Wisconsin Lessons

Originally published on ZNet on June 6, 2012

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 arch-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

  Republicans   Democrats  
  Gov. Scott Walker    $29.3 million Tom Barrett         $2.9 million
Independent Expenditure Groups        
  Right Direction Wisconsin (Republican Governors’ Association) $8.7 Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund $5.3
  National Rifle Association 0.8 Wisconsin for Falk (supported Kathleen Falk, a Democratic primary candidate) 4.5
  Ending Spending Action Fund 0.2 We Are Wisconsin 2.8
  Other 0.1 Other 0.5
Issue Ad Groups        
  Americans for Prosperity $3.0 Greater Wisconsin Political Fund $2.0
  Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce 2.0    
  Center for Union Facts 1.0    
  Tea Party Express 0.4    
  Club for Growth 0.1    
TOTAL SPENT (as of May 21, 2012)   $45.6 million   $17.9 million


It’s not just the disparate dollar amounts that tell the story. Barrett got two-thirds of his funding from inside Wisconsin. What a Cheese-head!  Walker, who has spent much of 2012 raising funds from right-wing wing millionaires and billionaires around the country, is (to quote ZZ Top) nationwide. As Mother Jones recently noted in a posting bearing the apt title “The Dark Money Behind the Wisconsin Recall,” he got two-thirds of his support from outside the state – mainly from right wing interests who targeted Wisconsin as an experiment in arch-authoritarian right wing social engineering.[7]  How’s that for the G.O.P.’s commitment to “states’ rights”? 

Shame, by way, on the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. ”In a front-page story,” Milwaukee’s astute left writer Roger Bybee notes, the first paper “preposterously proclaimed, in a page one headline, ‘despite rhetoric, the parties’ mountains of money are about even.’ Similarly, the [second paper] headlined a story, ‘Barrett, Walker have one thing in common: Out-of-state donors,’…”[8] 

The recall result is terrible, and fraught with the potential for progressive demoralization. At the same time, it was totally predictable (and in fact predicted). ”Since the 1970s,” Noam Chomsky notes, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.” [9] 

On Posters and Clipboards 

One lesson it seems to me, is the futility, under the current corporate-dollar-drenched U.S. political regime, of trying to translate a genuine popular uprising (Madison, Wisconsin in February and early March 2011) into an election campaign. While Occupy Wall Street and the broader Occupy Movement it sparked had real problems when it came to strategic formulation and action on specific demands that matter to ordinary working class people (and it doesn’t get much more specific than the demand to remove Walker and repeal his terrible anti-union bill), Occupy understood that futility very well. Listen to OWS’ original Declaration of the Occupation of New York City: 

“….We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”  

“They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process….” 

“They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.” 

“They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.” 

“They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”

 “They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ health care and pay.”

 “They have sold our privacy as a commodity.” 

“They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.” 

“They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through control of the media.” 

“They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.” 

“They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.”

The Declaration’s statement of concern over corporate control of politicians per se is important, Make no mistake. The Wisconsin struggle was inspiring and impressive on numerous levels (They certainly helped inspire the Occupy moment of last October and November). But let’s be honest about its limits. When I told one Zucotti Partk activist dressed up as a greedy billionaire that I’d seen similarly clad street thespians protesting Walker’s policies in Madison earlier that year, he made a critical distinction between OWS and the Wisconsin uprising:

“The Wisconsin rebellion was shut down by the Democratic Party and the union bosses…They got angry because a Republican governor went after their power. The Madison teachers rebelled and the bosses put a shithelluva lot of people in the streets and it felt really cool. But then it was like ‘thanks a lot for all that people power, now you all need to quit all this crazy marching around and get serious and help us recall Walker and those Republican senators and get Democrats back in.’…Never mind that Democrats, including Obama, are also going after public sector wages and benefits and also take money from the big banks and corporations”

“This [OWS] is different. It’s about the whole system, run by and for the rich whether they’ve got Republicans or Democrats out front. It’s not about electing anyone.”

Exactly right.

