Wisconsin Lessons

We're helping [Scott Walker], as we should. We've gotten pretty good at this over the years. We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more.


-          Right wing multibillionaire plutocrat David Koch, speaking to Palm Beach Post reporter Stacy Singer on February 11, 2012[1]



Wisconsin Worries


I struggled in recent months with the question of how to think and write about the labor-sparked struggle to recall Wisconsin’s noxious right-wing anti-union Tea Party Republican governor Scott Walker. My praise for the remarkable Wisconsin labor rebellion[2] that followed in the wake of the Walker’s attempt (ultimately successful) to pass a bill that eliminated Wisconsin public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights last year came with five basic caveats and qualifications:[3]


1. Concern that the rebellion was overly driven by Walker’s identity as a right-wing Tea Party super-Republican – a concern motivated by the belief that American workers and citizens need to develop the capacity to resist the regressive policies of both wings of the neoliberal Austerity Party, including the Democrats as well as the Republicans, and by doubts that labor chiefs were unwilling to meaningfully protest anti-worker actions by Democratic policymakers. (In 2010, it is worth noting, Walker’s Democratic recall opponent Tommy Barrett went around Wisconsin beating up on public worker salaries and benefits as part of his first failed campaign for the Wisconsin governor job).


2. Distress at the readiness of Wisconsin’s labor “leaders” to sign on to unjustified wage and benefit concessions demanded by Walker and a related sense that the labor officials were willing to engage in mass actions only because Walker was attacking their right to enjoy elite salaries rooted in the automatic union dues check-off.


3. Concern over the ease with which labor and political elites shut down rank and file protests and the potential for mass strikes and other forms of direct action, channeling popular energy into the dissipating avenues of legal challenge and electoralism on behalf of the other Austerity Party (the Democrats, whose top official Barack Obama opposed the Wisconsin protests). This, I worried, dropped the Wisconsin struggle into the ballot box, a timeworn “coffin of [working-] class consciousness” (to quote the late radical American historian Alan Dawley) in the United States, where politics has long been what John Dewey called “the shadow cast on society by big business.”


4. Fears (a) that planned labor and Democratic efforts to recall Walker and Republican state senators would come up short because of the immense money required for success and other difficulties involved in such an effort and (b) that a failed recall effort would help generate a false and (for progressives) demoralizing sense that Walker’s agenda was supported by most Wisconsin residents or at least not sufficiently opposed by those residents to make any difference.


5. A reluctance to see untold millions of union and progressive dollars spent on the plutocratic major-party election game – money that would be better invested in developing enhanced capacities for working class organizing and action beneath and beyond big money, candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas that are ultimately about marginalizing the populace and enshrining (while cloaking) the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase),


At various times over the last year, however, I have wondered if I should write a piece in which I ate some crow regarding my skepticism toward the labor-backed recall campaign. Let’s be real, I reflected…this is not the standard bourgeois electoralism. It would be a hell of a thing – a major progressive victory – to recall a sitting governor because of his attack on organized labor. The recall campaign, I had to acknowledge, was about policy, not candidates. It was a safe bet that whichever Democrat the recall forces put up against Walker in June – that turned out to be the aforementioned Tommy Barrett, not the union favorite Kathleen Falk – would, if elected, be inclined and/or compelled to work to repeal the anti-labor bill that Walker rammed through last year (the legislation that sparked the Wisconsin rebellion). And that, it seemed fair to say, would be no small popular triumph.


No Crow: Harsh Realities


I ended up resisting the inclination to write that imagined crow-eating piece for two interrelated reasons: (i) disgust at the tepid and uninspiring centrism of Tommy Barrett, who insisted on denying that he was a “union candidate” and refused to criticize Walker’s regressive austerity agenda; (ii) my sense that the argument behind the imagined essay, was contingent upon a recall victory – a victory that struck me as highly unlikely given some very harsh technical, monetary, political and ideological realities. One such reality was that, under the state’s recall law, a governor, but not his opponent, is released from the standard contribution limit of $10,000 per individual donor until the moment a recall is formally announced. That moment came at the end of March, 2012. By that time, Walker had already picked up political down payments as high as $500,000 (!) from some individuals.


