Scott Walker’s victory in tonight’s recall battle is a major wake-up call for the left, Democrats, and unions about the true nature of the new, post-Citizens United political landscape, and it should force a major reckoning among liberals and Democrats about what this means for the future.
There’s no sugarcoating what this loss means for organized labor. Unions invested heavily in this battle in order to make an example of Walker. The goal was to show that Republican governors who attempt to roll back organizing rights will pay the ultimate political price. That effort failed, and the failure will have major repercussions for labor groups as they gear up for future fights over bargaining rights in states.
But Walker’s win also has major implications for Democratic elected officials across the country. It shows with crystal clarity that Republicans may very well be able to successfully use the new, post-Citizens United landscape to weaken the opposition in a structural way, and to eliminate major sources of support for that opposition.
“This has enormous implications for Democratic elected officials everywhere,” Andy Stern, the former president of SEIU and now a senior fellow at Columbia University, tells me. “Under the guise of acting to restore balance, [the right] is dramatically decreasing the amount of resources public unions have to participate in the political process.”
Indeed, one way of thinking about tonight’s results is that they say at least as much about Citizens United, and the ways it has empowered opponents of organized labor, as they do about the very real decline of union power. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that Walker outraised his vanquished opponent Tom Barrett by nearly eight to one, and that outside groups supporting Walker vastly outspent unions, thanks to Citizens United.
Unions and Dems had hoped that grassroots organizing would be enough to offset that spending advantage, and they did in fact mount a huge effort along those lines. The labor-backed We Are Wisconsin signed up 50,000 volunteers in the last 96 hours, a volunteer army that knocked on 1.5 million doors throughout the state. It wasn’t nearly enough.
“It’s pretty clear that the voices of ordinary citizens are at permanent risk of being drowned out by uninhibited corporate spending,” said Michelle Ringuette, an official with the American Federation of Teachers.
Conservatives will respond to this by insisting that this battle proves that they’re winning the war of ideas, and indeed, national Republicans were quick to claim that tonight’s results bode well for November. Recalls are quirky; exit polls showed a big Obama lead; and polls have not shown national support for Walker’s agenda. So it seems unlikely that tonight’s outcome says anything too predictive about this fall.
But the outcome does say something important about the developing post-Citizens United landscape, and should prompt a major reckoning over how Dems, the labor and the left should deal with this new reality going forward.
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