Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Our understanding of democracy has seriously eroded

So, back from a 4-day work trip and, well, things haven't improved much in my disgruntled state, have they?  I saw Walker on the news last night and was appalled at his intransigent, nasty tone.  Seems like the guy just can't get over the fact that becoming governor does not mean he can rule by fiat - even with his party in the majority in the legislature.

What we have here is a failed education in the meaning of democracy, so let me try to explain.  We have heard slogans shouted at protesters - "You lost, get over it." We've heard Walker say that the absent Democrats are not doing their jobs, which would be to come to the Senate chamber to hand him his big victory, that their job is to vote on bills.

Okay, yes, that is part of their job, and, yes, thanks to the woeful voter turnout last November and other factors, Democrats took it on the chin, to be sure. But here's the thing about democracy: it does not end at the ballot box (some of the world's most oppressive governments have elections, after all, and in those places it does stop there) and for legislators it does not rest solely in their votes on bills. Democracy is something you engage in, and sometimes have to defend, as part of what it means to live in a democracy at all.

So democracy is also advocacy and organizing and lobbying and protesting and writing news articles and sending out updates on Facebook and ordering pizzas for folks in the streets of Madison. It means that when you see injustice or an immoral or corrupt power play, you counter with whatever democratic tools you have. And for a minority party, it can mean using perfectly legitimate means to stop a majority from becoming tyrannical, from trying to ram through legislation no one has had time to read or digest or lobby about or debate or organize for or against - in other words time to apply democracy to that proposed legislation.

Sometimes, to stop a tyrannical move, a bunch of either placid or energized politicians, not having invited such a moment in their lives, must take a drastic step in defense of democracy - like denying a legislative chamber a quorum.

It is amazing to me how nasty, ugly, bully-ish, Walker and senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald have been in the face of an action that falls well within the bounds of this democracy. One of the more dramatic such actions was that of Abraham Lincoln who leaped out a window of the Illinois state legislature to avoid a quorum. Now his action didn't last long as he was returned to the chamber. Perhaps the Wisconsin 14 learned this valuable lesson - get out of town fast - from the tactic used by this old Republican.

My Sen. Chris Larson, one of the WI 14
Here's another valuable forgotten lesson about our version of democracy. At the federal level the founders established a republic in part to avoid the potential threat of "tyranny of the majority." For that reason, minorities are given tools to fight back when threatened by this kind of tyranny. The Wisconsin 14 have done a great service to the cause of democracy by staying out long enough for us to find out what is really going on, what Walker's agenda really is, who he actually represents, who funds his campaigns, whose interests he seeks to serve. If not for this, a budget repair bill would have been imposed, not legislated, and that is not how democracy works. In a democracy, information, access to information and knowledge, is everything.

And in that knowledge come the tools the citizens of my state need in order to exercise their rights, to assert their voices before draconian changes in Wisconsin's politics and its way of life, to express their hopes and desires, to take a position on Scott Walker's budget repair bill - and right now, it just so happens that their voices have become one considerable majority in this state.

According to a poll conducted by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute just mentioned on CNN, Walker's unfavorable rating has gone from 35% last November to a whopping 53% now. It has gone up by more than 10% in just the last 3 weeks. More to the point, 65% of those polled want Walker to "negotiate with Democrats and public employee's unions in order to find a compromise solution." See this article.

Why the growing distaste for our young gov? Because in this democracy we have a governor who refuses to negotiate with his opponents, to take into consideration the voices of the tens of thousands in the streets - the people he was elected to serve - and he has treated his elected opponents as so much detritus to try to brush out of his way. A real governor learns the art of negotiation, learns how to cut deals, to make compromises, because governance is always about the balancing of competing interests represented by elected politicians, interest groups, popular organizations of all kinds, etc. etc.

Right now, across the country, and here in Wisconsin, we have lost that balance because of the power of corporate money. Organized labor, people out in the streets, folks out getting signatures for recall efforts, lawyers getting ready to take Walker to court for his alleged violations of labor laws and possible ethics violations (see prank call from the faux David Koch) - these are all tools of a democracy available to the people to try to blunt the power of money or any other form of tyranny over the majority.

Lessons in democracy. We are learning them in abundance in my state right now. The Wisconsin 14 and the folks in the streets have done more to teach us these lessons than anyone in this state in a very long time.

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