Lena Taylor vs. Adrian Fenty: The Struggle for the Soul of the Demcratic Party

Shannon Ikebe, Staff Writer

“The day of infamy for Wisconsin workers.” This is how one of the Wisconsin’s 14 Democratic Senators described the Republicans’ illegal “passage” of the union-busting bill on Wednesday in a frontal, perverse assault upon the concept of democracy and the rule of law itself. The Republican victory in the Wisconsin struggles is still far from assured, thanks to the Wisconsin 14 and the protesters in Madison who have demonstrated courage and determination unprecedented in contemporary American politics. The Wisconsin 14 left the state for three weeks to defend the fundamental rights and dignity of public workers, fighting for Wisconsin workers in a way no one inside Wisconsin can; they were wholeheartedly backed by the marvellous protesters in Madison, the committed citizens par excellence of a democracy worth its name.

Nonetheless, as we see history continue to unfold, we must recognize that what is at stake is more than the fate of Wisconsin’s trade union legislations. Equally important for the future is the hidden struggle for paradigms of “progressive” politics and the soul of the Democratic Party. This struggle is not even happening yet, at least in an explicit and conscious manner. However, this needs to happen if Wisconsinites are to leave a lasting positive legacy for the entire country, because it is the only way through which originally defensive struggles can be made into an opportunity to transform the neoliberal political paradigm. Three decades of steady rightward shift of politics and upward shift of wealth were impossible without the liquidation of the effective opposition, which was achieved through the co-opting of the Democratic Party to the neoliberal agenda through Clintonism and Obamaism. Hence, to overcome the neoliberal paradigm, serious oppositional forces need to emerge again.

Wisconsin’s Democratic Senators’ commitment to a noble cause should not obscure the fact that it does not represent the shift of the political framework for the Democratic Party, which include both genuine friends of workers and union-busters. Lena Taylor, one of the most conscious and outspoken of the Wisconsin 14, is unafraid to stand up for “people’s interests over profit” and took the struggle to Gandhian proportions by appealing to his precept that we will win after they ignore, laugh at, and then fight us. However, for many Democratic politicians, this could be a perfect opportunity to channel grassroots enthusiasm into the party’s gain and to reap the benefits of union workers’ dedication without doing anything beyond upholding their basic (yet hardly sufficient) rights. Furthermore, there are some Democrats who can’t be clearer in their support for union-busting; “[Walker] is right on substance … most governors and mayors would love to be able to manage their team without interference of collective bargaining … I think a lot of these collective bargaining agreements are completely outdated,” said Adrian Fenty, the former mayor of one of the bluest cities in the country.

The contrast between Taylor and Fenty mirrors a historic contestation. Wisconsin is a bastion and a foundation of American progressive populism, precisely the kind of politics we must construct again. Wisconsin not only pioneered public-sector unions and collective bargaining; high-quality public education, progressive taxation and regulation of monopolies all originated in Wisconsin populism, and its largest city continued to support a Socialist mayor for nearly four decades. Many Wisconsin Democrats are invoking the spirit of “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who waged the most successful Leftist presidential campaign in American history with the slogan of “breaking the power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people,” united the workers, farmers, immigrants and anti-imperialists. La Follette inspired New Deal and farmer-labour parties with considerable success in many Midwestern states. But the values of the legendary Wisconsin progressive, whom his friend Emma Goldman warmly referred to as “the finest, most inconsistent anarchist” of his time, have been undermined for decades by a swarm of Fentys — corporate, technocratic politicians and pretenders of progressivism.

“Bullies are always cowards at heart.” Lena Taylor recently quoted Anna Julia Cooper, a pioneering African-American scholar and Oberlin Class of 1884. Her words cannot be more suitably applied to Democrats like Fenty, who blame teachers’ unions, who are themselves under attack by the neoliberal economy, for the situations of children victimized by the same economic paradigm. Fenty-like Democrats bully the victims because they lack the courage to stand up to the oppressors, while other Democrats like Taylor have the courage to pursue economic justice. If the brave Wisconsin idea can not only defeat Walker but also sway the working people and then politicians throughout the country, now could be the beginning of a historic moment; if the Fenty-esque mentality continues to prevail then — whatever happens in Wisconsin — America has no choice but to continue sliding down the path towards degredation and destruction of a civilized society.