The real threat to democracy in Wisconsin
Union protesters in Wisconsin claim that a threat to democracy has risen in their midst. Placards appearing at their rallies equate Gov. Scott Walker to such dictators as Hosni Mubarack and Benito Mussolini. Even more of the signage warns that Walker is a new Adolf Hitler. One Democratic state senator said on camera that Walker has already begun treading down Hitler’s path. "Adolf Hitler, in 1933," Lena Taylor instructed the interviewer, "abolished the unions, and that is what our governor is doing today."
Put aside for the moment the nonsense of equating a newly elected governor's offering a bill which was fully outlined during the campaign to Germany's Holocaust-launching, World II-inciting führer. The union protesters are correct. There is a threat to democracy in Wisconsin. The real threat to democracy is the state Senate Democrats who fled Wisconsin.
The true test of a representative democracy comes not in an election, but in the aftermath of an election. If the losing party or parties recognize their loss and continue to participate in the process of governance, then representative democracy works. When the losing side refuses to participate and boycotts governance, especially in such a manner that vital legislative work is obstructed, then representative democracy itself is threatened.
There are those who argue that the filibuster in the U.S. Senate is a precedent for the Wisconsin Walkout. But the filibuster exists by rule in the Senate. Both parties have endorsed the rule and both have relied on it to gain bargaining power while in the minority. The rules surrounding the filibuster can and do get adjusted occasionally in order to limit abuses, such as those modest reforms that gained a consensus at the beginning of this session. Whether one supports the filibuster or not, it is a well-regulated process that forms the accepted ground rules of the U.S. Senate.
The Wisconsin state Senate does not have a boycott rule. The state's constitution requires a simple majority for a quorum on most business and a three-fifths majority for a quorum when it comes to budgetary matters. That quorum requirement exists to ensure that the majority party cannot meet without notice and pass budgets in the dark of night without debate and dissent. Until now, it has never been used to block a majority from merely opening debate on a budget bill.
The Wisconsin Walkout contains equal parts arrogance and hypocrisy. Mark Miller, one of the runaway legislators who fled from Wisconsin to Illinois, complained that Walker didn’t negotiate with the unions when proposing his bill, and that "in democracy, you negotiate." But Walker isn't proposing a new contract with the unions — he's proposing changes to the law and to the budget for the state of Wisconsin. The proper forum for negotiating legislation and budgets is the state legislature, and the proper principals for those debates are the elected public officials of Wisconsin’s government, not the unions. In fact, it's rather telling that Miller would abdicate that role to the unions rather than to his own caucus in the legislature.
Furthermore, the Republicans who control the legislature had prepared to debate the bill. The schedule called for 17 hours of debate on the changes, which have percolated since Walker campaigned on budgetary and public-sector reform last year with these specific proposals. Democrats in the state Senate have prevented the proper exercise of negotiations by denying Wisconsin a quorum in their upper chamber.
And why? The Democrats who fled know they will lose. Instead of facing defeat, they have chosen to hold representative democracy itself hostage, and demand that the minority rule the majority as their terms.
The fleeing Democrats have essentially stolen the will of the public and their right to self-governance. Wisconsin voters elected Republicans to majorities in both chambers and Walker as their executive by convincing margins. The minority in a representative democracy has a right to be heard, but does not have the right to stop the process of governance by shutting down the legislature. In essence, those state senators who went on the lam have attempted to overturn the last election through unprecedented and illegal obstruction and dereliction of duty. They have demonstrated the haughty arrogance of those who refuse to accept their role as public servants and instead make themselves into autocrats.
If Republicans overreached with their budget-repair bill and unfairly restricted the rights of unions, then let Democrats go on record opposing the bill and make it the centerpiece of the next legislative election in Wisconsin. Under the circumstances, though, the Democrats who have tried to hijack democracy in order to dictate terms should be the ones who fear the next election the most.