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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Citizen Dave: Democrats will have to figure out how to win without unions
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The big public employee unions are not the political power houses they once were. The sooner the Democratic Party of Wisconsin comes to grips with this reality the sooner it can recover its footing.

The Citizens United decision was a huge blow to democracy. It essentially said that money talks so loudly that it deserves protection via the First Amendment. Money equals speech, declared the U.S. Supreme Court, and therefore faces strict limits on its regulation. As a result, big business can contribute pretty much all they want to influence the outcome of elections, and so can unions.

If there was any solace in that horrible 5-4 decision, it was that big corporate money going mostly to Republicans could be somewhat balanced out by big union money going mostly to Democrats.

This is precisely why Governor Scott Walker went all out to kill the big state and local public employee unions (AFSCME and WEAC). It wasn't about getting contract concessions to balance the state budget or giving local governments the "tools" they needed to deal with his cuts in state aid payments. It was about leaving the post-Citizens United field wide-open to corporate interests who could spend all they wanted to buy elections without any credible force on the other side. This is what makes Walker a hero on the Republican right, and what makes him a credible candidate for that party's nomination for president.

As awful as all that is, the damage has been done and there isn't much chance that it will be reversed quickly. There is little likelihood that the big unions regain their influence in Wisconsin anytime soon. For example, once a big player in Democratic campaigns, WEAC spent only about $1,300 in last fall's elections. So, the Democratic Party has to find some way to adjust.

So the party needs to figure out how to function in a post-Act 10 world. There are at least a couple of things it can do.

First, the party has a chance to update its image and rhetoric. Because the Dems were so wedded to the unions it skewed their message in a way that made it harder for the party to resonate with non-union voters, which is most of us. Only 11% of Wisconsin workers (PDF) are union members. That's less than the national average and half what it was 25 years ago.

And the leaders of AFSCME and WEAC often talked in a way that made you think they were representing Appalachian coal miners in 1913 rather than government office workers and public school teachers in 2013. As I've said in a number of my posts over the last year, the unions need to adapt their image and messaging to a new reality if they're ever going to recover. They need to tell a convincing story about how unions benefit people who don't belong to one.

Second, the party is probably forced into developing a larger base of relatively small individual contributors. The party still has major contributors in the form of trial lawyers, but the funding gap left in the wake of the weakening of the big unions will be hard to fill. The answer is to strengthen the party's small, individual contributor base. That probably means less money overall, but perhaps a more active base and a more entrepreneurial approach by party leaders.

It's not a pretty picture for the Democratic Party. The Citizens United decision and Act 10 have dealt the party a huge one-two blow. But it won't be a knock out if the party recognizes the new reality and gets creative about adapting to it.

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