The Heartbreak in Wisconsin

The triumph of Scott Walker and the Tea Party Republicans in Wisconsin is heartbreaking for the many thousands who devoted over one year of their lives to one of the most inspired social movements of the current century.

Electoral campaigns are governed by deadlines and voting results, unlike social movements, which can ebb and flow for decades. The pain of a stunning defeat like yesterday’s inevitably takes a psychic toll on its participants, similar in ways to a seven-game World Series. It takes time to recover, and some never will.

Politics never stops, however. If Democrat John Lehman wins a closely contested state Senate seat over Republican Van Wanggarrd, the Wisconsin Democrats will wrest majority control of that chamber from the Republicans, setting the stage for another showdown this November when 16 of 33 Senators will face election. The Legislature ordinarily is out of session during the summer, possibly limiting the ability of the new Democratic majority to foil Walker’s triumphal agenda.

But the big picture is disastrous for Democrats and progressives. Walker beat Democrat Tom Barrett solidly, 53%-46%, in a campaign fueled by unprecedented levels of corporate money. The Tea Party, which became relatively isolated during the Republican presidential campaign, is back in the saddle. Its Wisconsin triumph will embolden the fervent advocates of slashing social programs and deregulating the economy to become even more adamant during the coming national budget debates.

President Obama may benefit politically in the short-term if the Tea Party overplays its hand in the immediate budget and presidential debates. But Obama disillusioned many Democrats in Wisconsin by his “tepid support for the recall,” and the foolish White House argument “that he had a full plate and did not have time to come.” (New York Times, June 3, 2012) Obama still holds a slender lead over Romney in battleground states.


From the beginning there was a utopian expectation among many progressives that the recall effort was such a righteous cause that it was destined to succeed. One leader of the utopian faction was The Nation’s brilliant narrator John Nichols, who is described by his wife Mary Bottari as the most idealistic bearers of good tidings in progressive America. MSNBC pundits Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow were swept up in the drama as well, and expecting the election to be so close that returns would take all night. Michael Moore wrote that the Capitol Rotunda packed with protesters “would bring tears to your eyes if you saw it,” and that he was witnessing Corporate America’s “come-to-Jesus moment” in Wisconsin. Despite all the utopian hope, the Devil won big, and now it’s Lucifer’s turn to howl.

It was indeed an inspiring social movement, in its tenacity, scale, cross-section of activists, range of tactics, and permanent duration in spite of Wisconsin’s freezing snows. Wisconsin seemed to be the place where progressive Americans finally were drawing the line against anti-labor legislation, budget cuts, Tea Party extremism, and plutocrats like the Koch Brothers.

But at least one year ago there were internal labor polls showing the recall would be very difficult to win. There was no way, however, that a labor leader was going to stand in front of the social movement with a yellow flashing light. Instead, to its credit, labor chose to support the fight in the hope that the sheer will power of the activist campaign, or mistakes made by Walker, would overcome the odds.

Now the mic checks have to be put on hold long enough for a reality check.

The recall was a concrete test of whether reactionary or progressive populism (the traditions of Joseph McCarthy or Robert LaFollette) would prevail in a state where the vote is 85 percent white. White men voted 52 percent for Walker, compared to 53-54 percent of all women and 94 percent of African-Americans against him. Hidden in those stark numbers is a message that lots of white people are opposed to their taxes going to African-Americans or the poor, especially in a deep recession where they have no confidence in the government.

Neither were the majority of Wisconsin voters moved to throw out a governor they had just elected in 2010, only to replace him with a Democratic candidate they had rejected the same year, in spite of Walker’s unpopular handling of the crisis, these were the same voters that rejected a respected progressive senator, Russ Feingold, for a little-known pro-Tea Party Republican in that same year, 2010.

What happened, in sequence, was the Wall Street Crash on the eve of the 2008 election, followed by the historic vote for Barack Obama, who brought a circle of Wall Street advisers into his administration. Their stimulus package slowed the economic hemorrhaging but bailed out billionaires. Then Obama and the Democrats passed a compromised version of health care reform opposed by virtually all progressives, which seemed to raise hundreds of billions in taxpayer costs and expand government services for the poor – without much immediate dividend for the white middle class. Those factors, in the midst of a recession and fueled by racist hysteria at the election of a black president, gave rise to the Tea Party as a virulent counter-movement. McCarthyism triumphed in new form, with the Tea Party frothing over a foreign-born black Muslim sleeping in their White House.

It is possible, however, that the gloom will lift if Walker and the Tea Party go too far once again. An analogy might be Richard Nixon’s triumphant presidential victory in 1968 after the progressive left, the feminists and peace advocates had taken over the Democratic Party through the primaries which allowed citizen participation for the first time. McGovern was crushed, in part because his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was removed after 18 days after revelations that he had undergone shock treatments for a mental illness. That wasn’t the primary reason for McGovern’s huge defeat, though it broke his momentum for months. The key to Nixon’s success was the refusal of the mainstream media to pay major attention to the unfolding Watergate crisis until after the November election, and here is the similarity with Walker’s situation today. The newly elected Wisconsin governor is being investigated by prosecutors on serious charges of ethics violations. Now that the election is over, the question of possible criminal charges may gain greater public attention. As Nixon fell from triumph to disgrace, the same destiny might await Walker. It’s too early to know.

A more profound unknown is how organized labor will respond to the Wisconsin experience, with their numbers declining and campaign treasuries threatened if the Tea Party Republican keep surging. It is a true institutional crisis for labor and the Democrats, the greatest since the conflicts of the 1960s. The combination of Citizens United, a pro-corporate Supreme Court, and the Tea Party grip on Congress and many state houses, means that the crucial base of the Democratic Party’s campaign funding – organized labor – is facing extinction, with no comparable alternative in sight.

At the risk of offending liberal-left critics of Obama, he often is to the “left” of the Democratic Party establishment on most of these issues. True, he danced with the Republicans in the opening round of the budget debates, and that dance will continue. But he wants the Bush-era tax cuts to expire on incomes over $250,000 – against the opposition of Wall Street’s Sen. Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats. He wanted some sort of “public option” on health care – over the objections of Sen. Max Baucus and Senate Democrats. He once expressed interested in the Robin Hood Tax, but was undercut by his own economic team. He sought to regulate derivatives – but Barney Frank told him the votes weren’t there. And now Obama’s presidential campaign against Mitt Romney and Bain Capital is being openly derided by Bill Clinton, Ed Rendel, Deval Partick and Cory Booker, among many other powerful Democrats. It is hard to recall such backstabbing of an incumbent president by leaders of his own party during a re-election fight.

Since the Clinton era, the Democratic Party has joined the Republicans in seeking Wall Street contributions as finance capital has become the leading sector of the American economy. Wall Street is the top investor in the Romney campaign and its allied super PACs. And Wall Street is the “single largest source of cash for the national Democratic Party’s various campaign committees,” well head of entertainment and real estate developer donors. (New York Times, May 27, 2012) Given these polluted streams of campaign money, Obama is “cautious” in his criticisms of Wall Street while Romney is an “outspoken proponent of the industry’s agenda,” Edsall concludes.

Given these toxic trends, it is entirely possible that by November Tea Party-driven Republicans will control the White House, Supreme Court, and both houses of Congress, pushing the States towards a 1929-style crisis. Or Obama will be re-elected to govern alone in a sea of conservative followers of Ayn Rand and Democratic lifers too timid to fight.

The outcome in Wisconsin only makes that scenario more likely.  

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