Over the next couple days, the political chattering class (myself included) will wonder aloud whether the results of Governor Walker's recall election is evidence of growing anti-union sentiment or whether the Republican victory there is a bellwether for upcoming elections nationwide. However, the one thing that is clear -- after over $70 million was spent on behalf of either candidate -- is that monied interests are commandeering the national conversation.
I won't spend too much time complaining that Governor Walker's campaign outspent Mayor Barret's by a factor of 8 to 1. Or that much of the money came from outside of Wisconsin. Or that studies show how the campaign advertising that this money buys sway voter behavior. Though all these things are true.
What disturbs me is that democracy itself now effectively has corporate sponsors. And that these sponsors are allowed to remain anonymous. If candidates are going to spend millions of dollars of their underwriters' money, at least their ads might have the courtesy to say, "This candidate was brought to you by Budweiser... or the Koch Brothers... or the AFL-CIO... or this candidate's wealthy father-in-law," etc.
Let's be clear: When the founding fathers insisted that people should have the right to free expression, they didn't consider corporations people and they didn't consider money expression. But the free market orthodoxy of some recent Supreme Court justices has left us with this latter day interpretation. So when one of the hot topics of an election is protecting unions' collective bargaining rights (which were, after all, created in response to the natural power-seeking and exploitative tendencies of some corporations), the result is an awkward conflict of interest. Corporations now have an outsized influence in elections whose main issue is corporations' outsized influence.
But let's get back to Wisconsin. Regardless of all the victory and vindication rhetoric, It's not often that a sitting governor is recalled in an election where 45% of people who show up at the polls vote for his ouster. In a sense, if this Pyrrhic victory does anything, it underscores the divisiveness of politics in Wisconsin and sends a strong signal to Governor Walker: balancing the budget on the backs of public employees is a divisive and ideologically driven tactic.
Let's see if this "divide and conquer" governor will change his approach. I have a feeling that public employees will be more tolerant of changes to their benefits if they can see that more wealthy Wisconsinites -- who are now paying fewer taxes than at anytime in recent history -- are also making sacrifices. Unions and government workers get a bad rap -- but nobody becomes a teacher or a firefighter to get rich, and exit polls show that the majority of Wisconsinites maintain a favorable view of public unions.
Finally, let's be careful if we're going to generalize these results on the national stage. The president is currently leading Mitt Romney in Wisconsin by 9%. If Governor Romney can't generate enthusiasm during a contentious recall election when a Republican governor is vindicated, he's going to have a hard time getting Wisconsinites' support in November. Unless, of course, secretive corporate interests are able to gin up that support on a mass scale once more.