Why Electoral Politics Sold Out the Popular Uprising in the Badger State — and Why It’s Not All Over
The revelers watched in stunned disbelief, cocktails in hand, dressed for a night to remember. On the big-screen TV a headline screamed in crimson red: “Projected Winner: Scott Walker.” It was 8:49 p.m. In parts of Milwaukee, people learned that news networks had declared Wisconsin’s governor the winner while still in line to cast their votes. At the election night party for Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, supporters talked and cried and ordered more drinks. Barrett soon took the stage to concede, then waded into the crowd where a distraught woman slapped him in the face.
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Walker is the first governor in American history to win a recall election. His lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, dispatched her recall challenger no less decisively. So, too, did three Republican state senators in their recall elections. Democrats avoided a GOP sweep with a win in the sixth and final senate recall vote of the season, in Wisconsin’s southeastern 21st district, but that was small consolation. Put simply, Democrats and labor unions got rolled.
The results of Tuesday’s elections are being heralded as the death of public-employee unions, if not the death of organized labor itself. Tuesday’s results are also seen as the final chapter in the story of the populist uprising that burst into life last year in the state capital of Madison. The Cheddar Revolution, so the argument goes, was buried in a mountain of ballots.
But that burial ceremony may prove premature. Most of the conclusions of the last few days, left and right, are likely wrong.
The energy of the Wisconsin uprising was never electoral. The movement’s mistake: letting itself be channeled solely into traditional politics, into the usual box of uninspired candidates and the usual line-up of debates, primaries, and general elections. The uprising was too broad and diverse to fit electoral politics comfortably. You can’t play a symphony with a single instrument. Nor can you funnel the energy and outrage of a popular movement into a single race, behind a single well-worn candidate, at a time when all the money in the world from corporate “individuals” and right-wing billionaires is pouring into races like the Walker recall.
Colin Millard, an organizer at the International Brotherhood of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, admitted as much on the eve of the recall. We were standing inside his storefront office in the small town of Horicon, Wisconsin. It was night outside. “The moment you start a recall,” he told me, “you’re playing their game by their rules.”
From Madison to Zuccotti Park and Beyond
A recap is in order.
The uprising began with Colin Millard. The date was February 11, 2011, when Walker “dropped the bomb,” as he later put it, with his “budget repair” bill, which sought to gut collective bargaining rights for most public-employee unions, Later that day, a state Democratic Party staffer who knew Millard called him and pleaded with him to organize a protest. Millard agreed, even though other unions, including the AFL-CIO, urged him to back out. Don’t make a fuss, they advised. Let’s call some lawmakers and urge them to oppose Walker’s bill. “Fuck off,” was Millard’s response.
On the Sunday after Walker unveiled his bill, Millard rounded up more than 200 people and marched down Lake Street, past the John Deere factory and Dannyboy’s Bar, to the home of Republican Jeff Fitzgerald, the speaker of the state Assembly and a Walker ally. Fitzgerald lived a mile or two from Millard in Horicon. “I’ve got a message for Scott Walker,” Millard told the crowd outside Fitzgerald’s house. “This is my union card and you can pry it from my cold, dead hand.”
As rumors spread of more protests, Walker threatened to call out the National Guard to deal with the protesting public workers. That’s when popular outrage erupted. Students marched on the state capitol, and then a local teaching assistants union led the effort to take over the capitol rotunda, transforming intermittent protests into a round-the-clock occupation. Organizers provided food, shelter, health care, day care, education, and a sense of purpose for those who had taken up residence inside the capitol.
In support of the occupiers, the daily protests outside the capitol grew into crowds of 10,000, 25,000, then upward of 100,000. People marched in the snowy streets to challenge Walker, Wisconsin Republicans, and their political donors. Tractors circled the capitol in protest, as did firefighters and cops, even though their bargaining rights had been exempted from Walker’s “reform” proposals. By now, Madison had captured the nation’s attention.
A two-week occupation of the capitol and months of protests didn’t, however, deter Walker and Republican lawmakers. He signed his budget repair bill, known as Act 10, into law in March. But that doesn’t mean the Wisconsin uprising had no effect. For one thing, the “Walkerville” occupation of the grounds outside the state capitol helped inspire the “Bloombergville” protest in New York City targeting Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That, in turn, would be a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street events of the following September and later the Occupy movement nationwide. Without Wisconsin, without the knowledge that such things could still happen in America, there might never have been an Occupy.
Hijacking the Uprising
By the time Occupy Wall Street took off, the Wisconsin uprising had swapped its come-one-come-all organizing message for a far narrower and more traditional political mission. Over the summer of 2011, the decision was made that the energy and enthusiasm displayed in Madison should be channeled into recall elections to defeat six Republican state senators who had voted for Walker’s anti-union Act 10. (Three Democratic senators would, in the end, face recall as well.) By that act, Democrats and unions hoped to wrestle control of the senate away from Walker and use that new power to block his agenda.
The Democrats won two of the 2011 recalls, one short of gaining control of the Senate, and so the Republicans clung to their majority.
What followed was more of the same, but with the ante upped. This time, the marquee race would be the recall of Walker himself. Launched last November, the grassroots campaign to recall the governor put the populist heart of the Wisconsin uprising on full display. Organizing under the United Wisconsin banner, 30,000 volunteers statewide gathered nearly one million signatures to trigger the election. The group’s people-powered operation recaptured some of the spirit of the Capitol occupation, but the decision had been made: recalling Walker at the ballot box was the way forward.
