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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The “Curses o’ Whoredom”: Rome’s History Turns Into Wisconsin’s Misery In Phase 3 of The Madison Uprising

“Elections may be lost by failing to energize the base, but they are only won by charming non-ideological voters who form the majority.  Milwaukee and Madison are the state’s most left-leaning cities, but in the eyes of Wisconsin’s rural and suburban majority, they are also the darkest pits of Babylonish whoredom.”

Caligula:  a career model for the modern statesman?
The wheels seem rapidly to be coming off the runaway freight train that was the effort to recall troubled Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  Nearly1,000,000 people affixed their names and addresses to a petition to initiate the unprecedented recall procedures against Walker.  But as of late April, Walker is polling at least 5 % HIGHER than his most likely opponent, Milwaukee’s mayor, Tom Barrett.  WTF?

Here is a brief recap of events since I last wrote about the Madison Uprising:

1.   Walker appointees refused to cooperate with a Federal John Doe investigation into Republican campaign violations.  To date several minions have been charged with felonies ranging from appropriation of public assets to promote Walker’s candidacy, to embezzlement of funds intended for the surviving families of veterans in the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, to enticing underage boys into sexual relationships over the internet.  Walker made some attempts to distance himself from the actions underlings took on his behalf, but those were undermined by the revelation that he had retained legal counsel from a firm renowned for its specialty in defending against white collar criminal cases.

2.   Waukesha County clerk Kathy Nickolaus resigned in her capacity as elections supervisor under severe public pressure.  Diligent readers may recall the Signs And Wonders attendant upon Nickolaus’ miraculous production of just barely the required number of votes to overturn the originally called results in the State Supreme Court race between JoAnne Kloppenberg and Nickolaus’ former boss, and Scott Walker darling, David Prosser.  No, the proximate causes of Nickolaus’ ouster didn’t include the broken seals, incorrect tracking batch numbers and torn ballot bags which were discovered during a contentious recount proceeding in the Kloppenberg race, but in the complete breakdown in the process of certifying the results of the recent Republican presidential primary.  Who’d have thought?  Public outrage does count for something, but only when it’s the outrage of Mitt Romney.

3.    Perhaps not incidentally, the self same Justice Prosser is currently the subject of disciplinary proceedings related to his alleged physical assault of another Supreme Court justice in chambers during deliberations.

4.   A Federal court has overturned the redistricting bills pushed through by Walker this last legislative session.  The court was unambiguous in decrying the GOP-drawn map as an effort to disenfranchise Milwaukee-area ethnic minorities.  In another case bearing upon voting rights, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has delayed implementation of Walker's controversial voter ID law until after the recall election, saying it will not be able to complete an adequate review before then.

5.   A Federal court has also overturned as unconstitutional many of the provisions of Walker’s stealth, union-busting bill that gave birth to this nest of monsters to begin with.  Critical union certification and funding provisions of that bill have been defeated, which is a big plus, but, pending possible repeal through the Wisconsin Legislature, severe limits regarding the scope of union negotiations remain.

This last point is a big (but note sole) cause of my discomfort.  Because, in my mind, it is a harbinger of doom for the Walker recall effort—though NOT for the reason most commenters think.

Veni, Vidi . . .
The preliminary procedural effort, the campaign to obtain 540k signatures to authorize the recall election, was in and of itself a spectacular and unqualified success.  Despite misgivings of professional pundits about the rarity of recall proceedings, and the timing of the campaign during the winter holidays, which typically curb turn-out at outdoor events of this sort, nearly million people signed the petition.  That means that, as of the dates they signed the petition, roughly 10% more voters wished to halt Scott Walker’s illegal power grab than actually voted for the Democratic candidate during the 2010 election.

Sic Transit Gloria One Day
That venom, that outrage is all just a memory now.  The Federal district court gave the public the sop they need to assuage their anger.  Public worker unions now have the right to nominal existence, albeit practically neutered by limits on its negotiating powers.  Wisconsin can now retire in dignity, having saved face, yet it has not really addressed the issue most offensive to right thinking people:  Scott Walker’s unrepentant disregard for democratic procedure.

Only a relative handful of the people signing the petitions are themselves union members, even fewer are members of public employee unions.  A statistically negligible portion are top-level union negotiators.  Apart from them, it seems, only the Righteous Before God feel any particular need to decisively defeat Evil.  And as Revelation 7 tells us, they total only 144,000 worldwide. 

Assuming an even geographic distribution proportionate to population density, that means roughly 0.000001 Righteous Voter in Wisconsin.  Not nearly enough to turn a Wisconsin election.  I highly doubt that Scott Walker loses much sleep over the hypothetical specter of a Righteous Voter upsetting the cart, not when he sees thousands of non-ideological voters deserting the recall effort daily.

