Beyond the Ballot Mania: Wisconsin Reflections

My initial strong enthusiasm for the public worker uprising in Madison, Wisconsin last February and March was not unqualified. Like many progressives within and beyond the Midwest, I was pleased to see masses of public sector union workers and their supporters stand up to resist the vicious legislative assault launched against organized labor’s collective bargaining rights and political power by the messianic capitalist Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (an almost cartoon-like tool of billionaire Tea Party sponsors Charles and David Koch) and his Republican legislature in the disingenuous name of deficit reduction. My wife Janet and I made two trips – one on February 19th and the other on March 12th, the day of the last giant Madison rally – to march alongside the Wisconsin rebels.


Election Clipboards Over Protest Posters


The final chapter of my new book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011) focuses significantly and quite positively on the Wisconsin uprising and is titled “Toward a Progressive Revival?” The book concludes on the following note: “hundreds of thousands of Midwestern workers and citizens [have] determined to leave their homes and televisions behind to make history from the bottom up. The answer to E.J.Dionne’s question ‘where are the progressives?’ [has been] found on the streets and legislative halls ofMadison and other state capitals across the American heartland.”


That’s no small endorsement from a jaded radical hope-skeptic like me. Still, my praise for the remarkable Wisconsin moment that followed in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution at the end of last winter came with four trepidations


* Concern that the rebellion was overly driven by Walker’s party 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 skepticism that current labor chiefs are willing to meaningfully protest anti-worker actions by Democratic policymakers.


Distress at the readiness of Wisconsin’s labor “leaders” to sign on to unjustified wage and benefit concessions demanded by Walker and at their willingness to engage in mass actions only because Walker and his legislature were attacking labor bosses’ right to enjoy upper middle class salaries rooted in the automatic union dues check-off.


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


* Fears 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 difficulties involved in such an effort and that failed recall efforts would help generate a false sense that Walker’s agenda was supported by most Wisconsin residents or at least not sufficiently opposed by those residents to make any difference.


I will never forget the command issued by one state Democrat speaking to tens of thousands of workers and their supporters outside the Madison Capitol Rotunda last March 12th: “Put down your [protest and strike] posters and pick up a [Democratic Party election/recall] clipboard.” The lefties with whom I had just spent the last two hours marching had been chanting on behalf of, among other things, a general strike – a potential massive worker action that actually received real hearing in Madison labor circles last February and March. A venerable Chicago radical within my earshot put it well as Democratic and labor “leaders” took to the microphones to lead a pre-recall election rally at the foot of the capitol  “ ‘okay thanks a lot, you can all go home now.’ ”


Ambiguous Results: This is What Democracy Looks Like?


Here we are five months later and much of the judicial-electoral strategy favored by the Wisconsin rebellion’s big Labor and Democratic coordinators has played itself out. There have been repeated lower court delays of Walker’s union-busting bill but the legislation remains in force since liberal and labor forces failed in the difficult effort to elect one of their supporters (Jo Ann Kloppenburg) to the state Supreme Court last April (in a contested battle that was officially certified at the end of last May). As the Huffington Post noted, “The election was widely seen as a referendum on Walker's move to strip collective bargaining rights from most state workers.”


Now Walker's antiunion bill has survived the massive labor-backed Democratic campaign to recall six of the Republican senators who backed Walker’s draconian assault on union power. Last Tuesday, at the end of a recall campaign that brought more than $30 million of outside political money into the state, four of those Republicans survived, leaving the state’s hard right G.O.P. with a 17-16 majority in the upper Wisconsin body. The labor PAC “We Are Wisconsin” spent close to $6 million on radio and television advertisements alone. But the Democratic recall candidate lost in four districts that Barack Obama took in November of 2008. The right wing Wall Street Journal Op-Ed writer and Bartley Fellow Matthew Payne mocks Walker’s enemies and crows as follows: “This spring, the battle cry of the pro-union protesters in Madison became, ‘This is what democracy looks like.’ But the results show that voters are no longer willing to be bullied into accepting union demands. This was the second major referendum on Scott Walker's policies, and both have ended up ratifying curbs on union power. That is what democracy looks like.” 


Not really. Besides all the business and union money involved in shaping the outcomes from the top down, the elections took place in six Republican districts, not the state as a whole, and Walker’s assault on unions remains highly unpopular with the majority of Wisconsinites. Turnout in the six districts was just 43 percent, less than the 50 percent who came out for the state’s gubernatorial race last fall and the nearly 70 percent that voted in the presidential election of 2008.


