The Democratic members of Wisconsin's state senate made the wrong decision when they elected to leave the capitol ten days ago. They are using procedural obstructionism in an anti-democratic way, preventing the majority party from enacting its legislative agenda, much as Republicans in Washington have abused the filibuster to nearly eradicate majority rule in the U.S. Senate. It is illogical to defend one action and decry the other. Last November, 52.25 percent of Wisconsin voters selected Scott Walker as their choice for governor. His party controls the state's government. If we believe in democracy, his agenda should be permitted to pass into law.
In a similar way, the conduct of some of the protesters and democratic legislators still in Madison is troubling. The chants rained down on Republican state representatives after they passed Walker's budget (using an admittedly objectionable procedure) are reminiscent of the group intimidation present at town hall meetings in the summer of 2009. Also questionable is the decision some protesters have made to sleep in the capitol building, a statement implying future civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is justified by a lack of democratic alternatives. The United States is not Egypt, where under Hosni Mubarak, political opponents of the ruling class were imprisoned. Again, Scott Walker was elected by a majority of Wisconsin voters. As such, disruptive tactics of any nature designed to prevent his agenda from being enacted are not in keeping with democratic governance.
To support such tactics, we must argue that Wisconsin's system of state government is in actuality a false democracy - that it is instead a plutocracy where the will of a well-connected, rich minority is foisted on the vast majority of an effectively disenfranchised populace. There is little doubt indeed that American democracy is fundamentally flawed. The collusion of money and political power in the United States exists to such a degree that comparisons of our system to authoritarian ones abroad have legitimacy. (Glenn Greenwald recently made an astute observation along these lines.) Within this framework, the actions in Wisconsin take on a heroic nature: the people versus the rapacious Koch brothers.
But it should also be clear that in a stronger democracy, the campaign contributions and slick propaganda rich donors pay for would hold far less sway. An electorate primed to be influenced by the vapidity of the average thirty second TV spot is one profoundly distanced from the independent thought meaningful democracy demands. And the legislator who feels so insulated from public accountability that they are unafraid to cast votes unabashedly aligned with the interests of their biggest campaign financiers reveals a voting public which has failed to protect its own self-interest.
The largest threat to our democracy remains voter apathy. Consider the opportunity missed when we realize that the statewide turnout during Wisconsin's midterms was just under 50 percent, nearly 20 points lower than in November of 2008. The previous March, 62 percent of Iraqis went to the polls, including 53 percent in Baghdad despite a five hour militant attack which had taken place the morning of the election. In 2006, as the Iraq war and corruption scandals raged, just 40.4 percent of Americans voted in the congressional midterms. And here in Chicago, the supposed return of democracy following the retirement of the dynastic Mayor Daley was celebrated by a mere 41.8 percent of the registered public.
The proceeding is not intended to serve as an argument against the substance of the protesters' objections. Nor should it be taken as a justification for the distorting influence money, lobbying, or legislative abuses of power have on our politics. My intention, rather, is to question the tactics on display in Madison, and to argue that the emotional catharsis they have produced should not distract from the work of sustained political organizing and democracy building that are the only means of addressing the root causes of problematic policymaking.
Rapidly developing technologies are making such organizing ever easier, and the dis-empowerment of the public, especially when it is self-induced, less and less justifiable. If the work of Governor Walker is as demonstrably dangerous to the interests of Wisconsin residents as his opponents claim, then the goal of those opponents should be to construct a system of democratic accountability which will remove him from power at the next election. Adopting such priorities will prove far more effective, and democratic, than obstructionist and theatrical tactics alone.