I will never forget the command issued by a leading Wisconsin Democratic Party official to tens of thousands of workers and their supporters outside the Madison Capitol Rotunda on March 12th, 2011. “It’s time,” the Democrat said, “to put down your posters and pick up a clipboard.” Everybody knew what this meant: it was time (supposedly) to shift from marching, singing, protesting, and occupying (the Rotunda itself was occupied for 16 days) to knocking on doors and making calls to dump a Republican and thereby elect a Democrat.”

Can Playing by the Rules Work in a Rigged Game?

Well, the Democrats had their shot. The lesson isn’t to demobilize and give up, of course. It certainly isn’t to trade in the protest poster for yet another election clipboard, eyes focused on the next great episode in the masters’ great money-soaked-major party-major media election spectacle. The lesson, rather, is to keep the protest poster handy and pick up a social movement organizing flyer and clipboard to channel and mobilize popular forces for political struggle beneath and beyond the big elections elites are talking about when they say “that’s politics” – the only politics that matters.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d like to have seen Walker kicked out of office. I would have voted for that if I lived in Wisconsin. But imagine if you will millions of dollars being spent not on electioneering but on the rebuilding of rank and file working class movement culture and capacity. “The really critical thing,,” the great radical American historian Howard Zinn wrote, “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 on “or the governor’s mansion” to “the White House” in that oft-cited quote, we should take further counsel from Zinn’s eloquent case against the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” in 2008:

 “…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….” 

Speaking of White House occupants, here’s an interesting question as the next great quadrennial electoral extravaganza looms ever closer: where were the supposedly “liberal” Barack (Drill-in-the-Arctic) Obama and the national Democratic Party as corporate-occupied Wisconsinites struggled to rid their state of the plutocratic nightmare that is Scott Walker?  Consistent with his own center-right record (which includes attacking public employees’ wages and benefits at the federal level), the fake-progressive president kept noticeably distant from the Wisconsin struggle in all its phases, offering little more than a pathetic last-minute tweet – yes a Twitter tweet – in support of the soon-to-be literally “bitch-slapped” Tommy Barrett.[10] 

Thankfully, serious lessons can be learned even at Democratic Party-captive institutions like The Nation, where childish liberal Obamalust reigned before and for some time after the last quadrennial extravaganza. Listen to the welcome if somewhat understated reflections of a young Nation blogger named Allison Killkeny yesterday morning: 

Wisconsin: Can Playing by the Rules Work in a Rigged Game?”  

“…In Madison, Wisconsin, pro-union protesters occupied the Capitol rotunda and the surrounding property, and committed themselves to a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week effort to recall Governor Scott Walker…Last night, that effort fell short, but rather than sitting around, feeling sorry for themselves, some activists say they are ready to continue fighting for their causes.” 

“’ It will be a struggle but we are not going to give up,’ said Craig Spaulding of Madison, who demonstrated often at the Capitol.” 

“He says the fight to restore collective bargaining powers for state workers continues. ‘Many people have said there’s this recall fatigue setting in and we won’t be able to keep up this intensity but we will, we will for the rest of our lives,’ he said.” 

“Other observers, many of them Occupy Wall Street activists, have called for more radical change, partly because the institutions—the Democratic Party and elections—that historically housed the left have proven themselves to either be inadequate or hopelessly corrupt (emphasis added)…When out-of-state anti-union parties obliterate the autonomy of a state—strange, considering conservatives believe so deeply in those states’ rights—and the Democratic Party remains largely complicit in the gutting of public sector unions, where are pro-union protesters to go?” 

“Their choices in the election booth are bleak.”[11] 

Yes, they sure are. No, playing by the rules cannot work for progressive causes in the hopelessly rigged U.S. elections game. 

It isn’t just the electoral politics game that needs to change, however. The ever-declining U.S. labor “movement” is long overdue for a significant internal progressive and democratic transformation. We must add most current U.S. unions to our list of “the institutions…that historically housed the left [and] have proven themselves to either be inadequate or hopelessly corrupt” (Kilkenny). Henwood puts it very well: 

“A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit…” 

“….if unions ever want to turn things around—and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement—they have to learn to operate in this new reality. Which means learning to act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.” [12]

I concur, as I suspect do many others who gave energy and qualified praise to the Occupy Movement. Perhaps the next and developing left that might emerge in coming months and years could synthesize, among other things, the better aspects and lessons of the Wisconsin and the Occupy struggles.   