To make matters yet worse for the recall effort, the absurdly campaign finance-disadvantaged Barrett had already been trounced once by Walker and offered little in the way of charisma and attraction to compensate for his failure to enunciate progressive ideals. Recalls are highly uncommon (Walker is just the third governor to face one) and tough to pull off. The bar for a recall – a sort of popular impeachment – is pretty high. It’s considerably harder to get people to recall an elected official between the standard election dates that than it is to get them to vote against that official when the next normal date comes. To recall somebody, there generally has to be some sense that he did some very specific sort of egregiously act of corruption or misbehavior – something like Rod Blagojevich trying to sell Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat. A considerable majority of Wisconsin voters think that recalls should be reserved only for misconduct. Less than a third supported recalls for any reason other than misconduct.[4]


It is certainly true that Walker could reasonably be accused of misconduct for a number of reasons: violation of the state’s opening meeting law when he rammed his anti-union bill through; an open admission (to a liberal blogger posing as David Koch in a brilliant telephone sting) that he had considered bringing in “troublemakers” to spread chaos during peaceful protests against that bill; his brazen breaking of contracts with a train company that was working to provide high speed rail service between Madison and Milwaukee; his granting of giant tax breaks to wealthy investors and corporations even while he rails against the state’s budget deficits; and a slew of corrupt practices during and relating to his years at the head of Milwaukee’s county board. Thanks in part to the Milwaukee and Wisconsin media’s reluctance to portray this behavior as serious misconduct, however, Walker’s corrupt record never quite rose to recall-worthy levels for most voters in the state.


Most depressing of all was the problem of the disturbing unpopularity of unions in America – a reflection of the fact that “twice as many people (68%) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34%). Amazingly,” the astute left commentator Doug Henwood notes, “in Wisconsin, while only about 30% of union members voted for Walker, nearly half of those living in union households but not themselves union members voted for him.”[5]



This is What Plutocracy Looks Like


Well, Walker won, decisively – beating the hapless Barrett by a margin that surprised even confident state Republicans. His supporters are once again mocking the Madison protestors’ 2011 chant “this is what democracy looks like,” saying, well, that “this” – Walker’s latest victory over Barrett – “is what democracy look like.”  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. The recall campaign has been what plutocracy – the aforementioned “unelected dictatorship” – looks like, with a vengeance. Here is a nauseating report from Truthout a few days ago (pardon the lengthy quotation – I prefer not to have to write up this revolting material in my own hand):


“The June 5 Wisconsin recall vote is just days away, and Republican and Republican Gov. Scott Walker has raised more campaign cash than any candidate in Wisconsin history, with more than $31 million raised since he took office in January 2011. Walker's war chest, which grew by a whopping $5.9 million in the past five weeks, dwarfs that of his Democratic opponent, former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who's fundraising total of $4.2 million in comparison had Wisconsin Democrats scolding their party's national leadership” (emphasis added).

“Walker has spent more than $20 million campaigning to stay in office and has raised nearly that much since January, but hefty donations to Walker's campaign coffers aren't the only source of big money support for the governor who stripped most of Wisconsin's public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Political Action Committees (PACs) and nonprofit front groups have allowed the Koch brothers and other corporate sources of out-of-state cash to funnel millions of dollars into Wisconsin for campaign initiatives and television ads promoting Walker and his pro-business, union-busting agenda.”

“The Republican Governor's Association (RGA) has spent more than $8 million in Wisconsin on television ads attacking Barrett and supporting Walker through its Right Direction Wisconsin PAC, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.”

“Earlier this year, David Koch of Koch brothers fame gave the RGA $1 million and Koch Industries, the massive petrochemical and commodities conglomerate owned by David and his brother Charles, has pumped more than $2 million into the RGA so far this year…The RGA is running so-called "issue ads" and is not required to reveal its donors. The group has said that donations are not necessarily earmarked for specific purposes, but the Koch brothers have not been shy about their support for Walker and the RGA. Earlier this year, David Koch told a Florida newspaper, ‘We're helping him, as we should. We've gotten pretty good at this over the years. We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more.’"

“Two other Koch-funded groups, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and its partner think tank the MacIver Institute, are also campaigning in support of Walker's policies with the ‘It's Working Wisconsin’ campaign, which spent $1.2 million on television ads last year urging voters not to sign petitions to put Walker up for a recall. AFP also spent at least $1.5 million earlier this year on television ads in several Wisconsin cities, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC).”[6]

Here is a chart that says a lot from last Tuesday’s New York Times (bottom right hand corner of page 11):

Millions Spent in Recall Election












Gov. Scott Walker   

$29.3 million

Tom Barrett        

$2.9 million

Independent Expenditure Groups






Right Direction Wisconsin (Republican Governors’ Association)


Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund



National Rifle Association


Wisconsin for Falk (supported Kathleen Falk, a Democratic primary candidate)



Ending Spending Action Fund


We Are Wisconsin







Issue Ad Groups






Americans for Prosperity


Greater Wisconsin Political Fund



Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce





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