Most pundits seem to feel that these defections were an unavoidable consequence of the Democratic Party’s stereotypical poor discipline, a confirmation that it is not so much an organized political faction as an ephemeral coalition of self-interested constituencies.

While I find that a plausible idea, it does seem curiously to make little of the notion that leaders are supposed to lead—that their failure to secure a stable following might be due to their lack of reliability and competence.  But then again, that proposition is at least 2,000 years old.  Perhaps that is why no one feels any particular need to call Tom Barrett out as a feckless whore.

Roman Precedent

In the five centuries of the Roman Republic, a sort of hierarchy of office eventually emerged whereby individuals in public service assumed ever greater responsibilities.  As they increased in age and experience, candidates were admitted to positions of more influence.  This succession of offices they termed the “Cursus Honorum”, that is, the “Honors Race”—the title of this article is a semi-satirical play on that term.
Over time Rome was called upon to intervene in the domestic affairs of neighboring city states, gradually and reluctantly at first, but then with increasing rapidity and eagerness.  The demands upon its leadership grew to such an extent that the pressures created a professional political class.

The Cursus Honorum now hardened into a definite, set progression of specific offices and requirements, whereas before it had merely been a pedagogical tradition for cultivating competent leadership, open to exception when need be to meet some immediate threat.  Few men could economically afford to devote themselves exclusively to public service.  Going forward, the top job, the consulship, would be open only to those of high aristocratic birth.  Outward, superficial qualifications became more important than deep intelligence or moral commitment.  The failed triumvir Mark Antony is literally the ultimate example of the Cursus’ shortcomings.

Mark Antony may have been a charming rogue, taken on his own terms: a drunken aristo given to hosting elaborate feasts and public spectacles.  Not a man you cross casually, but apparently willing to give and take within certain proscribed limits. Certainly diehard republicans in the Roman Senate saw him in this way.  There is good evidence that he was at least a passive participant in the plot to assassinate his controversial mentor, Julius Caesar.  This easy-going, pragmatic approach eventually sealed Antony’s doom and that of the Roman Republic.

Antony never had great respect for his younger rival, Gaius Octavius, and rarely made serious efforts to check the challenges Octavius offered him.  And why would he?  Antony himself had inherited command of Caesar’s most hardened troops and control of the financial resources of Egypt, the breadbasket of the Mediterranean.  Antony had already held the consulship, the pinnacle of the Cursus Honorum.  In the eyes of the world, he had achieved all these through unquestioned personal competence and success in the Cursus in the more-or-less traditional manner.

Gaius Octavius, on the other hand was little more than a grubby parvenu.  True, the patrician dictator Caesar had been his great uncle, but his paternal line was of very obscure equestrian origins.  During Antony’s first consulship he had not been of age even to assume the relatively junior position of quaestor.  And Octavius hardly distinguished himself by his conduct during the Battle of Philippi, where he is alleged to have hidden in the rear of his forces’ baggage train.  Not much of a challenge for Antony, in a direct mano-a-mano. 

But the ultimate showdown would NOT be a direct mano-a-mano.  Against all odds, this showdown was a comically desultory non-battle taking place in an obscure, strategically unimportant sea inlet in southern Greece:  Actium.  Antony was decisively defeated by what amounted to little more than a seaside dust up.

Modern military historians have a difficult time understanding just why Antony chose such an unpromising site for his final stand, but it seems obvious enough to political historians.  Seeing little danger in being overwhelmed by his inexperienced rival, Antony deemed it more important to maintain his dignity and make a show of the fact that he did not intend to attack Rome itself.  Therefore, he selected a battle site spectacularly unsuitable for launching such a campaign.  Antony was protecting the integrity of the Cursus Honorum.

Octavius’ stealthy contempt for convention and decorum secured him victory at Actium, and indeed served him well during his whole career.  Caesar raised Octavius above his native social station through a controversial posthumous adoption, and Octavius took full advantage, surrounding himself with a gang of ruthlessly competent conspirators who were bound to him by his newfound wealth and prestige, without regard to their pedigrees. 

One of these conspirators, Octavius’ best friend and future son-in-law, was Marcus Agrippa, perhaps the most spectacularly gifted general in Roman history, barring Caesar himself.  Although Octavius, now calling himself Augustus Caesar, was officially declared the victor of Actium in the celebrations that followed in Rome, it was clearly Agrippa who had been the true operational commander all along.

