What’s the Real Lesson of Wisconsin for Progressives?

Despite coming up short of retaking control of the Wisconsin Senate, Tuesday's recall elections sent a clear signal to conservative politicians who are using false pretenses to slash social safety nets, scapegoat public employees and immigrants and take away the rights of working people. The message: Beware. The public will no longer accept your abuses of power.

The fact that there were recall elections at all meant that voter anger overcame the typical inertia of off-cycle, special elections. Contrary to conventional assumptions, turnout in some areas was nearly 60 percent. Democrats were victorious in recalling two Republican senators and they were competitive in every single recall district, which is even more significant given the fact that when Obama carried Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008, Democrats did not win any of these seats. In fact, the GOP carried those districts with 55 percent.

Democrats may have won just two more seats, but they should not see that as the end. It should just be the beginning. Beyond the message sent at the polls, I believe we need to concern ourselves with another question: What lessons will labor and its community allies take away from these recall races? This question is vital. We miss a key opportunity if we measure our success based only on Election Day results and not also on our ability to build permanent progressive infrastructure at the state and local levels.

Currently, many things are going well on that front. Under the umbrella of an impressive political action committee called We Are Wisconsin (WAW), a coalition of unions, community groups and outraged citizens in the state have joined together to undertake voter education, grassroots lobbying and media advocacy activities. While progressives are often fractured, this organization has demonstrated an admirable degree of coordination among varied groups.

WAW is also innovative because of its independence from the Democratic Party. Labor and its allies have built a field operation functioning outside of party structures. They have raised money independently, tying funds first and foremost to progressive values, not to individual candidates. They have done so with a mission not solely of supporting any candidates who put a “D” next to their names, but rather of promoting an agenda that stands up for civil rights, essential public services and the ability for people to have a voice in their workplaces. Short of nominating candidates on their own ballot line, they have operated very much like a separate party in their campaign around the state senate recalls.

The question for WAW, now that the recall elections are over, is where to go from here. Thus far, the coalition has primarily – and necessarily – waged defensive fights, battles around the state budget and around ousting conservative senators who aided Gov, Scott Walker's power grab. But now, they have an opportunity to build in a more proactive way.

Their challenge is taking the impressive work they've done so far in building community-labor alliances and making sure it does not fall apart now that the polls are closed. Their challenge is to become more than just a conventional electioneering operation and instead, looking to the future, create a real organizing program on the ground.

Over the past several months, the focus of WAW has understandably been the recall election. But, already, they have planted seeds of what should be a strong, ongoing organization. They have gone door to door and talked with countless Wisconsinites. They have asked neighbors to vote, but also to get engaged in opposing the assault on workers' rights and defending the middle class. If done right, the energies of Election Day can be channeled into an organizing program that will continue to advocate for working people in the state. There will be a loud voice helping to ensure that politicians “do the right thing” once in office.

The people working most closely with the organization recognize that it would be a shame for WAW to disintegrate and then have to be recreated for the 2012 election cycle. Their challenge is to convince a wider set of allies to stay invested for the long haul. Inevitably, the operation will lose some funding, staff and attention when the high-profile recalls are over. To lessen the potential for a wholesale shutdown, those of us outside Wisconsin must continue to extend our support and enthusiasm. We must continue to spread the word that this is a fight that affects us all – and that it is not over.

Within the state of Wisconsin, public-sector unions will have to face the responsibility of rebuilding their own organizations. The need will be to convince officials in these unions that maintaining an investment in their neighborhoods through community issues is not a distraction from internal union organization or from building political power. Rather it is an essential asset in these tasks. Community-labor involvement and worker organizing cannot be seen as “either/or” options; they must be recognized as mutually beneficial.

A “day after” evaluation of the recall efforts should go beyond the traditional analysis of races and districts where campaigning was or was not successful. It should involve assessing how many future leaders were cultivated out of door-to-door mobilizations and how these people could be integrated into a long-term political operation. The product of such a review should include plans for leadership development, outreach and organizing connected to local and statewide issues. It should mean developing, among leaders and activists, a shared analysis, a shared vision and, ultimately, a shared program that people can take into 2012. Working for the future, together, is the best way for this newborn coalition to demonstrate that all of the work of the past months was not a one-time occurrence, but something that has the potential to be a positive force in shaping the future of Wisconsin politics.

The people of Wisconsin have made amazing progress in taking back their state. Yet, they still have plenty of work ahead of them to build a model for a new kind of political action based on independence, values and collaboration. All of us have an interest in seeing this model built – so we can defend the interests of working people from future attacks and we can take the offensive in advancing them.