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com 

Selected Endnotes

[1] “David Koch Intends to Cure Cancer in His Lifetime and Remake Politics,” Palm Beach Post Money. February 18, 2012 at http://www.palmbeachpost.com/money/david-koch-intends-to-cure-cancer-in-his-2185046.html?page=2&viewAsSinglePage=true 

[2] See, for example, Paul Street and Janet Razbadouski, “It’s Not About $, Its About Rights,” ZNet (February 24, 2011) at http://mobile.zcommunications.org/it-s-not-about-it-s-about-rights-by-paul-street 

[3] See, for example, Paul Street, “The Meaning of Madison,” Z Magazine (June, 2011);  Paul Street, “ ‘ We are Not Aimless’: Reflections on OWS, the Profits System, and Wisconsin,” ZNet (October 18, 2011); Paul Street, “North American Report: The Madison Rebellion and its Limits in Global Perspective,” May Day International (May 1, 2011) at http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/mayday/article/report_from_north_america_the_wisconsin_rebellion_and_its_limits_in_a_;

 [4] So report Scott Clement, Peyton Craighill, and John Cohen,  “Wisconsin Recall: Should There Be a Recall at All,” posted at Chris Cilliza, “The Fix,” a Washington Post blog (June 5, 20120 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/early-exits-are-recall-elections-appropriate/2012/06/05/gJQAk3qzGV_blog.html, cited (well, linked) in Doug Henwood, “Walker’s Victory, Un-Sugar Coated,” Left Business Observer News (June 5, 2012) at http://lbo-news.com/2012/06/06/walkers-victory-un-sugar-coated/ (It is, admittedly, unclear, who obtained this polling data or how they attained it and when. Perhaps I will regret citing it here, but I have decided to trust the numbers in this case). 

[5] Henwood, “Walker’s Victory.”  Here you can follow the links (including http://www.gallup.com/poll/149279/Approval-Labor-Unions-Holds-Near-Low.aspx and http://www.gallup.com/poll/148163/Americans-Confident-Military-Least-Congress.aspx) to actual surveys. 

[6]  Mike Ludwig, “Wisconsin Recall: Walker Rakes in Millions While Koch Brothers Pump Secret Cash,” Truthout (May 31, 2012) at http://truth-out.org/news/item/9486-wisconsin-recall-walker-rakes-in-millions-while-koch-brothers-pump-secret-cash 

[7] Gavin Aronson, “The Dark Money Behind the Wisconsin Recall,” Mother Jones (June 5, 2012) at http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2012/06/wisconsin-walker-recall-money-stats

[8] Roger Bybee, “This is What Plutocracy Looks Like: Walker Rides Huge Funding Advantage to Victory,” In These Times, June 6, 2012 at  http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/13330/this_is_what_plutocracy_looks_like_walker_rides_9-1_funding_edge_to_victory/

[9] N.Chomsky, “American Decline: Causes and Consequences,” Alakhbar English, August 24, 2011. 

[10] “President Barack Obama has kept his distance, just as he did during the unrest last year[emphasis added]….White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked during a briefing Monday why Obama wasn’t campaigning for Barrett. ‘The president supports him, stands by him.’ Carney said, adding that Obama hopes Barrett prevails. The president himself took to the social media micro-blogging site Twitter late Monday to send much the same message ‘It’s Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow,’ Obama tweeted, ‘and I’m standing by Tom Barrett. He’d make an outstanding governor. –bo.’ Scott Bauer, “Wisconsin Recall Battle Finally Goes to Voters,” Associated Press, June 5, 2012, read online at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gfznn-et4_9kLIqa1wT07vn4cQGQ?docId=bf43d4fe9a094302871c3d69ea55bafc . For an amusing video of Barrett being physically slapped by an angry recall supporter after his defeat, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY2KN8DU1eE 

[11] Allison Kilkenny, “Can Playing by the Rule Work in a Rigged Game?” The Nation (June 6, 2012) at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/allison-kilkenny

[12] Henwood, “Walker’s Victory.” “…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.”

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By | 2012-06-08T12:06:15+00:00 June 6th, 2012|Articles|