Having little left to lose does provide some comfort, for we now know that Democratic “centrism” (which passes these days as liberalism) has failed to inspire and defend the people most in need of political support: the young, the rural, the urban poor, the middle class, minorities and women.

That so many blue-collar and rural Americans, especially men, now believe that the corporate-created and funded faux-populism of the new Republican libertarianism represents their best interests is partly a matter of sloppy media and propaganda. But this latest Republican wave also confirms a general failure of the Democratic Party– from President Obama on down– to embrace a truly progressive, peaceable populism and fight for it.

Dairy farm

Photo by Scott Bauer (staff of ARS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even here in Wisconsin, the state most linked to a progressive, radically liberal tradition, the home of The Progressive magazine and The Capital Times, and a city (Milwaukee) long governed by benevolent Socialists, the Democratic Party, with a few notable exceptions, has failed to offer a significant, creative, idealistic alternative. That Scott Walker can win three straight elections for governor of the state cannot be blamed solely on the Koch brothers, ALEC, Citizens United, the Club for Growth, and bad judges. Democrats in Madison and elsewhere in the state have turned defensive, presenting positions and candidates that are too cautious, too calculated and meant to appeal to “centrist” independents.

Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive, writes that in Mary Burke’s concession speech the candidate “cited the enduring progressive values she championed in her campaign. The biggest applause lines came when she mentioned ‘women’s rights to control our own bodies,’ collective bargaining, and the minimum wage.” But how progressive was Burke’s campaign really?

Burke did not pledge to fight to completely revoke Walker’s public union-busting Act 10, only to preserve collective bargaining.  Nor did Burke come out unequivocally against the GTAC iron mine in the Penokee Hills, saying she opposed only the Republican bill to reduce environmental protections, as did most Madison Democrats.

Burke’s primary platform was her business experience and “creating jobs”, a hard thing for any governor to do unless the state is investing directly in small business creation and community infrastructure in the places that need jobs the most, or directly creating jobs with public money, neither which she pledged to do. Her job plan’s emphasis on big corporate “clusters” and competing in the global economy was more of the same, a strategy both Republicans and Democrats have long touted. Nor was Burke willing to say she’d reject a $650 million income tax cut that Walker proposed.

Burke did not oppose the new concealed-carry law or talk much about gun control or talk about reforming the onerous aspects of the welfare-to-work law which burdens single mothers the most.  Prison reform, including the issue of inhumane solitary confinement, was not made an issue either.  While Burke did oppose expanding the school voucher system, she said she’d leave the Milwaukee voucher program alone, though it is arguably the most harmful as it drains crucial funds out of MPS. And where was the urgent Democratic fight against the growing menace of “factory farms” and rural poverty that might have garnered more of the rural vote?

Democrats in Wisconsin and across the nation will have to give Americans more reasons to vote and to vote for their candidates, and that means not shrinking from progressive ideals. Being more moderate than Republicans is no longer good enough. We need many more brave politicians like Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The notion that the current Republican Party can be compromised with is absurd and self-defeating for it plays into their hands. Corporate, anti-government and demagogic “populism” like the “tea party” advocates for can only be defeated with a genuine, democratic populism. Also helpful would be a Democratic Party that was against war as foreign policy even when it is in the majority and/or occupies the White House, and even when a majority of Americans suddenly decide they like foreign wars again.

What the nation needs is a better, broader political vision than now exists and a courage to speak and live it. It has to begin with words like “truth” and “justice” which are not delusions, not mere words; the new politics–call it a progressive revival or a new egalitarian democracy– has to be based essentially on a spirited idealism, the same sort of moral passion which created democracy and the Progressive Era in the first place. We Democrats cannot be embarrassed to turn away from polls to look to something as basic and pure as a poem or a prayer. And now, seeing clearly what we are up against, we can begin again.

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