Friday, July 29, 2011

In Defense of the Recall Elections in Wisconsin

I’ve been reading some of the editorials complaining about the recall elections here in Wisconsin, and it is apparent that the people writing them haven’t put much thought into the reasons why these things are happening.

Basically, the complaints people have about the recalls boil down to two:

1. They are too expensive and a waste of taxpayer money.

2. Elections have consequences. The Teabaggers won. The rest of us should shut up and bend over for the next few years until the next election.

The first argument is pure gold-plated horse waste and can be easily refuted, given the fact that the party making these complaints is precisely the one that managed – on the national level – to convert the largest budget surplus in human history into the largest deficit in human history in three short years without counting the two wars they fought off-book. Closer to home, this is the same party that has refused federal money for projects already in the works – costing the taxpayers millions – and ran explicitly false candidates in Democratic primary elections, a deeply un-American and morally bankrupt move that cost the taxpayers of Wisconsin nearly half a million dollars.

So it is clear that arguments based on the expense of these elections are purely hypocritical talking points, designed to appeal to the sort of person who thinks in bumper stickers and misspelled posters, and can therefore be dismissed out of hand.

If you think good government is an expense you can’t afford, you have no business participating in a democracy anyway.

The second point – that elections have consequences – is not so easily dismissed. Nor, however, is it applicable here. This is where people who complain about the recalls just don’t get it, and therefore it is worth spending some time exploring the issue.

Elections do have consequences.

Particularly since the advent of the Second Party System in the 1820s and 1830s, the American political system has been set up that way. Gone were the ideals of the Founders – that political leaders should rise above the partisan mud pit and seek to rule for the greater public good – and in their place came the spoils system and the idea that politics was a Great Game.

In this version of politics, elections were contests between competing parties, not competing characters, and the winners got to run things for a while – to impose their policies in place of those of the losing party, fire the personnel of the losers and replace them with supporters of the winners, and generally have their way until the next time they lost an election.

The losers, for their part, were expected to let them do that, within limits. They weren’t expected to roll over and die – and you will note with the Republican opposition to Obamacare and their refusal to approve of his choices for the federal judiciary that this tradition of obstructionism continues – but in general the losers were expected to accept their subordinate position and wait for the next election so they could have a chance to turn the tables.

As a general principle, this still holds true. American politics is basically set up with the idea that the winners of elections get to implement their policies.

Were the situation in Wisconsin simply a matter of policies, the justification for recall elections would not be as clear as it is. The policies implemented by the Teabagger regime in Madison have been catastrophic in nature, but that’s not sufficient to warrant recalls.

And there is no doubt that the policies rammed into law by Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries), and his cronies, minions and lackeys, are catastrophic at a fundamental level.

Under cover of “fiscal responsibility” they have enacted a union-busting law that has no actual relationship to the finances of the state. It is a clear assault on the rights of middle-class Americans to associate freely. More to the point, it is an attack on that middle class itself. Unions historically were the key institutions in raising the wages of the working class to middle-class levels and creating the broad middle class that supports liberal democracy in the United States. 70% of the American economy today is based on consumer spending. Take away those wages, take away that middle class, and not only does the economy revert to third-world levels, but liberal democracy itself becomes fragile. We may well end up with a banana-republic political system to go with our banana-republic economy.

Under cover of “electoral accountability” they have enacted a voter suppression law designed to prevent opposing voters from participating in the American republic.

Under cover of “budgetary restraint” they have gutted the public schools and libraries in Wisconsin, thus short-shrifting future economic development and undermining the foundations of the well-informed citizenry that republics require.

Under cover of “job creation” they have gifted millions of dollars in tax breaks to people already phenomenally wealthy, while at the same time claiming to be too poor to pay for things the regular citizens of this state actually need.

And on, and on. It is a litany of failure from top to bottom, an astonishing display of “reverse-Midas-touch” politics that has few parallels in American history.

But such things are pretty much par for the course under this party’s leadership.

If the present situation were simply a matter of catastrophically short-sighted policies designed to betray the American past, impoverish its present and sell out its future, well, frankly, I’m used to that. That’s been the Republican Party’s stock in trade for the last forty years or so, and anyone surprised by it hasn’t been paying attention. Eventually grown-ups will be elected again and they will commence cleaning up the mess left by these political toddlers – that does seem to be the effective role of the American left these days. Clinton did it in the 90s. Obama has been trying to do it in this decade. I’m sure someone will do it again once the Teabaggers get thrown out here in Wisconsin.

The tide comes in, the tide goes out.

So it’s not about the policies, not really. Or at least, it’s not just about the policies.

Elections do have consequences. But one of those consequences is not that being elected entitles you to do whatever you want to do. There are limits.

There are legal limits. One of the many things this country was founded upon was a respect for the rule of law – that laws have meaning, that they are the supreme arbiters of what happens in this country. Elected officials are not above the law. They are bound by the laws made before them. They are bound by the legal processes set out for them to follow. This is not a country based on fiat, on whim, or on prerogative. This is a republic of laws, not men, and anyone who wishes to be called an American and remain legitimately in power must remember that.

