Last night, Scott Walker successfully resisted the recall effort in Wisconsin. And so, today, pundits everywhere are mining the election results for insight into the 2012 election. Ignore them.
Before the vote, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Walker up by 6.7 percent. He won by seven percent -- about the same margin he won by in 2010. That is to say, polling was a very good guide to this election. It's likely to be an even better guide to the national election, as there are more polls, conducted more frequently, with larger sample sizes. And right now, as you can see in the Wonkbook dashboard, the RCP average has Obama up by 2.8 percent. There's little reason to try to pick through Wisconsin to understand the national election when we have hard numbers that give us a daily snapshot of where it stands.
But the Wisconsin recall does have implications beyond 2012. Public-sector unions are a key part of the Democratic Party's coalition. They provide money, manpower, and votes. Which is why Henry Olson, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, frames Walker's legislation as a "defunding of the Democratic-party shock troops."
Wisconsin's new law won't, on its own, radically change the power of public-sector unions. But Walker's ability to withstand the recall will likely spur other governors to follow suit, and likely drain the enthusiasm of the opposition in other states. And even if it doesn't, 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.
For a long time, a lot of the energy has been devoted to the question of "how do you revive the labor movement?" The truth is, at this point, you probably can't. You can slow decline. And you can score isolated wins. But it's hard to see a real turnaround in labor's fortunes.
But if you take labor's decline as a given, then another question presents itself: How do you limit the resulting corporate power over elections and legislators? And that's much more possible, even in a post-Citizens United world. There's legislation, like the Fair Elections Now Act, that could publicly finance elections. There's legislation, like the DISCLOSE Act, that could force so much transparency on corporate spending that it ceases to be an attractive option.Republicans have had great success arguing that organized labor has too much political power. So much success, in fact, that it seems clear that labor will soon have too little. But last night showed that Democrats aren't going to get very far simply disputing Republican claims on this point. Rather, they should argue that all interest groups have too much political power, and unite behind legislation that would weaken them.