By Ruth Conniff
It was a truly terrible night for Democrats, and for voters who care about progressive values.
The Republicans took control of the Senate, and added to their majority in the House.
Mitch McConnell is the new Majority Leader. Obama’s chance to make appointments to the federal bench, including the U.S. Supreme Court, is over. So is the prospect for advancing any legislative agenda other than the one drafted by corporate lobbyists and served up by the entirely Republican Congress.
We will be hearing from a lot of triumphant rightwingers in the coming days, and there will be considerable pressure on the President and Democrats inside the Beltway to compromise with the man who once said his sole purpose was to ensure that Obama’s Presidency was a failure.
But the consequences of the election outside the Beltway, while less interesting to the pundits, are much more serious.
Except for Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, who went down to defeat after taking a meat cleaver to his state’s education budget, radical, rightwing Republicans triumphed in governor’s races all over the country.
In Maine, Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin, the election’s victors are aggressively rightwing governors, who set out to bust unions, suppress voting, curb women’s rights, and impose choking austerity measures, including slashing funding for public schools.
In Madison, Wisconsin, Democrat Mary Burke gave a concession speech in which she quoted Vince Lombardi about getting knocked down and standing back up again. Burke cited the enduring progressive values she championed in her campaign. The biggest applause lines came when she mentioned “women’s rights to control our own bodies,” collective bargaining, and the minimum wage.
Over at the Scott Walker victory party at the indoor state fairgrounds outside Milwaukee, the crowd booed these same lines as they watched Burke’s concession speech on the big screens.
The Walker supporters even booed Vince Lombardi, patron saint of the Green Bay Packers, which, one Twitter user pointed out, shows how much Walker has divided Wisconsin.
It was telling that women’s rights, collective bargaining, and the minimum wage came in for particular cheering at the Burke party at Madison’s Overture Center, and, according to tweets from the journalists in attendance, particular derision at Walker headquarters.
These are the fault lines of our national politics.
One outstanding lesson from the last Republican sweep, in 2010, is that the U.S. Senate contests were not actually the most important political battles, either in Wisconsin or in the nation.
Even as progressives gathered to shed tears over the loss of beloved progressive Senator Russ Feingold to know-nothing businessman Ron Johnson, hardly anyone was paying attention to the rise of the much more dangerous Scott Walker.
But Walker and the other radical rightwing governors who swept into power that night went on to reshape national politics, spurring massive protests, and leaning into their attacks on unions, on wages, on workers rights and women’s rights, on environmental protection and public schools and even citizens’ right to vote. Now they are emboldened after this election.
Walker’s Presidential campaign starts today.
Walker won in Wisconsin despite that fact that his “divide and conquer” strategy—stirring up resentment among strapped workers against public employees who have health care and retirement benefits—has not benefited the workers whose ill will toward teachers, firefighters, and state workers he so successfully engaged.
He put the squeeze on those same insecure workers, with an economy that lags the nation and the region, with his budget cuts and privatization schemes that are undermining once-great public schools, and with his opposition to a federal health-care expansion for the working poor and to increasing the minimum wage.
“How did this happen?” one bewildered attendee at the Mary Burke election party asked after Burke’s concession speech.
The answer, in part, is a smart and coordinated and well-funded national strategy to advance the interests of corporations, and undermine the power of workers, community institutions, unions, schools, and democracy itself.
Walker, like the other Republican governors who triumphed on election night, got many of their ideas, and their most controversial bills, straight from ALEC, the national corporate-sponsored group that cooks up ideas to increase profits and reduce consumer and citizens rights.
Progressives need their own strategy. Not another single election strategy. Not another well-funded, good-looking, poll-tested candidate. But a massive grassroots organizing drive of the type Mike McCabe hints at in his book, Blue Jeans in High Places.
As Tammy Baldwin put it on election night, “Tomorrow we will get to work writing the next chapter of Wisconsin’s proud progressive tradition.”