The Walker recall effort would, in fact, splinter the masses of anti-Walker protesters. Many progressives and most of the state’s labor unions rallied behind former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk who, in January 2012, announced her intent to challenge Walker. Tom Barrett, who had lost the governor’s race to Walker in 2010, didn’t announce his candidacy until late March, his entry pitting Democrat against Democrat, his handful of union endorsements pitting labor against labor. Unions pumped $4 million into helping Falk clinch the Democratic nomination. In the end, though, it wasn’t close: Barrett stomped her in the May 8th primary by 24 percentage points.
By now, the Madison movement was the captive of ordinary Democratic politics in the state. After all, Barrett was hardly a candidate of the uprising. People who had protested in the streets and slept in the capitol groused about his uninspired record on workers’ rights and public education. He never inspired or unified the movement that had made a recall possible — and it showed on Election Day: Walker beat Barrett by seven percentage points, almost his exact margin of victory in 2010. Democrats and their union allies needed to win over new voters and old enemies; by all accounts they failed.
And had Barrett by some miracle won, after a few days of celebration and self-congratulation, those in the Madison movement would have found themselves in the same box, in the same broken system, with little sense of what to do and, in a Barrett governorship, little hope. Win or lose, there was loss written all over the recall decision.
The Fate of the Uprising
The takeaway from Walker’s decisive win on Tuesday is not that Wisconsin’s new populist movement is dead. It’s that such a movement does not fit comfortably into the present political/electoral system, stuffed as it is with corporate money, overflowing with bizarre ads and media horse-race-manship. Its members’ beliefs are too diverse to be confined comfortably in what American electoral politics has become. It simply couldn’t be squeezed into a system that stifles and, in some cases, silences the kinds of voices and energies it possessed.
The post-election challenge for the members of Wisconsin’s uprising is finding a new way to fight for and achieve needed change without simply pinning their hopes on a candidate or an election. After all, that’s part of what absorbed the nation when a bunch of students first moved into the Wisconsin state capitol and wouldn’t go home, or when a ragtag crew of protesters camped out in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and wouldn’t leave either. In both cases, they had harnessed the outrage felt by so many Americans for a cause other than what’s usually called “politics” in this country.
And they were successful — even in the most traditional terms; that is, both movements affected traditional politics most strongly when they weren’t part of it. The Occupy movement, for all its flaws, moved even mainstream political discourse away from austerity and deficit slashing and toward the issues of income inequality and the hollowing out of the American middle and working classes.
Avoiding politics as we know it with an almost religious fervor, Occupy still managed to put its stamp on national political fights. Last October, for instance, Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to repeal SB 5, a law that curbed collective bargaining rights for all public-employee unions. Occupy’s “We are the 99%” message reverberated through Ohio, and the volunteers who blitzed the state successfully drew on Occupy themes to make their case for the law’s repeal. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which spent $500,000 in Ohio fighting SB 5, told me at the time, “Every conversation was in the context of the 99% and the 1%, this discussion sparked by Occupy Wall Street.”
The money that flowed into Walker’s recall fight speaks loudly to the disadvantages a Wisconsin-like movement faces within the walls of electoral politics and the need for it to resist being confined there. On the post-Citizens United playing field, the unlimited amounts of the money that rose to the top of this society in recent decades, as the 1% definitively separated itself from the 99%, can be reinvested in preserving the world as it is and electing those who will make it even more amenable. The advantage invariably goes corporate; it goes Republican.
Historically, the Republicans have long been the party of big business, of multinational corporations, of wealthy, union-hating donors like Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Amway heir Dick DeVos — and in recent decades the Democrats have followed in their wake sweeping up the crumbs (or worse). And here’s the reality of a deeply corrupt system: unless Congress and state legislators act to patch up their tattered campaign finance rulebooks, the same crew with the same money will continue to dominate the political wars. (And any movement that puts its own money on changing those rules is probably in deep trouble.)
In the wake of the recall losses, the people of Wisconsin’s uprising must ask themselves: Where can they make an impact outside of politics? The power of nonviolent action to create social and economic change is well documented, most notably by Jonathan Schell in his classic book The Unconquerable World. The men and women in Schell’s invaluable history — Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his civil rights fighters, the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, and so many others — can serve as guides to a path to change that doesn’t require recall elections. Already mainstays of the Madison protests have suggested campaigns to refuse to spend money with businesses that support Walker. “Hit ’em where it hurts. Pocketbooks,” C.J. Terrell, one of the Capitol occupiers, recently wrote on Facebook.
Wisconsinites could also turn to one of their own: Robert “Fightin’ Bob” La Follette. He created his own band of “insurgents” within the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Republican Party. Together they formed the Progressive Party, which fought for workers’ rights, guarded civil liberties, and worked to squeeze corruption out of government.
Ultimately, however, the decision on what comes next rests in the hands of those who inspired and powered the Wisconsin uprising. And with an emboldened Governor Walker, there should be no shortage of reasons to fight back in the next two years. But success, as Tuesday’s election made clear, isn’t likely to come the traditional way. It will, of course, involve unions; it might draw on state and local political parties. But in the end, it’s in the hands of the people again, as it was in February 2011.
The future they want is theirs to decide.