November 27, 2011
What do you know?
By Bill Kraus
The Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century was a semi-secret political organization (an oxymoron?) which was dedicated to protecting the country from a takeover by German and Irish Catholic immigrants. The name resulted from their members’ keeping their association secret. When asked about the movement they, not unlike TV’s Sergeant Schultz, replied “I know nothing.”
The 21st century version of know nothingness is not a movement but a condition. It describes the citizens who have outsourced, abandoned, and ignored politics and politicians.
The result of this behavior has two deleterious effects. The first is the obvious one of letting the righteous righties who want governments to do nothing and the loony lefties who want them to do everything rise in influence. These are the “bases” to which the candidates must play to get nominated and elected. They used to be marginalized by the dominant moderate middle of both persuasions. No longer.
An even more insidious side effect is true know nothingness. People who don’t participate, even slightly, in electing our representatives who don’t know of or about the public sector lose more than influence.
They also lose perspective and a mild kind of wisdom. If they vote, they pretty much vote in the dark and support and reject ideas and people off a no-knowledge base.
The first time I realized something was awry here was when I got a call from a politically alert friend who was offended by his representative’s non-stop attacks on higher education in general and on the University of Wisconsin in particular. “What can I do about this?” he asked. “You can run an opposing candidate in the primary,” I replied. “I don’t know how to do that,” he said.
He was alert but unequipped. Not good.
Somewhat later I chatted with other very worldly, very well informed (I thought) citizens in other parts of the state. One of them had no idea who represented him in the state Senate or the state Assembly. Don’t laugh. Ask this question of some of your acquaintances sometime.
The other didn’t know he had been redistricted and was no longer represented in the Congress by someone who he had voted for for years.
If they don’t know this, what do they know?
Do they know what their government can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do?
What are they looking for or at when they make a voting decision, if, indeed, they bother to vote at all?
Does this kind of know nothingness make them foils for the professionals who do know something and who categorize them by wedges and appeal to them on one or two hot button issues--guns, marriage rights, fear of crime--to get their vote for a candidate who may or may not be a worthy representative on the full range of public sector responsibilities?
I have on my wall a picture that was taken behind the high school in Stevens Point on a cold, fall Saturday in late October in the 1960s. The 40 or 50 people pictured had gathered to pick up campaign literature which they would deliver throughout the city urging their neighbors to consider the Republican candidates described in the literature. If you are looking for a daunting political task, this venture in futility will fill the bill.
The members of this group included the chairman of a large insurance company, the president of a bank, the manager of a paper mill, a county judge, a physician, a dentist, retailers, housewives, teenagers, clerks, executives, union members, teachers. Everybody.
This may have been the only political act in which many of them participated. But they read the literature. They knew why they were there. They knew the candidates. They knew what the candidates were for and against. The knew something. They were not know nothings. Nor were they single-issue zealots.
Until and unless they come back, our representative form of government will be polarized, partisanized, endangered. Sending money, delegating and outsourcing to others is not enough. Scorning politics and politicians is not helpful. Nor is whining.
We all need to have a hand in and on the public sector. The system depends on us.
November 13, 2011
Representative democracy and its mutation
By Bill Kraus
The idea was that the people would elect people to represent them and their interests. Those they elected would become more expert at the job of governing and would lead where leadership was needed never losing sight of their followers.
If they tried to lead where their followers didn’t want to go or if they were defective in other ways, their constituents would lead them. To the door. At the next election.
For many reasons this simple idea has been complicated and corrupted.
The forces, events, whatever, that have warped what the founding fathers wrought and envisioned, in no particular order of importance or sequence, include:
Mass media. Person-to-person, face-to-face campaigning was replaced by third-party communications and contacts as the country got bigger and the peoples’ connection to their representatives frayed.
Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. At one point in time not so long ago, the people were the medium. I have on my wall a picture of a fully representative gathering of the citizens of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, who had assembled to pick up campaign literature which they in turn would take to their fellow citizens on a cold October Saturday. The message they were delivering was in the literature, but the fact that they were doing the delivering was an important part of the message.
Mass media was in play in the form of advertising, of course, but advertising did not become dominant until television became an important part of our lives and money a more important part of campaigns and campaigning.
Outsourcing. As campaigns professionalized and the medium depersonalized, campaigning evolved into a kind of arm’s-length, third-person, segmented-appeals operation.
The people didn’t gather anymore. They sent their money. Endorsements were still important as long as the endorsers were important, but the heart of campaign activity was professional marketers and the money to advance candidacies through the media.
As the people backed off the money to fund these longer, more expensive campaigns flowed in, and as candidates became convinced that money was crucial to success a new and ugly kind of beholdenism appeared.
The idea that candidates were being bought, or at least rented, became widespread. The people began to suspect that their representatives were representing them less and the people with the money that was fueling campaigns more.
The visible reaction to this suspicion is that iconic political leaders with big followings of enthusiasts are dwindling, and most politicians have favorable ratings below 50 percent.
