Voters in six Wisconsin state senate districts voted in recall elections last night. The recall movement was triggered when newly-elected Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature pushed through a law that stripped members of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions of many of their collective-bargaining rights. All six seats were held by Republicans. If Democrats could win three of the six, they would take control of the Wisconsin state senate until next year.
They won two.
This is the sort of almost-but-not-quite victory that progressives have won before. I remember when Ned Lamont challenged Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in 2006. Lamont won the primary, but Lieberman won re-election as an independent and proceeded to make many Democratic activists crazy by campaigning for John McCain in 2008 and managing to retain his committee chairmanship in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Actually, I don’t want to seem like I’m minimizing what Wisconsin Democrats accomplished. They defeated two Republicans who managed to win their seats in 2008, one of the high points of Democratic turnout. They came close in other races. That’s a win, as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall argues in this post.
The thing is, it’s a win that needs follow-up. There needs to be a successful recall against Walker and the Republicans who are eligible next year. Progressives need to take back control of the legislature. Winning the state in the presidential race would be good. Without that electoral feedback, there is no reason for elected officials to respond to progressive demands.
The truth is, progressives and unions have a hard time wielding that electoral stick. In New Jersey, some Democrats teamed up with Republican Governor Christie to cut some benefits and bargaining rights for public-sector workers. The state AFL-CIO won’t support those Democrats for re-election, but I haven’t seen any signs of primary challenges. That tells me that progressive activists don’t have the power to win a primary or even make it close.
Contrast that with what conservative activists are able to do. There are multiple longstanding Republican senators who got bounced through the nominating process. It doesn’t matter if public opinion polls say a majority of voters like something – public opinion polls don’t put elected officials out of office. Voters can. So if progressive activists can’t convince a majority of voters to vote for candidates who will enact the policies that the majority of voters allegedly support, nothing’s going to change.
I haven’t just been AWOL from blogging for the last few months – I’ve been pretty quiet on the political activism front as well. I sort of took the opportunity of the election being over to say, “OK, I’ve done my hours of data entry – you go ahead and take the whole Oval Office thing and start fixing this mess.” Intellectually I know that this is inconsistent with my own beliefs about democracy and inconsistent with the bottom-up theme of the Obama campaign. However, if you combine the outrage deficit I’ve talked about before with the fact that instead of working to convince citizen voters, the activist task at hand is to convince elected officials with their own bases of power and their own agendas, I start doing a little cost/benefit analysis on the time/effort front and start to wonder what I can really do beyond my work as a teacher and writer.
However, that doesn’t mean I should be totally inactive, so I’m resolving to try to make good use of the summer to improve on both of those fronts. I may even take a crack at adapting my thesis to see what Deweyan reformers can learn from the election of 2008. Hard to believe it was just three years ago I was working quotes from some first-term senator’s memoir into that thing . . .
As the excitement about President Obama settles down, I’ll be interested in seeing whether any of the political lessons of the last two years can percolate down to the municipal level. Philadelphia will be having its first open Democratic primary for the office of District Attorney in – well, as long as I can remember, since retiring DA Lynne Abraham was first appointed to the job in the 80s. Young Philly Politics has already staked out territory supporting candidate Seth Williams, but I’m curious to see how the race unfolds over the next few months. Especially since I’m hopeful that I can use that primary as a teaching tool during my student teaching this semester. We shall see.
I’ve been relatively quiet on presidential transition matters, partially from being outright wiped out and partially because I feel a little disconnected. There are some Obama decisions I like, some I feel unqualified to comment on, and some that I think are flat-out bad ideas. But while plenty of commentators expressed their hurt and anger over things such as the invitation to Rick Warren, and I can see the case that they’re making, I can’t get myself to feel the same. Part of this might be a defense mechanism – after spending a lot of time, energy and money to help get Obama elected I don’t want to think that that was effort poorly spent. But I think I have a larger issue. I’m so resigned to disagreeing even with the public officials that I support that I can’t find the line past which disagreement turns to “Hell no!” If I were implementing my own society, it would probably resemble something from what gets called the Far Left of the American political spectrum. But I have so little confidence that such measures would find popular or electoral support that I have come to view political reform as a generational process, and so the best I’m hoping for in the present is a set of tactical moves that will pave the way for that better outcome. So I am constantly asking myself “Is this program that I disagree with on its substance acceptable as a tactical move that will make my substantial desire more likely in the long term?” And when you reduce politics and government to a tactical discussion it loses a lot of the passion and can make it hard to remember what you’re working for in the first place. So I’m gonna have to figure something out here – I’m just not sure what yet.
Sixteen years ago, on my seventeenth birthday, I stood outside the Mayfair Diner in Northeast Philadelphia at 5:30 in the morning to see the man I hoped would be the next president of the United States. Bill Clinton’s voice was long gone during that campaign marathon right before Election Day, but it was still quite a moment to be that close to a man running for the highest office in the land – especially since he won. Not that I thought I had anything to do with it, of course, but I never did make it to a Gore rally in 2000 or a Kerry rally in 2004. Four years ago I resolved that I wasn’t going to let myself feel like there was something else I could’ve done to support my preferred candidate, and come hell or high water that meant I was going to go to a rally in 2008.
See that little flash of maroon cap in the lower left hand corner? Mission accomplished. Saturday morning, I was outside the Mayfair Diner at 5:30 in the morning once again. This time, I was a volunteer for the campaign, assigned to ushering duties. This meant that I had the increasingly impossible job of asking a crowd of thousands to please not push forward to get closer to the stage. The upside is that by the time the crowd finished converging on me, I had a damn good spot close to the podium. You can see some of the pictures I was able to grab over on Flickr. At this point I can’t say Obama’s speech surprised me – I’ve seen versions of it so many times by now. But it felt good to be part of the energy of the crowd, to see all the people for whom this election is so important.
