Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Revenge of the Progressives

Off-year elections are often fairly dull affairs. Sometimes there is the occasional governor's race that pundits examine for potential national trends. But usually they don't mean much.

Yesterday was a little different. In two different states, voters took the legislative process into their own hands and repealed laws recently passed by their legislatures. It was direct democracy in action.

In Ohio, voters repealed the collective bargaining law limiting union rights that the new Republican governor and former Fox News contributor John Kasich pushed through the legislature. In Maine, voters repealed a law that Republicans had passed which ended same-day voter registration. In both cases, recently elected governors had legislative successes decisively rebuked by the voters within months of their passage.

This does not happen that often. When it does, it deserves some notice.

In my last post, I examined whether the current Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street activism might lead to the equivalent of the bipartisan Progressive movement of the early 20th century. What strikes me about these two votes yesterday is that they are using precisely the tool that Progressives saw as the best hope of undermining the oligarchy's control of the political process: more democracy.

Progressives took it for granted that an essential prerequisite for real reform was more democracy. With both major parties seemingly in the thrall of the big trusts, they believed that enacting measures to directly empower voters (to enact legislation, or repeal legislation, or recall office holders) was the only way to make government responsive to the people again and break the stranglehold of business.

Once legislators understood that their work would be undone, or that they could be removed from office for failing to follow the popular will, Progressives believed, some balance could be restored to the political system. Then, and only then, could government be an effective vehicle to bring about the more systematic and substantive reforms that American society so desperately needed after the massive changes wrought by the industrial revolution.

Maybe what happened yesterday marks a similar awakening for our own times. Commentators usually make too much of off-year elections, and I don't want to make that mistake. Two voter-initiated repeal efforts do not a movement make. But maybe it is a start.

Maybe what happened yesterday was a fluke, provoked by unusually maladroit overreaching by two governors who misread their voters. After all, the union-busting bill in Wisconsin still stands, and laws restricting voting rights through the disingenuous voter ID provisions are being passed in many states.

Combined with the successful state senate recall elections this summer in Wisconsin, and the potential recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker next year, however, it could be more than that. Voters of all political stripes have been complaining that government doesn't hear them, that it is controlled by the lobbyists and the special interests. If those discontented voters can use the powers of direct democracy that the Progressives gave them a century ago, they might pave the way for another era of real reform like that the Progressives produced.

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