They may still have been breaking down voting booths somewhere in Wisconsin when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, started talking about limiting the power of the executive branch.
It’s funny that politicians often seem to be at their most philosophical after a loss. It’s no wonder, then, Vos was in such a hurry to muse on the centralization of state power. When he asked rhetorically “Geez — have we made mistakes where we granted too much power to the executive?” the tone was dorm room political science. It’s actually sort of bizarre he took the time to cloak it in such language. Can anyone say, in this political moment, that he wouldn’t have gotten away with it if he just released a statement saying “We don’t want Tony Evers to have power?”
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Nevertheless, it should go without saying that Vos is looking to prevent the newly-elected Evers from doing anything. So how should the Democrats respond to this sort of legislative skullduggery? For starters, they probably shouldn’t do what Evers is trying to do. His victory speech gives you an idea. Laden with tropes about “not picking political fights” and “moving forward together,” it should sound eerily familiar for anyone who paid attention in the Obama presidential years. A newly-elected executive who wants to reach across the aisle — while the Republicans flaunt their intention to thwart him at every turn.
We know how that ended. The position that Obama took and Evers seems intent on taking is idealistic and disastrous in a very particular way. It is not the sort of idealism that lays out a political vision for a better world or gives people something to rally around. It is an idealism of procedure, a fetishization of compromise that implicitly suggests it doesn’t matter what policy is implemented as long as it is bipartisan. It’s what happens when centrist liberals — not the actual left — have nothing left to offer but a paler version of Republican policy.
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That’s a huge problem. Unless Evers changes his tune and gets serious about realizing some sort of progressive vision, he doesn’t have a prayer at beating back Republican policy gains, never mind implementing his own. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Evers and the Wisconsin Democrats are competent. We’re back to the question we started with — how should Democrats play ball when the Republicans are digging in?
Democrats should be realistic in their response. Vos and the GOP are well-positioned to foreclose any ambitious policy projects for the next two years. So Democrats need to identify the problems they want to address right now and put in the rhetorical work to link those problems to the Republicans. Don’t go after the Republicans for being “divisive” — go after them for how they’ve made the state a cesspool of corporate rule. No one but hand-wringing liberals cares about “division” — they care about the ways their lives are getting worse. Talk about how they took a hatchet to the rights of working people — the people who could and should be the Democratic base if they functioned as a left-wing party should.
Democrats should use the next two years to lay out a vision for a better Wisconsin, one that functions for the farmers and workers, not the manufacturing executives. From investing in small-time dairy farming to promoting trade unionism, there is space to build a vision of Wisconsin for the many.
The Democrats must painstakingly build — or, rebuild — a political base, making their case directly to voters. They must lay the groundwork. Indeed, they must do the job of the left-wing party, which is to present an alternative vision to the right’s hellscape — not to manage expectations.
Democratic maneuvering over the next two years will determine the extent to which they will actually get a chance to govern. The time should be spent not simply squirming under Republican obstructionism but strategically, carefully building a plan to take actual power with a broad mandate.
To be honest, that won’t happen. Evers and his colleagues are simply not bold enough and not well-organized enough. The reality is that Democratic governorship may be just a flash in the pan, not a sign of things to come. But things don’t have to go that way. Maybe Evers and the Democrats will chart a new path. Maybe we’ll have to do it on our own.
Sam Palmer ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in biology.