Wisconsin – And The Rest Of Us, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 7 2012 @ 11:40am

I wrote that Wisconsin's recall election was "a case study in the complete breakdown of our political system, and of public trust." Will Wilkinson calls this "badly overwrought":

America's states are undergoing a fiscal reckoning. At the same time, the American electorate is polarising along partisan lines. Repairing a busted state budget is by its nature a fraught exercise in distributive politics, bound to generate bad feeling. Some constituencies are going to take a hit and there's no way around it. Polarisation means that inevitably bitter fights over the distribution of the burdens of fiscal retrenchment are getting bitterer and more divisive. I think we see all this at work in Wisconsin's fight over the power and costs of public-sector unions. We've seen protests in the capital, state senators fleeing into Illinois, and an acrimonious recall election. It's all very messy and exciting, but it is by no means a breakdown. The voters of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker twice, he and the state legislature enacted reforms, and those reforms stand, for now. Wisconsin's democracy may be ugly, but it's working.

In the grand scheme of things, Will has a point. What worries me is the zero-sum dynamics of the political game. The goal of democratic politics should always, in my view, be non-zero-sum: a collective weighing of various interests and an attempt to find a compromise to balance them. With the Manichean rhetoric and ideology of the two factions in Wisconsin – sadly echoing the national divide – decisions may be reached, as Will notes. But the cost to civil society is deep, especially if a tit-for-tat partisan war overwhelms everything else.