Harry TargI have been thinking about Wisconsin a lot over the last week. Since I spent five days in Milwaukee visiting my daughter, by today’s journalistic standards, that time makes me an expert on Wisconsin. So I feel compelled to make a few comments on the outcome of the recent recall election in that state.
First, and perhaps most important, the forces supporting the incumbent Governor Scott Walker, the Lt. Governor, and three of four state senators also forced into recall elections were victorious because they had the most votes. Those of us on the Left as well as the other side and the so-called “mainstream” media have a propensity to over-theorize. We often forget that in any institutionalized competition some win and others lose. I don’t think that contests constitute a good way to organize public life, but in a society based on competition there are winners and losers.Second, Wisconsin has been a deeply divided political state. In fact, two important political figures in the state’s history personify the political divisions that shaped competition in the state and the United States at large for at least one hundred years. Senator Joseph McCarthy represented the outlook shared by many that government is the enemy of humankind. To further tyranny, subversive forces from time to time infest institutions with ideologies that are essentially anti-American. And to the contrary, Senators Robert LaFollette Senior and Junior represented that strand of political discourse that sees the possibility of creating governmental institutions that can protect the innocent from the criminal, provide for the less fortunate, and use public resources to advance human possibility. Descendants of both political traditions have fought it out over the years, often splitting national and state offices. And the battle of ideas that have their roots in these political figures has never been more intense than since 2010.
Third, according to exit polls sixty percent of the electorate opposed having the recall election at all. Apparently respondents felt that recall elections should be reserved for situations when incumbent politicians violated a public trust. And for these people supporting draconian policies to crush public sector unions, abolish equal pay for equal work, and reduce public health care and educational services did not measure up to allegations of criminality. These ideas were propagated in well-crafted television advertisements. It could be that a certain percentage of those who voted for Walker did so because they opposed the recall rather than supported his rule.Fourth, the leadership of the Democratic Party including the President himself remained absent from endorsement or work for the insurgent Barrett candidacy (Only the recycled and overrated Bill Clinton made a big splash near the end of the campaign and, as always, the important contribution of the Reverend Jesse Jackson was largely ignored by the media). From their point of view, since Barrett was bound to lose, active participation would damage the reelection chances of Barack Obama. Even if the “experts” in the party turned out to be correct, that Walker would be reelected, political elites should have followed the people. If masses of Wisconsin grassroots workers wanted to launch a campaign to recall Scott Walker, the leadership of the party should have taken a principled position and supported that decision.
Fifth, big money does matter. Millions of dollars were spent on advertisements that lied about the record of Scott Walker, misrepresented occasions for which recall elections are justified, slandered public employee unions, and misrepresented perspective policies of candidate Barrett including claims that the latter would “take away our guns.” But, in the long run infusions of money are more effective in shaping the day-to-day framing of news in the media between election campaigns as well as during them.However, as activists know, massive amounts of outside money do not always ensure election victories. Effective get-out-the-vote campaigns rely as much on grassroots organizing and personal contacts as media campaigns. And in the Wisconsin case there was effective organizing but not enough to achieve victory.
Sixth, progressives need to develop more effective ways to defend the centrality of public employment for today’s capitalist order as well as a new society. As Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren has argued, government, and by extension public sector work, has been fundamental to the development of industrial capitalism. Education, highway systems, and a broad array of public works have undergirded economic development in the twentieth century. And their decline rebounds negatively on employment rates, infrastructure, and the development of human capital. Public employee unions and collective bargaining are as essential for reversing the long recession as the organizing of industrial workers in the private sector in the 1930s.
Seventh, while the short-term impacts of the recall failure will not be great on Wisconsin workers (much of the damage has already been done and could not have been reversed before the November general election) and long-term impacts on the national election will also be limited, the major issue remains maintaining the organizing momentum created by the Wisconsin movement itself. Masses of young people, trade unionists, people of color, women and men, have been mobilizing for fifteen months. They have been enthusiastic, hard-working, single-minded, and have expressed an openness to each other. Their organization around a variety of the issues facing working people could still plant the seeds for building a progressive majority in the Heartland. The major deleterious effect of the failed recall is the possibility that the defeat will deflate the enthusiasm, energy, and will of the people, in Wisconsin and around the nation.In sum, then, the reasons for the recall defeat are varied. The impacts also are mixed. The Democrats did gain an additional seat in the State Senate, thus creating one body that will oppose the Walker administration. And, in all the commentary so far, no mention was made of the clear victory of workers in Ohio last fall, repealing that state’s recent anti-collective bargaining law. Perhaps, the only conclusion to be drawn from the Wisconsin election is that more grassroots organizing is needed. To paraphrase Joe Hill, don’t mourn, organize.