End Times for Progressives?

There is a reason overwhelming electoral drubbings are described in the language of natural disasters: landslide, tidal wave, tsunami. It’s reassuring to presume that radical shifts in our politics are organic, or perhaps even divinely inspired. But history says different: Electoral upheavals are products of their moments, and of the interplay of personality, economics and social discord that makes politics worth watching.

So it was that the Depression-era 1936 election produced historic victories for Franklin Roosevelt and for the more-New-Dealy-than-the-New-Deal Wisconsin Progressives. In 1937, Gov. Phil La Follette and Progressive legislators reorganized state government to serve public rather than corporate interests.

Republicans were aghast. They warned of creeping socialism, nominated millionaire Julius Heil for governor, spent lots of money and swept to power in 1938 mid-term elections that saw an even bigger surge for the national GOP than we witnessed Nov. 2. Heil and a Republican legislature got busy “wiping off the books” every piece of Progressive legislation. Heil presumed voters would reward Republicans for what The New York Times dubbed Wisconsin’s “full turnaround.”

But the state’s economy remained in the doldrums. In 1940, FDR swept the state, as did Progressive Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. Two years later, Heil was out, Progressive Orland Loomis was in, and the groundwork was laid for the eventual renewal of liberal politics in the form of the modern Democratic Party.

Scott Walker is better looking than Julius Heil. But Wisconsinites have been here before. Heil rose and fell at a volatile time, economically and politically — and so, it seems, will Walker.

While it may be unsettling for those who prefer the delusion that this year’s Republican victories were epic, unprecedented and awesomely awesome, as a seventh-generation Wisconsinite I am required to take the long view.

It provides perspective that says, with apologies to Rebecca Kleefisch, these may not be end times for Democrats. Wisconsin progressives will win again. Russ Feingold might even be back.

Before that happens, however, Wisconsin Democrats must get a grip. The party is the likely vehicle for progressive renewal, as the GOP was until 1934 and the Progressive Party until 1946.

But Wisconsin Democrats did not experience “a correction” Nov. 2; they experienced the worst defeat of any state party in the nation.

Why so?

Perhaps because Democrats did everything wrong in 2010. It would be cruel to recount all the missteps, but here are a few:

•            President Obama and Gov. Jim Doyle elbowed Barbara Lawton out of the governor’s race in fall 2009. A year later, polling revealed the gender gap wasn’t working for Democrats. Would things have been different with an energetic and engaged Barbara Lawton leading the ticket? Well, duh!

•           After Congressman David Obey quit, Democrats suddenly had a lot of ground to make up against reality-TV star Sean Duffy. Instead of encouraging an open primary that would draw attention and pick the strongest candidate, Obama and Doyle ordained a contender. How did that work out, Congresswoman Lassa?

•           The Assembly Speaker got friendly with a lobbyist for the payday loan industry, changed his position on legislation affecting the industry, got kicked out by his wife and moved to a house outside his district. Democrats saw no problem with Mike Sheridan’s machinations. Voters booted him from office.

• President Obama spent billions bailing out GM and Chrysler. On election eve, Kenosha’s Chrysler plant ended production. Memo to Obama: When bailing out industries, don’t tell the companies it’s okay to use the money to move jobs to Mexico and China.

• Democrats got gamed by disgraced former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who walked big money from wealthy conservatives and corporate donors into key legislative races. The money tipped the balance, as did “independent” spending by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove that reinforced Johnson’s themes.
There are no coincidences in politics. There are just results on election night. This year’s results confirmed that a difficult election year was made dramatically worse by a disengaged and dysfunctional Democratic Party.

No other conclusion can be taken from an election that, when all was said and done, left standing just one statewide Democratic candidate: the epic, unprecedented and awesomely awesome Doug La Follette as secretary of state.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison and the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine.