On June 5 Wisconsinites go to the polls to vote in recall elections. Even though extreme right-wing governor Scott Walker has presided over a disastrous jobs record, has been linked to corruption and crony capitalism, and taken away collective bargaining rights for state workers, it’s not going to be easy for Democrats to win this election.
Wisconsin’s voters are already highly polarized for or against Walker on party lines. The results will be a test of whether the Democrats can attract enough new voters to overcome the strength of Walker’s highly-motivated Republican base. In a virtually uncontested primary, he got over 600,000 votes, close to the total for all the candidates in the Democratic primaries combined.
Yet the Democratic National Committee – the body responsible for political activity in support of Democratic Party candidates – has refused a request from Wisconsin’s Democrats for a major investment in their campaign, in sharp contrast to Tea Party Republicans who are pouring resources into the election and view it as a national referendum on their right-wing policies.
The national Democratic leadership has no stomach for a fight that came up from the grassroots in defense of the social contract. They are themselves tied to corporate interests and the financial industry, and don’t want to get involved in a movement to remove elected officials when Democratic governors are also cutting state workers’ jobs and benefits to fix budget shortfalls. They want Democratic voters to stay passive, and they avoid contact with a mass movement intent on fighting for change. Obama has effectively neutralized the left within the party, regularly exploiting people’s desire to believe in him by making rhetorical but vague promises for reform while in practice ensuring nothing changes – even after the $2 billion loss by JP Morgan Chase, Obama still praises Jamie Dimon as “one of the smartest bankers we got.”
The popular protest movement that led to a three-week occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol and over 100,000 to demonstrate outside became harnessed to a campaign to get signatures for recalls. In the second round, over a million signatures – twice the number needed to force Walker into an election – were gathered. But the union leadership made a strategic mistake in not building a movement that took up issues such as unemployment, homelessness and bank evictions in order to broaden their support, as critics of the protests noted at the time.
That’s not to say that the recall campaign has been ineffective: the first round last summer reduced Walker’s senate majority to one, and resulted in a shutdown of his more blatantly partisan legislation. It was a significant victory against Republicans who had been elected against the Democratic trend in 2008. But the restricted electoral focus of the Walker recall meant that Democratic primary voters understandably made a pragmatic choice for their candidate, picking Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett rather than Kathleen Falk, who had aligned herself closely with the recall campaign from the beginning and had pledged to veto the state budget if it did not restore collective bargaining rights.
The problem for Democratic voters is that Barrett’s strategy is for a return to rule by consensus at a time when Republican voters have steadily moved rightwards. In 2010 Walker was silent about eliminating collective bargaining, but voiced generic Tea Party slogans such as cutting taxes and balancing the budget. This got him decisive numerical support from the very conservative population of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties, large suburban areas that ring Milwaukee – described as “the pulsing heart of the GOP electorate” in Wisconsin .
The demographic of these counties fits exactly the profile of Tea Party Republican supporters described by author Anthony DiMaggio: “white, over 40-50, middle to upper income Americans who have generally done pretty well for themselves over the years, but are being pressured by the neoliberal attack on working Americans. They’re rightly angry at being excluded from the tremendous economic prosperity that has taken place over the last three decades.”
Political science professor Barry Burden points out that none of the primary groups affected by current high unemployment rates — African American and Latino workers, those without college degrees, and manufacturing-based workers — are represented in the area. “If voters in Waukesha County don’t perceive widespread societal problems, they see problems as rooted in individual choices, he says. Therefore, he adds, ‘They don’t accept government as the solution to an individual problem’.”
Waukesha grew as a bedroom community for Milwaukee during the prosperity years of the 1960s, when a strong manufacturing base gave blue and white-collar workers well-paid jobs that enabled them to buy houses out of the city and to commute to work. A post in a 2004 Democratic Underground discussion board described the migration more bluntly as white flight: “Waukesha County used to be ‘Good Ol Rural America’ up until around twenty years ago. The county itself wasn’t made more prosperous overall since then, the rich from Milwaukee just migrated for better schools, less crime, and frankly less of/distance from blacks. Busing had a *huge* amount to do with the development of Waukesha county. It’s like why Detroit and Chicago have a bunch of rich suburbs. Milwaukee just basically all went in one direction because there is nothing in Racine and Kenosha worth looking at.”
A similar self-segregation of major cities can be found in most U.S. states. Lawrence Davison of West Chester University gave this analysis of Pennsylvania, which could apply equally well to Wisconsin: “…the people in the relatively rural center of the state as well as those in the urban suburbs, not only care little for those living in cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, they actively dislike them. They don’t feel like they live in the same society. And they certainly don’t want to be taxed to help an urban population with a lot of poor folks. In others words, whatever sense of social solidarity rural and suburban Pennsylvanians feel, it does not go much beyond their own local community.”
Whatever happens in Wisconsin’s elections, in the longer term a wider, inclusive and pluralist community has to be rebuilt in America. To date, only the Occupy movement has made this a central issue and worked on ways of creating a new society which values members of the 99 percent: as they stubbornly assert, another world is possible.