Last night I watched an anti-Walker protester in Madison almost break into tears (it was on CNN or MSNBC I’m not sure which). He kept saying that this spelled the end of democracy. “It’s over,” he said with a certain amount of panic in his voice (sounding a bit like Bill Paxton in Aliens; “game over, man!”). This has been one of the major themes of this whole spectacle. Both sides believed they were on the side of democracy. “This is what democracy looks like!” was one of the protesters’ favorite lines — and last night Walker’s folks turned it back on them with no small amount of schadenfreude.
And to be fair, even generous, both sides are right. This was a hard fought, legal, democratic struggle in Wisconsin. It wasn’t always pretty (it’s funny how so many people think democracy is supposed to be pretty), but just about everyone agreed to respect the results, even the woman who slapped Barrett for conceding.
Still, if you pull back a bit and look at this in historical perspective, I think the Walker victory is a big win for a more traditional form of democracy and a big loss for what Herbert Croly called “progressive democracy” in his aptly titled book, Progressive Democracy. Croly took the corporatism and anti-Constitutionalism of The Promise of American Life and expanded it in Progressive Democracy (I believe he actually wished he’d written the two books as one). He favored a polity governed by syndicalist associations, trade unions, businessmen, farm leagues etc. Obviously, Croly’s vision was never realized fully (Croly even wanted to get rid of states entirely and fold them under federal authority), but as Fred Siegel and others have noted, in blue states like California and — until last night — Wisconsin, the labor unions and affiliated political machines essentially own the democratic process (a fact my late brother learned well when he ran for city council in NYC).
Public sector unions — which even FDR thought were a travesty — create a special class of voters who can manipulate elected politicians and unelected bureaucrats in ways that disadvantage the taxpayer and the public generally (see Hunter Baker’s contribution to the NRO symposium). They have access to the machinery of government, the schools, and politicians in ways no other interest group does. They are the vanguard of the Crolyite vision of democracy. Their defeat both, real and symbolic, is a monumental victory. The Wall Street Journal puts it well this morning:
The resounding failure by unions and Democrats to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on Tuesday is a significant moment for democratic self-government. It shows that an aroused electorate can defeat a furious and well-fed special interest that wants a permanent, monopoly claim on taxpayer wallets.
This is a big deal beyond the presidential election or even the issue of public sector unions. Conservatives have a tendency to be fatalistic. They often think things only get worse. It’s slippery slopes for as far as the eye can see. Well, this is an example — a major example — of conservatives pushing History up the slippery slope, rather than being dragged down it. It’s a demonstration that the country still has the capacity for self-correction (the theme of my column today, written well before the polls closed), and that active engagement with the democratic process can actually restore the democratic nature of our system, even in such hotbeds of Crolyism as Wisconsin.
Update: Here’s the video of the guy I mentioned (it was CNN). Game over, man!