The Republicans’ self-congratulation is excessive. Taking down two heavily business-backed Republican senators in six mostly rural Republican districts (Obama won a larger number of  Republican and Independent voters and districts across the country in 2008) in special elections that did not have presidential or gubernatorial races at the top of the ticket to drive mass turnout is no small feat. Walker, who won by only 100,000 votes in November 2010, is not out of the woods: he could conceivably be defeated in the gubernatorial recall election that will take place next January if labor and Democrats can gather enough signatures (500,000 required) to force the contest. Last fall, Walker carried both of the districts in which Democrats prevailed Tuesday. Despite the four Democratic defeats, Democratic pollster Nathan Henry calculates that the party achieved a 7 percent swing in its direction, adding that “these are districts where Walker and other Republicans need to run up huge margins to win statewide, and what we saw last night was a pretty dramatic shift toward Democrats.”  As Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate noted in a message to reporters last Wednesday, “If we can do all of this against entrenched Republicans on their own turf, imagine our success … when all of Wisconsin can have its voice heard on Gov. Walker’s extreme, divisive agenda.”


Forcing the dedicated arch-plutocrat Walker to run in a presidential year and to defend his militantly reactionary and unpopular record across the state could yield a Democratic victory. “If last night’s election happened statewide instead of in Republican strongholds, Democrats would have crushed Republicans in a landslide,” says leading Democratic activist Adam Green. “Given that Walker will likely continue to push crazy ideas that hurt middle-class families,” Green adds, “I doubt enthusiasm for his recall will die down.”


Who’s Sitting In the Governor’s Mansion v. Who’s Sitting In


But how many more millions of dollars and how many activist hours and energy will this next recall extravaganza cost, with an uncertain outcome against massive business counter-funding and with the aim of putting in power the other state-capitalist austerity party, whose 2010 gubernatorial candidate Tommy Barrett went around the state beating up on public sector workers’ salaries and benefits? Like all major elections this battle will be fought on the business-tilted field of money-driven “dollar democracy.”  What if what business propagandists like Matthew Payne will call the “third major referendum on Governor Walker’s policies” (the Walker recall election) ends in yet another technical defeat for progressive hopes and dreams, leaving the plutocrats to mock labor and its supporters with elitist claims that “yet again, this is what [we radicals know to be corporate-managed fake] democracy looks like?” As Governors Quinn, Brown, and Cuomo in Illinois, California, and New York – all Democrats – show, moreover, neoliberal state executives from “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” (as former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips once aptly described the dismal Democrats) are also determined to roll back union power, wages, and benefits in less maximalist but nonetheless effective service to corporate paymasters and Wall Street dictates.


Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see Walker kicked out of office and I would certainly vote for that if I lived in Wisconsin and was given the chance to do cast a recall ballot. But imagine if you will tens of millions of dollars being spent not on electioneering (recall or other) and Democrats but instead on the rebuilding of rank and file working class movement culture and capacity beneath and beyond the staggered big money big media candidate-centered narrow-spectrum electoral spectacles the masters stage for us, telling us “that’s politics” – the only politics that matters. The banished American anarchist Emma Goldman had a point when she said that the ruling class would abolish voting if the ballot mania actually made any positive difference for the working class. The radical American historian Howard Zinn offered equally sage advice, arguing that “The really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”  Adding “or the  governor’s mansion” to “the White House’ in this quote, we should further consider the following related counsel from Zinn’s eloquent case against the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” in 2008:


“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.”


“…Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.”


“But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools…..”


“Let's remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush [or Scott Walker-P.S]), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House [or the Governor’s Mansion-P.S.] will find it dangerous to ignore…..Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. ….The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.”


The most exciting thing about the Wisconsin moment last late winter was the significant extent to which masses of workers and citizens seemed to be acting on an innate Zinnian understanding of the need to develop and expand popular rebellion from below, beneath and beyond elections (even specially called ones forced by labor-directed insurgency) and the direction of elites from either of the two dominant business parties. It is important that that spirit be kept alive whatever the “better” or “worse” outcome of elections and machinations of politicians.


Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com)is the author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008, described by John Pilger in 2009 as “perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States”) and The Empire’s New Clothes:  Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street’s sixth book, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, is Crashing the Tea Party Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO Paradigm. 2011).


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