Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Democracy is breaking out...

I don't know, I hear all this stuff from Walker supporters about how the recall effort is somehow undemocratic because it is an effort to negate the will of voters in the last election. Yes, yes, elections matter; they matter hugely! They are at the heart of democratic governance, for sure.

But what do you do when the outcome is a state government that is less than democratic, not respectful of the will of a majority of its people, is running government itself in a way that stifles democracy, or worse, as in the voter I.D. laws, tries to suppress it? Do you wait until the next election, when even more harm has been done?

For an idea about the potential for more harm, I recommend looking at what the Repubs are doing with regard to redistricting. They have already used their unilateral power to redraw district lines to favor their party, and to remove political competition (i.e., democracy) from those districts. But now they want to change the rules they themselves wrote by moving up the changes for the recall elections. If they do this, they would also have to redefine the meaning of recalls altogether. After all, the point is that voters have the power to recall the people they elected when they feel need to do so - as hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters apparently feel need to do.

The Journal Sentinel made that point in an editorial this morning. For me, it does not exactly go unnoticed that the rightists of the Repub Party, once holding the reins of power, are not thrilled about putting themselves up before the democratic process. What Wisconsin Repubs, Walker, the Fitzgerald brothers, Vos, Darling, and so many others have been passing in the legislature and signing into law are patently unpopular policies - from education cuts to concealed carry. They have been defying their own constituencies in this state and harming the most vulnerable of our people with their cuts, and threatened cuts, to public health programs, public schools, senior care, voter and worker rights, and more.

Why would they be anxious to put themselves before the voters who are right now signing recall petitions all over the state? Surely they are lacking confidence that they can stave off political disaster. Surely they are feeling threatened for a reason.

Now we hear that the petition folks are saying they have already gathered more than 300,000 signatures! Is Walker losing any sleep at night? His approval rating now stands at 47%, which is an improvement over the past few months - it had plummeted below 40% earlier this year. He also has a narrow lead over any potential challenger, except for Russ Feingold, but that fantasy contest has also narrowed. The October report from Public Policy Polling also indicates the possibility of a 'recall backlash,' many independents who may not like Walker but don't like the recall either.

Of course, the recall initiative was always a high-risk venture. A successful recall would send a powerful message to state Repubs about their aggressive drive to turn the political culture of Wisconsin in a radically new direction, something not at all indicated by the 2010 election results. Many people who are signing the petition are fearful of our future, for good reason.

On the other hand, given how divided the state remains, and how close Walker's approval/disapproval ratings are - within a couple or few percentage points - the political hurdles that must be overcome to achieve a new state government are daunting, to say the least.

However, what is inspiring about the campaign is the exercise itself. Democracy has been breaking out in this state ever since this government took office at the beginning of the year. Complacency and inertia are on the wane, a very good sign for our future. What we are seeing is a resurgence of interest in government and the democratic process because we are also experiencing in our daily lives how government actually impacts us, our families and our communities, even how we feel about one another, how we talk to one another. This government came in with a whole lot of nasty rhetoric and bears great responsibility for the ugliness of our recent political discourse. Of this, they ought to be ashamed. Government by bullying and demonizing has never brought about admirable results!

By contrast, the energy of the recallers has been heartening, positive, and even full of good cheer. These are citizens taking responsibility for their government; they are being citizens in the best sense.

We saw this in the streets of Madison last winter and spring, again week before last, and we are seeing it now again on street corners and sidewalks, in parking lots on Black Friday - citizens who are engaged not a little, but a lot - and with enthusiasm.

Whatever the result, I hope this year's breakout of grassroots democracy will create the ground for a long haul struggle to reclaim government from the narrow interests of the corporate right and put it back where it belongs. And let us remember always that democracy depends less on elections themselves (remember, elections take place even in many dictatorships) than on what happens between them. Elections are not democratic if the system in which they take place is not democratic. Exercising rights of speech, press, assembly, etc., are the most essential ingredients of any democracy, the ones that make elections meaningful.

And it's that part in between that is being corrupted by the power of corporate money, special interests, secret private donors, and manipulative campaign ads paid for by the same. And that's what I mean when I say that I hope this breakout of democracy can become a true outbreak.

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