In the aftermath of the Wisconsin recall struggle, the American left, ranging from the socially liberal to the economically radical, have intelligently paused to deconstruct the failure to depose corporate henchman Governor Scott Walker. The corporate wing of the Right squeals in glee and anticipation of projecting this win into a national trend of corporatism and austerity. With justifiable concern, the American Left is left to decypher what went wrong and how to rebuild towards better victories in the future.
At the first face of it, a leading cause of Scott Walker’s victory is crystal clear: as the favorite of business interests (both Big Finance and Big Industry), Walker had a mighty financial advantage. In fact, he spent about 88% of the money to get 56% of the vote. Here the effect on the election outcome is undeniable. As Peter Dreier put it at Common Dreams:
In other words, business and billionaires bought this election for Walker. The money paid for non-stop TV and radio ads as well as mailers. There’s no doubt that if the Barrett campaign had even one-third of the war- chest that Walker had, it would have been able to mount an even more formidable grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign and put more money into the TV and radio air war. Under those circumstances, it is likely that Barrett would have prevailed.
When the opponent spends more than seven times what you do on an election, you’re going to have a much harder time getting out the message in traditional, paid media formats. But as Dave Lindorff contends
The truth is that no amount of money can turn an election when the public is fired up over a cause or a candidate. What Big Money on one side of an issue or on behalf of one candidate can do is rally the people who are on that side, to get them out to the polls. On the margins, it might help sway a few undecided people who can be duped or scared, but this is of very limited help, because such people tend to be disinterested in politics and voting, so even if they are convinced by the propaganda, they are unlikely to turn out. That can only make a difference if the other side fails to get all its supporters out.
But what could have caused such a lack of interest in Walker’s recall in the state that spurred massive spontaneous protests throughout America? We start approaching the sore spot of a particular American Leftist sickness when we truly examine why it is so many firebrand liberals (and left of liberals) were willing to risk life and limb in the frozen streets of Madison to challenge the corporate assault, but wouldn’t make it out to the voting booths to remove Walker from office. We start seeing the two-fold dimension of our problem if we compare the heart of the Wisconsin uprising to the electoral struggle that wasted and disinterested so much activist energy. As Ari Paul explain at Counterpunch:
When Governor Walker first declared his offensive against public sector unions, rank-and-file workers didn’t start meeting with politicians, they occupied the state house and crippled the government, using mass mobilization to flex actual political power.
The early days of the Wisconsin occupation acknowledged that union members, facing a final push by capital to cleanse the economy of the only vehicle for working-class advancement in this country, were taking off the kiddy gloves of relying on Democrats to save the day and organize so that workers could take matters into their own hands. Union bosses put a stop to that, putting the energy back into the game of Democratic politics. Result: Failure.
There was good reason for many card-carrying union members, progressive activists and even straight-down-the-ticket Democrats to dislike and distrust Barrett. A short list, via Buzzflash, includes:
As mayor in Milwaukee he attempted to take over the city’s public school district, angering the cities African-American community. He is also a supporter of charter schools and has said this is an area where he can work together with Walker.
During the uprising, he proposed an alternative budget to Walkers that extended its cuts to benefits and pensions to police and fire fighters as well, in opposition to the aspirations of those protesting at the Capitol.
While dealing with Milwaukee’s government workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Barrett refused to extend their contract after it expired. He used “Walkers’ tools” to enforce health cuts and went even farther in eliminating provisions that had been bargained for years, such as limits on overtime, mileage reimbursement, make-up pay for days lost to inclement weather, etc. In the end, rather than going after the 1%, his attack on AFSCME’s membership cost them almost $1 million. In regards to taxing the rich he stated on radio, “It is certainly my hope that by the end of my first term, at the end of my second term, and at the end of my third term that Wisconsin will take in less tax revenues from its citizens and businesses each year.” Wisconsin’s corporate tax rates are below the national average.”
Little surprise then that the radical re-awakening of Wisconsin’s working classes felt less than enthused about a Democrat who might as well have run as a “Less Republican.” Consider the Wisconsin Uprising’s effect on public opinion
During the protests a New York Times/CBS Poll found that 60 percent of Americans opposed restricting collective bargaining while 33 percent were for it, 56 percent of Americans opposed reducing pay for public employees and only 37 percent were for it. In a Wisconsin Public Radio poll released on April 22, 49 percent said they disapproved of Republican efforts compared to 39 percent who approved…How could such momentum be lost?
Essentially what we’re running up against in the American Left is a two-pronged problem, brought into critical focus by the inevitable financial disadvantage when it comes to elections or any other democratic, populist activity.
Democrats are angry that the powerful state wide coalition that challenged the death of collective bargaining and the reign of the Walker Agenda did not come out with the same amount of power and passion to remove Walker. Street-level activists on the other hand are astounded that after months, now years, of community agitation the best the Democrats can offer up for a candidate is a Republican Lite.
And there’s the schism: the “radical” left does not particularly see the ballot box as an effective means for change, and the centrist Democrat can’t see how street level agitation can directly affect institutionalized laws and norms. But by arguing with each other, we’ve missed the big picture. The big picture, in this case, is everyone else.
It’s a question of critical mass. The Wisconsin Uprising changed minds and moved bodies. Election outcomes are only the results of changed minds and moved bodies.
In this light it seems out of place to complain that a less-Walker-ish candidate for office couldn’t attract the same passion as a statewide movement against austerity and corporatism. If we fight on every level from local participation to non-violent resistance of the corporate state, we can slowly change the mind of the great majority of the populace–we can build a critical mass. That critical mass was being built in Wisconsin before the far more conservative union and democratic leaders starting funnelling the entirety of that energy into the recall effort.
Without that critical mass, it doesn’t matter how we want the law changed or who we want our candidates to be. In fact, without that critical mass, we are in danger of becoming moral elitists, undemocratically imposing systems that most oppose (regardless of whether those systems are useful or not) from the position of the arrogant, supposedly “enlightened minority.”
We need to become not just the majority opinion, but the undeniable reality. As we achieve this critical mass and majority opinion is shaped through years (and generations) of daily active struggle, either the Democrats or some other opportunistic political force will realize that catering to this critical mass is a surefire win come election day (no matter the financial advantage an opponent might have).
This critical mass, this mass majority convinced through years of struggle that a fairer, more humane, more sustainable world is possible, can serve us as more than a political platform: engaging our economics and culture as well. Out of this critical mass we can draw strength for both local resistance and wider institutional changes. It’s not an election or a law specifically that we’re looking to change. It is the hearts and minds of our fellow democracy stake-holders. Without a critical mass, Democratic candidates offered up to the left will continue to be corporate henchmen who happen to lean more socially liberal than the other corporate candidate.
We can only build this critical mass with daily liberation struggles. We have to be out there fighting personally, in the flesh and online, to improve our communities and resist the corporate colonizers. That means the unions leaving the union halls and the centrist democrats leaving their ivory tower. This means the radicals have to engage, instead of chiding, communities they disagree with. This means that any union that thinks exclusively for its workers (and not those workers’ communities or industries) is a labor-syndicate guild, not a “People’s Pivot” for action, resistance, alternative-building and edification.
Consider how much time, money and hopeful energy we’ve expended over the last decade into occasionally electing ho-hum centrists and the occasional progressive. What else could we have accomplished for each other with that time and effort? Put another way, by economist Doug Henwood,
Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.
The sort of movement Henwood is talking about involves prioritizing popular person-to-person democracy. It involves engaging democracy from local to national, every day and at every point of intersection with life. This requires intimate, personal activism to take our schools, our jobplaces, our blocks, our communities and our culture back from the unending exploitation of corporate America. Such a door-to-door, face-to-face human campaign, more reminiscent of the glory days of the Worker’s Party and the Wobblies, may not win an election for a centrist Democrat over a far right Republican in the immediate sense, but it can build a multi-generational sea-change that can itself change culture, norms, habits of community interaction, laws and eventually electoral outcomes as well.
This nation cannot move without its working and middle classes. That is simply the construct of how things actually get done in this country–we working and middle class folks fulfill a very high portion of society’s most vital functions. The middle and working classes are and always have been the engine that moves the economy and the culture that defines the era. The struggle is with us, not with the ballot box. When we do eventually win the working and middle classes to a critical mass that wants a non-exploitative economy and a just society, we’ll soon find that electoral challenges are relatively easy. After all, we are 99 percent of the population.
Image: Reclaim Democracy