Obsessive-compulsive note here – I began this post some time on Friday, then got distracted. I discovered it on Wednesday and figure I’ll try and complete the thought five days later.
Yeah, I’m completely biased, but I’ll be damned if that Democratic convention didn’t have me wanting to go look for an all-night voting booth or something. I wasn’t really crazy about a lot of the musical numbers, but the speeches certainly got me fired up, ready to go, etc., etc.
I will say that I hope C-Span is broadcasting in HD in 2012 and then I can skip the cable news networks altogether.
I’ve been telling myself for months that I should write a post about why I support Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. And I think that what it comes down to is that over the last ten years or so, I have become deeply pessimistic about the present state of American democracy but almost equally optimistic about its potential future. I’ve talked a lot about how much I believe in John Dewey’s vision of a truly democratic society – one in which citizens actively participate in making the decisions that affect their lives. But numerous studies indicate that today, most Americans don’t have basic knowledge of what goes on in government; nor do they necessarily see how voting for certain officials leads to policies that create results that they oppose. I do not believe that we are teaching our children how to question the world around them, or how to see the connections between actions and their consequences. As a result, our civic discourse has become debased, subject to distortions, emotional appeals, and personality-driven debates. But at the same time, work like James Fishkin’s and Bruce Ackerman’s on deliberative democratic polling suggests that average Americans are capable of fulfilling that idealistic Deweyan vision if we provide the opportunity and some basic tools.
And this is where I think Barack Obama is so uniquely positioned at the intersection of my deepest doubts and my fondest hopes. His rhetorical skill and his ability to emotionally connect and engage with people – even those who disagree with him – suggest to me that he can win an election, inspire people to engage in the process, and muster support for policies that will provide incremental but significant gains for people across the country and all over the world. But his background as a community organizer, his emphasis on grass-roots activism, and his dedication to government transparency suggest to me that he can help build the foundation for a future where his achievements might be considered timid in comparison. He wrote about that moment when a person realizes that he or she has a voice that deserves to be heard in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and the passages struck me so much that I had to incorporate them into my dissertation. In his policy book The Audacity of Hope, which helped to launch his presidential campaign, he cites the idea of deliberative democracy, of citizens explaining their beliefs to one another and respecting those explanations, even when we disagree. It’s that vision that I believe drives Obama’s calls for hope and for change, and it’s a powerful vision that I support very strongly. What millions of Americans can accomplish by taking control of their destinies is much greater than what one man – even a president – can accomplish. But that president might be able to get those millions of Americans started.
OK, starting tomorrow you’re probably gonna be stuck with a few days of REM blogging. But before I do, let me make a comment about one particular criticism in the Democratic presidential primary. The Clinton campaign apparently criticized Obama for calling himself a “law professor” when he was not a tenured faculty member and his title was Senior Lecturer. Now, I should probably call my lawyer brother to get his 2 cents on this, but I think it’s officially the second most ridiculous thing I’ve heard after the whole kindergarten essay thing.
I’m an adjunct. I am the epitome of the part time faculty. I have no responsibilities beyond the courses I teach – I don’t go to faculty meetings, I don’t work with grad students, I teach. My ID lists my title as “Adjunct Professor.” When I was a grad student teaching my own classes, my students called me Professor Thomer. Some still do, others call me Dr. Thomer. When people ask me what I do, I will sometimes call myself a part-time philosophy professor. Now, I would never put Professor of Philosophy on my resume, because in a formal setting, with the capital letters and all, that’s a rank I have absolutely no claim to. But in casual conversation? Who pays attention to academic rank? And who is still awake at the end of that conversation?
Bill Clinton apparently takes issue with a Barack Obama ad in which he says “I don’t want to spend the next year, or the next four years, re-fighting the same fights we had in the 1990s.” Clinton responded, “what fights should we not have made?”
Well, I think it would have been nice if we could have done without the year-long scandal and impeachment trial that resulted from Bill not being able to keep his hormones in check. But that’s just me.
I’m not denying that there were policy-based fights. And I’m not denying that the Republican approach to government often involves picking fights. But Bill Clinton’s personality, biography, and choices made many of those fights personal. And it would be nice to move on from those personality-driven fights, even if that only means we get to start new ones.
I don’t have a great many comments about the presidential primary at the moment. Maybe I will when Iowa finally settles on a date. I’m in a state now of expecting something to happen to shake up the narrative and dreading the possibility that nothing does. The major development that I’ve been running over in my head is John Edwards’ decision to opt into the federal matching system for the primary campaign. This will give him extra money for the next few months, but will limit what he can raise and spend up until the Democratic convention next year. There are many people who think this is a monumentally bad decision, because it means that if Edwards were to win the Democratic nomination, he’d have relatively little money to run a campaign during the spring and summer months when the primary election is supposedly still going on but the general election has for all intents and purposes begun.
Gotta say, I’m one of those people. Admittedly, I was not an Edwards supporter before this, so this is more an example of something that pushes him further down my list than something that changes my mind very much.
Now, Edwards says this is a matter of principle, of showing his support for publicly financed elections. I do have my suspicions about that – it’s late in the game to be making such declarations of principle. But even taking him at his word, it’s a bad way of supporting the principle. Publicly funded elections are not just about reducing a candidate’s dependence on particular donors – and a candidate who accepts matching funds is still going to be looking to collect plenty of $2300 checks. They’re about creating a level playing field where one person can’t drown out another message just by throwing money at it. Unilaterally accepting limits on donations and spending exacerbates that problem, rather than reducing it. So I don’t see how it really supports the principles Edwards is concerned about.