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The Wisconsin Recall


Former South Central Wisconsin Labor Federation president Jim Cavanaugh, in a piece on the Labor Notes website which was reprinted on Znet, raised some astute points regarding Republican governor Scott Walker’s success in garnering votes from unionized and lower wage working citizens of Wisconsin in the recent recall election.  Part of Walker’s success with these voters, even while he has pursued a pro-business, anti-labor agenda, relied on playing on and stoking the prejudices of people across broader Wisconsin against (1) Milwaukee, the largest and least-white city in the state, where the Democratic candidate Tom Barrett is mayor; and (2) Madison, the state capital, site of the flagship University of Wisconsin campus, and the cradle of the demonstrations which erupted against Walker in the winter of 2011 and which led to the recall campaign.  Another component of Walker’s triumph, in Cavanaugh’s view, is that “…the Republican message of small government and low taxes resonates every time a worker pays sales tax, property tax, or income tax.”

One vision of Madison counterposed to Walker’s portrayal is embodied in the “Wisconsin Idea,” promoted by progressive Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette in the early twentieth century.  The Wisconsin Idea envisioned strong investments in the University of Wisconsin system to open up opportunities and develop practical knowledge in many fields for citizens across the state.  It led to the development expansion of the University of Wisconsin system as a series of affordable, quality educational institutions, anchored by UW-Madison, which enriched the state’s citizenry on a cultural level, while providing practical research and the underpinnings for a skilled workforce.  But in line with educational institutions around the country, the UW system is becoming less affordable for students from lower and moderate income households.  The government-squeezing policies culminating in Walker which have harmed the interests of working class students in attaining a quality education at an affordable price, have diminished both pride in the system and belief in its benefits.  Somewhat ironically, this strengthened Walker in stoking antipathy against Madison as far removed from the rest of the state.

With regard to reaching out to financially strapped wage earners about taxes, Cavanaugh states, “We can get started right away …. Not by promising tax cuts, but rather tax fairness. At every level of government in the United States our tax structure is one of the most regressive in the world.”

Getting a clear, coherent message out for tax fairness to lower wage workers with a firm political commitment from Tom Barrett to do something about it would have swayed some of these voters, Cavanaugh convincingly argues.  Interestingly, Cavanaugh does not believe that the obscene amount of money which flooded into the recall election so heavily in Scott Walker’s favor had much of an effect on the outcome:  “[P]re-election polling and Election Day exit polling showed that the vast majority of voters had taken their positions months before the serious campaigning. So, the money and the celebrities made little difference. And people were already as informed on the issues as they wanted to be.” 

But the money seems to have been spent in effectively identifying issues and getting Walker’s messages out to voters in ways that pushed their buttons, with television ads as a primary vehicle.  Money made it possible for Walker’s campaign to run focus groups and hone its image to its target audiences. 

Still, Cavanaugh’s prescription of reaching out within the working class and talking about core issues in a coherent and powerful manner is crucial for turning the tide.  Regardless of how much money is on the side of the Walkers of the world, or the Obamas or Romneys for that matter, solidarity and education can trump cynical branding, especially for people who are getting shafted.

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