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Walker's Win, Liberalism's Loss

Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election probably doesn’t tell us much about the state of the presidential campaign. But it probably tells us a lot about the state of American politics.

If you’re a progressive or somebody suspicious of corporate power, the message is not good.

Walker got elected and set out to attack the public employee unions—not to extract concessions from them, mind you, but to undermine them an economic and political force. The unions perceived Walker’s effort as a mortal threat, rallied to defeat him, and failed. Whatever you think of their strategic decisions, you can't escape the conclusion that unions just don’t have the clout they once did. And that’s a big problem—not so much for how it will affect elections as for how it will affect what happens afterwards.

Ezra Klein summed it up well in Wonkbook this morning

...labor's inability to win the recall is more evidence of their inability to reverse their own structural decline. They're not winning on worksites, as the share of the labor force that's unionized has been dropping for decades, and they're not winning at the ballot box.
If you step back, then, two things are happening simultaneously among the key interest groups in American politics. Labor is getting weaker. And corporations, in part due to Citizens United, are getting much stronger. The electoral effect of that is obvious: It favors Republicans. But the legislative effect is, perhaps, more significant: It favors corporate interests in Congress, as Democrats will have to be that much more solicitous of business demands in order to keep from being spent into oblivion.

This is an old story—an old, depressing story that has foretold the fortunes of progressive politics for at least as long as I’ve been writing about it. 

In postwar America, the labor movement supplied more than money to Democrats. It supplied a movement, the kind that gets people elected and then empowers those people to do something.  

As labor has declined, Democrats have turned to other sources of financial support, such as Wall Street and, more recently, high tech. That money helped make Bill Clinton a two-term president and may yet do the same for Barack Obama. But that money doesn’t push for economic populism and, at times, it pushes against it. Only on non-economic issues, like abortion, gender equality, or gay rights, does Democratic money steer the party in a progressive direction.

Why wasn't the Recovery Act wasn't bigger? Why didn't health care reform didn't include a public option? Why wasn't financial reform wasn't stronger? A weak labor movement is part of the answer. And the effect on society more broadly is pretty unambiguous. As my colleague Timothy Noah explains in his book, The Great Divergence, there's an inverse relationship between the labor movement and inequality. When one falls, the other rises.

Walker's win will only hasten the fall. As Jon Chait, Ross Douthat, and Greg Sargent all seem to agree—how often can you say that?—the Wisconsin results will embolden Republican governors elsewhere contemplating similar assaults on public employee unions. 

How can liberals turn things around? I wish I knew. Ezra endorses political reforms, such as public financing of elections and more disclosure, to slow the deluge of conservative political money that Citizens United helped release. Yes and yes. But liberals need also something more than that: They need to rebuild the labor movement, perhaps by reinventing it, or they need to replace it. Some of us hoped Occupy Wall Street might someday grow into that, and maybe it will. But, right now, liberals are at a disadvantage and its causes will suffer.

Update: My colleague Alec MacGillis reminds everybody, including me, that it wasn't so long ago labor won a big victory in Ohio. In other words, maybe things aren't as bleak as I think.

follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn