It is election night in Madison, Wis., and I am standing where it all began, in front of the state Capitol here in the heart of America’s rebel dairyland.
Earlier today was the recall election against Gov. Scott Walker, the viciously right-wing governor whose legislative attacks on public workers and unions sparked a grassroots rebellion in early 2011 involving hundreds of thousands of angry Wisconsinites. The Wisconsin uprising, through its occupation of the Capitol and its sheer massive numbers, inspired people across America and beyond to fight for economic justice in bold new ways, paving the way for Occupy Wall Street in the fall.
For me, the movement was as beautiful as it was personal — I’d gone to college in Madison, taught in the Milwaukee public schools, organized events in Green Bay. Scott Walker was attacking my old teachers, my students, my friends. But they fought back, and hell, it looked like they – we! – might actually turn the tide against decades of corporate rule. Standing here outside the Capitol on election day, amidst the glorious Solidarity Singers leading 1,000 people in rousing versions of “Eyes on the Prize” and “Union Maid,” the smell of hope was strong in the summer air.
And then the results came in.
Walker 53%, Barrett 46%.
I saw the blood drain from a thousand faces all at the same time. It wasn’t pretty. A massacre never is, not even an electoral one.
If the initial Wisconsin uprising offered the best of American politics, the failed recall election offered the worst. In the post-Citizens United world of unlimited, unknown campaign contributions, Walker raked in the corporate cash and spent over $30 million dollars, more than eight times the amount of his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. This election wasn’t about voters — it was about funders. And campaign strategists, poll numbers, and – let’s be honest – the choice between one terrible politician and one mediocre one. Here was the real tragedy of Wisconsin: how the Democratic Party and bureaucratic labor leaders took a burgeoning, once-in-a-generation grassroots movement and turned it into another dead-end campaign of party politics.
Democrats will counter with the only silver lining in last week’s election, their victory in one of the six State Senate recall races. Yes, the Democrats having control of the Senate will prevent Walker from pushing the worst of his austerity-on-steroids agenda. The truth, however, is that Walker now has a mandate – or at least, the appearance of a mandate, which is all that matters – and across the country, the bankers and big-business lobbyists are salivating at the mouth thinking about what they’ll do next.
What will this look like, from Wisconsin to your home state? Remember all the recent attacks on public education, on public workers, on private workers, on unemployed workers? The divide-and-conquer assaults on immigrants, on black folks, on women…basically on everyone who’s not a Koch brother billionaire? Expect all those attacks to escalate at every level, from Congress eliminating food stamps all the way down to your local school board eliminating, well, schools.
Expect Republicans AND Democrats to come after whatever’s left of workers rights and union protections — and expect many voters to support them in a self-destructive race to the bottom. Expect more racialized violence, like Trayvon Martin, or more recently, the 75-year-old white man who killed an innocent black teenager in front of his mother in Milwaukee. Expect full-scale privatization of education like Philadelphia; a relentless assault on immigrants like Arizona and Alabama; more Congressional cries of ‘belt-tightening’ all while doling out billions to Wall Street banks and Pentagon weapons contractors.
Perhaps most dangerously, the current right-wing offensive is not just attacking progressive issues but coming after the organizational infrastructure of the progressive movement itself. That’s what the successful destruction of ACORN was about a few years ago. That’s what is driving the ongoing war on Planned Parenthood. As for Wisconsin, the Republicans went after the largest (in terms of members, reach, and money) force left on the Left: the public sector unions.
Despite all its flaws, the labor movement remains the most organized constituency to defend everyday, working people against total corporate tyranny. And organized rich people (the Chamber of Commerce, ALEC, the Bill O’Reilly fan club) don’t like organized working people. So for the last 40 years, they’ve been attacking the labor movement from every direction possible. Union membership is now at its lowest rate in a century (12% overall, just 7% in the private sector), with some critics saying organized labor is on its deathbed. Unions, however, aren’t dying of natural causes — they’re being systematically eradicated. And the consequences won’t be felt just by unionized teachers and janitors — we’re all going to feel the pain.
Unless we learn the lessons from Wisconsin, both the good and the bad.
The grassroots uprising drew its power from organizing OUTSIDE the traditional, restrictive rules of mainstream politics. When people were mobilizing to the Capitol every week – first 5,000, then 20,000, then 150,000 people taking radical direct action – the momentum was there, and for a short time at least, Walker and the right-wing machine were on the defensive. A year later, though, in the lead-up to the recall election, all the forces were back in favor of the 1%: the money, the media, the messaging. We were back to playing on their terms, instead of creating our own. And when you’re playing alongside the Democratic Party, trust me, it’s not your party anymore.
I’m no electoral strategist, so I’ll keep my recall analysis to the meat and potatoes: the Democrats had a weak candidate, no coherent message, and ran a terrible campaign. Tom Barrett is a corporate centrist who had lost to Walker two years earlier. In the recall election, Barrett offered only a softer version of austerity, not a true alternative. The most revealing, painful statistic in the recall exit polls was that 38% of union-household voters went for Walker. How could so many union folks vote for the guy who is trying to break their back? Take 40 years of dominant right-wing ideology that has working-class people believe they have more in common with TV millionaires than their own neighbors, add in the failure of the Democrats and the unions themselves to offer a counter-narrative, and sadly, it’s not that surprising anymore.
If the recall had been just one part of a larger strategy to transform Wisconsin, it would have been successful even if it lost. The problem is that became the only strategy, and now with loss after loss at the polls, the Cheddar Revolution is struggling to survive. On the other side of the tactical spectrum, we have the withering Occupy movement, which is so notoriously hostile to strategic campaigns, coalition building, and real community organizing that it has become increasingly aimless and irrelevant. Is this our choice in the movement for economic justice? Between what became the top-down, tightly controlled strategy in Wisconsin and the leaderless, sporadic tactics of what’s left of Occupy?
If that is my choice, then my vote is to act like the greedy American I am: I want both. I want smart strategy AND direct democracy. Bank occupations AND lobby visits. A radical vision AND practical steps to get us there. We need democratic, accountable, and inclusive leadership that is independent of the Democratic Party. We need militant, progressive unions, community organizations, and coalitions led by the grassroots, not unelected bureaucrats and executive directors.
We need organizations that will fight, and fight to win! Groups like CLASSE, the Quebec student union leading the amazing, three-month long strike of over 300,000 students; like the Chicago Teachers Union, which is standing up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel; like UNIDOS, the Chicano student group in Tucson fighting Arizona’s ban on Mexican American Studies (and Mexicans in general); and yes, like the proposed progressive councils in small towns across Wisconsin.
To my friends in Wisconsin: take this week to mourn, but after that, it’s back to work. In the wake of Walker’s victory, we cannot afford to demobilize. That is what the Left did after George W. Bush won/stole the presidency, and we know how that worked out. In truth, we would have needed to keep organizing if Barrett had won too. The Left demobilized again after Barack Obama won the presidency, and well…
Elections are critical, but what’s more critical is the grassroots organizing that has nothing to do with party politics and everything to do with building our own power. What next for Wisconsin? For Occupy? The presidential election in November is there tempting us, but rather than focus on Obama vs. Romney (also known as the 1% vs. the .01%), let’s direct our energies back to Milwaukee and Eau Claire. Focus on Oakland and Chicago and Arizona. Focus on the people. Listen as much as we lead. Organize as much as we occupy. Try to turn that pro-Walker 38% into a pro-people 99%.
It’s going to be a long fight, folks. The 1% just landed a powerful sucker punch in Wisconsin. We’re back in our corner, sweating, hurting, regrouping. And now the bell is ringing, the next round is already here, and the question becomes: are we ready to step back in the ring?