congress these days.
Nevertheless, our commentariat, the Democratic Party elite and—most puzzling of all—organized labor itself continue faithfully reprising the pantomime fiction that the Democrats are the party of the toiling masses, arrayed against the expropriating classes. The real surprise in Wisconsin, in other words, wasn’t so much the magnitude of Governor Walker’s victory, or Mayor Barrett’s defeat; it was, rather, that at this late date, anyone expected the Democratic establishment to contribute anything more than a lousy Tweet to the cause.