John Nichols on the Fight to Recall Extremist Gov. Scott Walker: It's Money-Power vs. People-Power
Continued from previous page
JN: The Democratic Party kind of built its rep between 1896 when William Jennings Bryan delivered the Cross of Gold speech and around 1945-1948 at the end of the Roosevelt-Truman period. In that time the Democrats became increasingly identified with the working class. It was a party of labor. It was a party that knew which side it was on. That didn’t mean the Democrats were perfect. They were often bad on racial issues. They were often bad on a whole host of other matters. But on economic issues with the Democratic Party there was a tendency to side with a broad mass of people.
The amazing thing about this was that even into some rather dark eras in our history we still had Democrats who kind of did the right thing on economics. Weirdly enough you had Southern Democrats into the 1960s who voted against Civil Rights, and yet they would still vote for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- programs that are now referred to by Republicans as communist.
That’s the important thing to remember. The Democratic Party was for a period in American history inclined toward a relative economic populism. That was lost in the 1980s; it was absolutely obliterated. What has happened in Wisconsin and I think in Ohio, and a few other places around the country, is these mass mobilizations of workers placing direct demand on government have really created a "which side are you on" moment where Democrats are forced to decide whether they’re going to be Democrats, or whether they’re going to be cogs in the Republican corporate machine. In Wisconsin you actually saw that break occur.
JH: Part of this is a bigger story in the decline of union membership. That was always a big part of Democrats’ campaign financing. As campaigns have grown more expensive and with the decline in union membership, they turned to Wall Street for the cash. Like the famous bank robber said, 'That’s where the money is.'
Last year we saw recall efforts against six Republicans senators and three Democrats. Three Democrats held on, and two of the sitting Republican senators were successfully recalled. Some called it a failure because they didn’t get the three seats they needed to take the Senate. How do you see that?
JN: Oh, I think it’s comic to call that a failure, both on the numbers and the symbolic importance. First, I love recalls. I think they’re wonderful tools. I think they’re the people’s equivalent of impeachment. They are the place at which citizens can have the ultimate act to hold their elected officials to account. I think they’re very powerful. They terrify politicians, and I can’t imagine anything better than that.
In Wisconsin when we had the nine recalls in 2011, as you say the three Democrats held on and two Republicans were defeated, but here’s the significant thing: In addition to winning five of the nine recalls the Democrats won the majority of the votes across the nine districts. That’s significant because those are nine districts, all of which in 2010 had voted for Scott Walker for governor. They were all either Republican-leaning districts or at the very least swing districts.
The recalls sent an incredibly powerful signal that a majority in Republican-leaning districts had opted against the policies of the government. What that did when a new Senate was constituted after the recalls was that it convinced a moderate Republican to begin to side with the Democrats on some some fundamental environmental issues as well as voting rights issues.
The significant thing is the recalls of last summer actually prevented some really atrocious things from happening. They were an incredible signal to voters saying that you can make these interventions. Even if you don’t get everything you want you can slow down a train that’s heading toward you. That’s a good thing. I think last year was hopeful. It certainly wasn’t sufficient, but it wasn’t something to be whining about.