Having elected its second millionaire to the U.S. Senate and sending its most courageous and progressive congressman home, having installed a Republican governor and Republican majorities to both houses of the state Legislature, Wisconsin has in the name of a "populist" uprising put into power a party totally opposed to the best interests of those most in need of real populism and government-led defense: rural and inner-city people. In a state with a prominent progressive tradition, what happened on Nov. 2 was a tragedy, but not a very surprising one.
Sadly, the red tide of Republican victory across the state includes most of Wisconsin's rural counties, as well as the expected wealthy suburbs. And while urban voters, according to exit polls, preferred Democrats by a large margin, statewide families making less than $50,000 voted for Republicans and Democrats in nearly equal numbers.
How did this happen?
We could blame the unleashing of conservative dollars for political advertising and the high unemployment rate, but in truth the primary responsibility must rest with a Democratic Party that has pretty much abandoned its genuine democratic, populist, progressive roots at both the federal and state level. Except for a few culturally related issues like abortion and gay marriage, there has not for a long time been much to separate Democrats from Republicans with regards to what matters most: economic, environmental and foreign policy. Though we hoped under President Obama for something other than the status quo, what the nation and state got was not nearly radical enough.
Most Democrats still support a global, corporate-controlled economy whose foundation is limitless greed, limitless ecological deterioration and a foreign policy of seemingly limitless war. Instead of putting the bulk of federal and state dollars into local community development, public work programs, corporate regulation and Medicare-for-all, our Democrats have waged war, bailed out Wall Street and spent many billions trying to get consumers to consume again beyond their means. Democrats continue to allow corporations to profit from ecological harm, including the mining and burning of coal, deep drilling for oil and gas, and the building of "factory farms," all with often minimal and/or lax regulation.
Leading up to the election, Gov. Jim Doyle had been dispensing corporate tax credits like there was no tomorrow. For the Democrats, there is no tomorrow, at least in the short term. Not much democratic gumption seems left in the Democratic Party.
Now a humbled President Obama has declared that "no party has a monopoly on wisdom" and that some "common ground" must be found. Meanwhile, Sen. Harry Reid is talking of "tweaking" health care reform and reconsidering taxing the rich. The white flag of bipartisanship is being waved again.
It is possible, of course, that a majority of Wisconsinites would not have voted for Democrats in this election no matter what our Democratic leaders had done to return true democracy and egalitarian prosperity to the people. If Sen. Russ Feingold can lose to Ron Johnson, then Wisconsin's democratic and patriotic intelligence must be questioned. Perhaps the brainwashing via Fox News, conservative radio and the Internet has accomplished its end. In that case, red Wisconsin has got what it deserves.
But it would have been nice to offer the voters a real progressive and populist Democratic Party, instead of a party too long associated with being anti-rural, anti-religious, anti-freedom and anti-thrift. Feingold was an island of integrity that got swamped by a tidal wave of fear and ignorance. Too many of his fellow Democrats offered little resistance.
What's wrong with Wisconsin is what's wrong with the Democrats, for Democrats remain our best hope. So far we have yet to fulfill the progressive promise of those renegade Republicans of old who broke away from their party to oppose war and corporate greed. But now, at least, there is no excuse for not offering the people a clear way forward. If we Democrats are going to lose, let's lose speaking and acting truthfully.