The active reaction has been a turn to several anti-representative government ideas. Initiative and referendum, with all its flaws, is rising in popularity. Recalls of candidates or of specific pieces of legislation are gaining traction as well. The politics of the street--protesting--is no longer an occasional and small part of the game.
Even the free speech worshipping Supreme Court has taken judicial notice of this phenomenon by urging legislators to reveal the specific sources of the money that the people think is buying their representatives’ votes.
Wisconsin legislators are displaying the indifference, which is the occupational disease of fanaticism, by ignoring this supplication. A prior Speaker of our Assembly trashed a disclosure bill which the state Senate had narrowly and reluctantly passed. His successor has told his caucus that there will be no disclosure legislation coming out of his Legislature.
Their unstated but obvious reason for this legislative deafness is a fear that disclosure of donors would shut down the money flow needed to keep the incumbents in power.
Will the people who now suspect that they are not really the object of their representatives’ affection react by voting for disclosure and against tainted money and move more aggressively in other not always admirable ways to get their representative democracy back?
It’s there for the taking.
November 12, 2011
Back to Ohio
By Tim Buban
Every Wisconsinite who cares about our state can take pride in what happened Tuesday in Ohio. We all congratulate the good brothers and sisters of the Buckeye state who made this historic victory possible. But make no mistake about it, the seeds for that victory were planted right here in Wisconsin, in Madison during the tough battles of this last winter.
We should be proud of that, but we should not be surprised. After all, it was our fine example that also inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement. I do not know how the upcoming recall battle against Walker will turn out, but I do know that no one should underestimate the importance of this victory in Ohio.
November 6, 2011
By Bill Kraus
A mostly overlooked--to say nothing of unmourned--casualty of the frenzied winter of 2011 when the incoming governor and his subservient Legislature were remaking the face of electoral politics in Wisconsin was the quiet, below-the-radar attempt to bring civility and non-partisanship back to the election of Supreme Court justices.
At the recommendation of the seven members of the Supreme Court, a Legislature and governor which was deaf, dumb, and blind to the collateral damage of runaway spending on their own elections agreed to change the system for the Supreme Court to one where the candidates would get full public funding for their campaigns.
They didn’t get much. They may not even have gotten enough to run respectable statewide campaigns, but they got something that many thought was more valuable. They got out of dialing for dollars. They didn’t have to raise campaign money. They didn’t have to worry about recusing themselves from cases that came before the court where contributors to their campaigns were involved whether supplicants or lawyers representing supplicants had made significant contributions to their campaigns.
They did not get the protection from the participation of outside interests in their campaigns which was supposed to be part of what was called the “Impartial Justice” proposal. This flaw would turn out to be fatal in an election that was the test of the new idea. Because of the tumultuous events in the other parts of the capitol, the race between Justice David Prosser and his challenger Joanne Kloppenberg became a referendum on what was going on elsewhere more than a contest between candidates.
The measly spending by the contestants was quickly overwhelmed by outside groups that were trying to prove that Governor Walker was doing the right or wrong thing by using state employees and teachers and their unions as a route to solving budgetary shortfalls left over from the Doyle years and exacerbated by the revenue shortfalls driven by the great recession.
Hardly anyone noticed that one of the places the newly empowered also went for the money needed to get rid of the structural deficit and balance the precarious budget was the appropriation for the justices’ campaigns and, as long as they were at it, the appropriations for public funding via tax checkoffs for everyone everywhere.
The first timid, tentative step toward doing what the justices asked for and what the people who are telling us that campaigns go on too long and cost too much say they want went away without a whimper.
I protest. Anyone else?
The result is that Supreme Court races are once again subject to hijacking by causists of all stripes who see the court as the less expensive route to getting their way. If you have a choice between electing 17 state senators and 50 assembly representatives who will do your bidding or electing 4 Supreme Court justices who are similarly inclined, this is a no brainer.
The judiciary, instead of finding a path to elections that are not all about special interests and their money, is now caught up in the polarization and partisanship that afflicts the other branches of government.
The possibly desirable side effect of all of this is that it is a gift from heaven to those who favor an appointed judiciary.
Those of us who took the position that no solution is perfect, but electing people who sought to don the cloak of non-partisanship and open-mindedness is better than the openly partisan federal system, are now looking more favorably on a non-partisan appointed system where a dispassionate panel of experts presents a list of candidates to the governor who appoints and the legislature that approves.
Elitist? Of course. Better than the purely partisan federal system? Yes.
The glitch in the process is the attempt to involve the electorate to an appointive process. Many states add a proviso that those appointed will be subject to an up-or-out vote at sometime in the future before their appointments are made permanent.
All of those people who were involved in messing up the Prosser/Kloppenberg race this year can be expected to show up with their money and their causes if the appointees offend their tender sensibilities.
Won’t happen? Has happened. In Iowa. Recently.
It’s a better process than the federal one. Don’t try to make it into what it isn’t. Or bring back what Wisconsin was trying to do before the radicals came to town and upset alot of apple carts.