When Republican Governor Scott Walker recently sought to eliminate collective bargaining rights, it was less about Wisconsin’s budget deficit or labor unions themselves, and more of a thinly veiled attempt to destroy the Democratic party. That’s because labor unions are one of the few organized groups that can counter-balance large companies in the money department when campaign time rolls around. Without the backing and support of labor unions, the Democratic party would be in trouble.
Walker’s actions weren’t unjustified however, nor representative of solely the Republican party. Today’s elected officials align themselves with their political party over their constituents, and find it more beneficial to abide by the party line than to compromise. That’s because the need for transparency necessitates every comment be combed through with a fine-toothed analysis thereby crippling what was once known as the world’s greatest deliberative bodies.
“Mr. Walker’s conduct has provoked a level of divisiveness and bitter partisan hostility the likes of which have not been seen in this state since at least the Vietnam War,” argues UW-Madison professor William Cronon in the New York Times. “Many citizens are furious at their governor and his party, not only because of profound policy differences, but because these particular Republicans have exercised power in abusively nontransparent ways that represent such a radical break from the state’s tradition of open government.”
But Walker didn’t create partisan dysfunction; he only lit its fire. Transparency is the real culprit, and while yes, transparency is a mechanism to keep officials accountable, it is also an enabler of partisanship.
C-SPAN was the first to flip on the light of accountability. “After C-SPAN went on the air, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing,” argues George Packer in The New Yorker. “The weakened institution could no longer withstand pressures from outside its walls; as money and cameras rushed in, independent minds fell more and more in line with the partisans. Rough parity between the two parties meant that every election had the potential to make or break a majority, crushing the incentive to cooperate across the aisle.”
Today, bloggers are the ones that carry transparency’s torch in the name of open government. “Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media,” says Packer. “News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington.”
Transparency has become the enabler for what The Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief Howard Kurtz calls an “era of sound-bite warfare on steroids.” Partisan organizations now exist whose sole aim is to discredit public officials and craft previously benign remarks into incendiary blows. Sound-bite snippets are volleyed up and copied into the broadcast and blogger media while these organizations claim that they “make their research transparent,” and are thus able to escape culpability on the denigration of our political system.
Senior Senator Lamar Alexander (Republican) describes the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.” No longer do the right and left sides speak to or even look at each other. No one is actually even in the governing chamber when their colleagues stand up. And whereas Senators in the seventies would have lunch together, if a Republican joins a lunch full of Democrats today, their identity is kept a secret to protect their reputation. Trust is non-existent, and the tradition of politics – that of “substantive, thoughtful and moderate discussion” – is swept aside.
Massive demonstrations around Wisconsin’s Capitol led to the eventual block of Walker’s legislation – hey, don’t mess with a Sconnie – but most protesters understood they weren’t marching for the right to retain collective bargaining, but against the pure ego-centric, heavy-handed idiocy that is Scott Walker. They were marching for the right to have a conversation. Wisconsin’s Democartic Senators went so far as to flee the state and hide out in Illinois to stall the passing of the bill.
“Walker doesn’t negotiate. Whether it’s with state workers or Democratic lawmakers, he wouldn’t come to the table,” State Representative Joe Parisi said. “And that’s the problem.” So the Dems decided not to show up either. Instead, both parties talked to the press as if media were meditator, and the bloggers and media did what they do best, reducing an issue to one remark versus another and one party against the other.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t reported that both sides – Republicans and Democrats – came to march around the Capitol. And lest we forget, during the winter in Wisconsin, that is an especially big deal. It wasn’t reported that the demonstrations were peaceful and respectful. And it wasn’t reported that demonstrators showed up to talk to each other when our politicians would not.