Recalling the Gilded Age
Organized labor, liberals in general and President Barack Obama in particular got their heads handed to them by the good people of Wisconsin, with a little help from the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.
The state, once home to Fighting Bob LaFollette -- the father of the progressive movement -- has now given us his photographic negative: union-busting Scott Walker, father of the regressive movement.
The election, an attempt by a liberal coalition to recall Walker two years after he'd been elected governor, wasn't really that close. Conservative commentators have been sent into a mass gloat.
"Obama's goose is cooked," crowed Sarah Palin, to the accompaniment of chortles from the conservative commentariat.
I don't know about that. If I were her --a thought that fills me with a revulsion I cannot fully express -- I wouldn't cook my geese until they were hatched. Or something like that.
Let's look at the possible interpretations of the election.
Interpretation No. 1: Obama's goose is cooked.
Hardly. A curious phenomenon of the Wisconsin vote was that exit polls showed that 18 percent of the people who voted to retain Walker also said they'd vote for Obama in November. Go figure.
Obama, shrewdly as it turns out, really didn't engage himself in the Wisconsin election. Other than a single tweet offering his support for Walker's Democratic opponent, he sat it out. Die-hard liberals (with the emphasis on die) criticized him for it, but he and his advisers apparently figured the recall was a losing proposition and didn't want to be identified with it. Not heroic perhaps, but probably wise.
But maybe not. Sometimes it's better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.
Interpretation No. 2: The election demonstrated the power of outside money to turn a local election.
You might think so, since Walker outspent his opponent by at least a 7-to-1 margin, thanks to the Supreme Court's removal of the lid on campaign spending by corporations and unions. (You know how everybody's favorite oxymoron has always been "military intelligence," or perhaps "jumbo shrimp?" I've got a new one: "The Supreme Court.")
And yet those pesky exit polls showed that 90 percent of the voters had made up their minds before May, when the big money really started to make itself felt. So again, who knows?
Interpretation No. 3: The election is a sign that most people think unions, particularly public service unions, have gotten out of hand and need to be brought to heel.
You may be on to something here. Surely the results can be interpreted as nothing less than a massive repudiation of unions and their members. The recall was triggered after Walker and the Republican legislature voted to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights, once an unthinkable development in a relatively liberal northern state like Wisconsin. The voters -- 53 percent of them at any rate -- said "right on, Guv."
The unions have to take a share of the blame for this -- they got greedy. They negotiated salaries that often were higher than private companies pay for similar work, they got very generous health insurance plans, and they arranged for fat pensions that could be accessed at a young age.
The American people will accept greed from the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy and its Wall Street cohorts -- they don't see that as their money, even though it is, indirectly. But they won't take it from their next-door neighbors. They get jealous.
Mark Twain co-authored "The Gilded Age," a book about the excesses at the end of the 19th century -- when the rich had it all going their way. They lived like kings while the average stiff scratched out a living.
It was a time of weak unions, low wages and little (if any) government regulation.
Does that sound like the Republican Party platform or what?
Donald Kaul is an OtherWords columnist who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.