There are constitutional limits. This country was the first to put down onto a single document the fundamental laws governing its existence – the laws that govern the laws. Elected officials are bound by constitutional restraints even more than by legal restraints. All of the things about laws apply to constitutions, and on top of them there is the fact that officials cannot manufacture laws that contrast with those constitutions – not if they want to be called Americans, and not if they want to remain legitimately in power.

And there are democratic limits. The United States is a representative democracy in its political form, one that has had a decidedly democratic political culture for nearly two centuries now. This means a few things. It means that parties in power still need to follow certain procedures – allowing opposition party legislators to vote on bills, for example. It means not trying to eliminate the right of American citizens to have their say in the workings of THEIR government, whether through voting or petitioning their government or monitoring that government so that its actions remain in the public eye.

And it is because the Teabagger regime in Wisconsin has violated these limits that the recalls are just, proper and necessary.

The Teabaggers of the FitzWalker junta have mounted a sustained assault on the legal, constitutional and democratic limits placed in the way of their path toward absolute power. They have attempted to subvert the very fabric of proper government in Wisconsin with their actions. They have violated the social compact that binds together the citizens of this state with their leaders, and as such they have no legitimate place in power. They still cling to power regardless – power is the only language they understand – but their possession of that power has been rendered unjust and unwarranted by their actions. They therefore must stand before the sovereign people of Wisconsin for judgment.

This is what recalls are for.

The recall election is one of the reforms introduced into American politics by the Progressives of the early 20th century.

Progressives – a movement particularly strong in Wisconsin – were a difficult group to define. They were not a party – there were Progressive wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties. They did not have a readily identifiable constituency the way the Populists before them did. They did not have a single platform or agenda. They were a style more than an organization, and they were united by several qualities.

First, they prized order and efficiency. They were all in favor of the Industrial Revolution, for example, but found it chaotic and inefficient, and therefore hazardous. They wanted it reformed to work better, not revolutionized to be something completely different the way Socialists did.

Second, they believed in human effort. Humans created society; humans could improve it. There was, in other words, such a thing as progress. This was a far cry from the cold Darwinian world of the laissez-faire theorists who had dominated American politics during the Gilded Age.

Third, they believed in an active role for democratic government in society. Democratically elected governments were the proper form for human effort to be channeled into making progress and creating order and efficiency.

Fourth, this belief in active government rested on their wholehearted acceptance of the sovereignty of the American people over their nation. The American people retained their sovereignty – they retained the power to rule over their governors – in a way that the people of other nations did not.

If government was to be given more effective power in the day-to-day lives of its citizens those citizens needed more day-to-day power over how that government was to operate. Thus you get the three great Progressive political reforms: the primary election, the referendum, and the recall election.

Recalls exist, in other words, because the American people retain their right to make sure the limits placed on elected officials are respected. With power comes responsibility, and if elected officials choose the former but ignore the latter then the American people do not have to suffer in silence simply because an election is not near to hand. Should those officials overstep their bounds, the citizens of this republic have the right to remove them from office in a special election, without waiting for the next regular election.

It is clear that the actions of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys warrant such removal.

They have deliberately and with malice aforethought violated the legal limits on their power, bypassing open meetings laws, conspiring to commit illegal electoral fraud, openly discussing planting rioters among citizens seeking peaceful redress of grievances, and committing further acts unmentioned here.

They have deliberately and with malice aforethought violated the constitutional limits on their power, ordering laws to be published in violation of constitutional order, barring the citizens of Wisconsin from access to their government and Capitol in violation of state constitutional articles, seeking to manipulate Supreme Court elections, passing bills claimed as budgetary matters without the necessary quorum, and committing further acts unmentioned here.

They have deliberately and with malice aforethought violated the democratic limits on their power, passing laws whose only purpose is to suppress the legitimate suffrage of Wisconsin citizens, running explicitly false candidates in primary elections, refusing to allow opposition lawmakers to see bills with sufficient advance notice even to read them, refusing to allow opposition lawmakers to vote on bills, closing hearings, allowing unelected and unaccountable special interest groups to write legislation for them, and, by committing these and further acts unmentioned here, showing a disrespect and contempt of the American political process incompatible with their legitimate hold on power.

The citizens of Wisconsin know well that the words of the Declaration of Independence do not exist in amber, trapped forever in 1776. No, they echo throughout American history, and Thomas Jefferson spoke not only of his contemporaries but also of the living today:

When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such a government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Thanks to the Progressives, we can do this peacefully, without resort to the sorts of measures Thomas Jefferson was referring to when he wrote that.

The recall elections in Wisconsin are just, proper and necessary.

Let no one tell you otherwise.


Beatrice Desper said...


Tom said...

Excellent, David! Well written. Thanks for continuing my education.

David said...

Well, thank you both!