Wisconsin Decedent

How does any of this relate to Wisconsin’s 2012 recall election?  Quite simply, Wisconsin’s Democratic Party is showing a reverence for convention every bit as stupid and self-destructive as anything the doomed Mark Antony ever did at Actium.  They’re almost certain to nominate Tom Barrett, career politician from its largest in-state stronghold, Milwaukee. 

Anyone who knows Wisconsin knows that the mere mention of a Milwaukee mayor makes the vast majority of Wisconsinites cringe.  This state is overwhelmingly white, of northern European origins, and adherent to a vanilla Christian denomination like Lutheranism or Catholicism.  We are constitutionally conservative and bred for obedience to traditional authorities. 

In such a narrow world view, a Milwaukee mayor can only conjure up images of Mexican gangsters and big city greasebags--horrors to be resisted rather than novelties to be embraced.  Given any plausible excuse to abandon their awkward rebellion against a more familiar suburban greasebag like Scott Walker, we will.  We are not inclined to buck the system.

There is the supreme irony for you, because neither are Democratic activists.  They had the opportunity to nominate Peter Barca, the charismatic assemblyman from Kenosha, but that quickly received the kybosh.  Barca would have been a stunning candidate, maybe unbeatable in a general election. 

Barca could have commanded the loyalty of the unions in a way Barrett certainly won’t.  It was Barca who delivered the historic protest against Walker’s violation of the Open Meetings Law which inaugurated this whole sequence of events.  While Barca’s speech that night is immortalized for the ages on Youtube clips and newspaper accounts, Barrett might prefer to minimize his role in that little episode of Wisconsin history.  Barrett extracted piratical concessions from Milwaukee public service unions under the very Walker bill that he now pretends to disdain.

And who knows how many potential anti-Walker voters will fail to show up out of simple Barrett fatigue?  Barrett strung the media along for months, refusing to decisively commit to a gubernatorial candidacy until AFTER he’d taken the Milwaukee mayorship.  Will otherwise Democratic leaning Milwaukee voters be disgusted with this apparently premeditated and opportunistic turnaround?

There is another candidate running within striking distance of Barrett, former Dane County supervisor Kathleen Falk.  I plan to vote for her, though I do not think she will win.

Although Falk really doesn’t share Barrett’s substantive baggage, it’s still an open question whether she can overcome the perceived arrogance that clings to stereotypical images of Dane County / Madison people in the imagination of the average Wisconsinite.  As in all elections for at least the last 10 years, it is the non-ideological suburban and rural voter who will decide this race. 

Any objective review of Falk’s CV suggests that it is possible.  She is an accomplished woman.  The only problem being that politics are not objective.  Policy may be objective, but politics, never. 

It’s not a point of honor, but reality that Barca, a white male from outside of the Democratic charmed circles in Milwaukee or Madison, would have stood a much better chance of overcoming all of these obstacles and winning over flakey and unreliable “undecideds”.

That’s all water under the bridge now.  Barca announced, unequivocally that he had no intention of pursuing the nomination.  It’s an oddity that inevitably invites curious speculation but few satisfactory answers.  It’s understandable enough that the man may want to continue in his current position as assemblyman for Kenosha—he’s certainly demonstrated a particular zeal in that capacity.  I wouldn’t begrudge him or his constituents that.

Yet given the mediocrity of the leader of the pack, Barrett, I really have to wonder if that’s the whole story.  Barrett, like Barca, used to be a U.S. congressman.  The typical progression would have been to go on to the U.S. Senate—if one is willing to forego any theoretical presidential ambitions, given the historically poor performance of alumni as candidates.  Or, alternatively, if one is setting himself on a presidential track, a former congressman can run for governor of his state.  Which Barrett has actually done.  Twice already.  Failing both times.

Barca did neither of these things.  After working in public service and the private sector, he returned to the Wisconsin State Assembly and increased his involvement in local affairs.

My guess is that Barca received a polite “talking to”, by Wisconsin Democratic Party bigwigs, to discourage any notions union reps may have put into his head.  Like I said, Barca could have had tons of perfectly legitimate reasons to be reluctant, even before such a hypothetical “talk”, so it may not have taken much.  If Barca were sincere but perhaps more naïve man than I believe him to be, he may not even have been aware that this was a warning.

In any case, I’m sure that Barrett and the Democratic Machine are glad Barca didn’t run.  I’m sure that Scott Walker is, too.

1 comment:

  1. I was really hoping that Feingold would come galloping out of the wilderness on a white steed and go up against Walker. The Democratic party needs a lightning rod for votes if we are going to turn this ship around, not just the "same ol' same ol'." The outrage against Walker does not translate into support for Barrett.