If Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett beats Walker in the recall elections, it will be no thanks to the national Democratic leadership and entirely due to the tenacity of Wisconsin Democrats channeling a grassroots movement to defend the social contract. Indications are there will be a high turnout: early voting is at or near record levels in key municipalities like Milwaukee and Madison, and also the conservative stronghold of Waukesha.
Although Republican governors are coming out in force to support Walker, not one nationally-known Democrat has campaigned with Barrett. And in an interview on Friday, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said: “there aren’t going to be any repercussions” nationally if Wisconsin voters re-elect Walker.
This is a serious underestimation of the national significance of the recalls. When Walker was elected he immediately legislated a prefabricated right-wing agenda, part of a strategy devised by Republican groups like ALEC to force change in America from the state level. Their aim is to destroy Democratic support by crushing unions, restricting the franchise, and redistricting to achieve a permanent Republican majority.
At a national level, the Democratic leadership focuses heavily on Obama’s re-election calculations and carefully avoids the populist message that successfully fired up the recall signature-gathering campaign in Wisconsin. They appear to have left Wisconsin Democrats to fight Walker on their own.
This is certainly how it appears to people at the base. In comments on a blog post about the fact that Obama has avoided taking a public stand on the recall, “PJ” says: “I think it’s pretty clear that the DNC has decided that voters’ minds are set at this point. If that is so, then the Democratic establishment bears the brunt of the responsibility for not offering an early, frequent, clear, and genuine alternative to the conservative agenda. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the protests and ensuing recall effort were an historic, game-changing moment that Democrats squandered.”
The fight in Wisconsin is important because it mirrors a national struggle against the Republican narrative that, when states are faced with fiscal shortfalls, budgets need to be balanced by spending cuts targeted at state workers and programs for the poor. They manufacture support for this program with a consistent message that public sector employees are allegedly protected from the recession while others are suffering – in Walker’s words, “divide and conquer.”
As the recall approaches, this message is accompanied by vicious demonizing and witch-hunting of unionized state workers. In Janesville, southern Wisconsin, a pro-Walker group distributed anti-teacher fliers listing teachers’ salaries “and urging parents to request their child be assigned to a ‘non-radical teacher’ next year. The fliers, which included the names, titles and salaries of the 321 highest-paid Janesville teachers, also urged readers to go to iverifytherecall.com to determine if the teachers signed the petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker.”
The legislative onslaught on state workers’ unions was set up to conceal Walker’s primary agenda of enormous tax breaks and concessions to the rich. A “domestic production” tax credit was slipped into his 2011-13 budget which could reduce state income tax for the richest Wisconsinites from 7.75 percent to zero, or even end up as a credit, according to The Cap Times. It noted: “The production tax credit was just one of the ‘gifts’ in the budget approved by Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature last June. Most, if not all, are targeted at corporations, investors, upper-income residents and campaign contributors. Combined, they will reduce state revenues significantly. Making up the difference, opponents argue, will be average Wisconsin families.”
How did Walker get away with this? An insightful commentary by Paul Fanlund in The Cap Times draws attention to a series of interviews with regular people across Wisconsin carried out between 2007-10 by a UW-Madison professor. Fanlund writes: “… what she found in her chats in gas stations and restaurants was an almost seething resentment toward public employees, who in the interviewees’ estimation had not suffered like they had in the economic downtown and were less likely to be ‘working hard.’ There was no similar, visceral blame for their economic suffering directed towards the private sector, even after the Wall Street crisis and even as the income gap has grown exponentially in recent years and the comparative tax burden on the wealthiest has shrunk. …
“Katherine Cramer Walsh is the UW-Madison professor I referenced above who interviewed many Wisconsin citizens. ‘In all my conversations about causes of the great recession, maybe a handful of times’ was any blame directed at the private sector even after the Wall Street crisis, she says. ’The most striking thing to me is how much those attitudes were in place when Walker tapped into them,’ she says.”
A comment from a Wisconsin resident on a New York Times magazine article about how divided the state has become, expresses the political consequences succinctly: “Wisconsin, hit as hard as any state by the economic collapse that originated on Wall Street and in Washington, was a pile of dry tinder. Walker was a flaming match. Legislation enacted rapidly after his inauguration was the equivalent of gasoline.”
The Democrats have struggled to create a coherent response to this rapid polarization of the state, and have missed chances to broaden their support, opting instead for a return to consensus politics. As commentator John Nichols points out: “Soft messaging by Democrats on labor issues has done them serious harm with voters in their potential base. And a failure to educate the broad mass of voters on the importance of collective bargaining to protecting middle-class wages and benefits has been equally damaging. Republicans do not make this sort of mistake. … Walker knows that a recall election in a closely divided state is about maximizing appeal to the base, not softening messages and avoiding issues.”
Paul Fanlund, in the article quoted above, also cites another UW-Madison professor, Barry Burden, who said: “What the [Wisconsin Democratic Party] has not done a good job of is saying ‘look at all the things that public spending actually does for you, like providing roads, or fire protection, or education for your children in the UW System or on public schools.’ ”
This cannot be blamed on the Wisconsin Democrats alone. They are hamstrung by the national leadership, which should be fighting to uphold the essential things that the government does on behalf of the community – education, emergency services, medical care, social security for the elderly, housing, and more. They need to sustain the idea that the community should take responsibility for the young, the sick and the weak. But most legislators, including the great deceiver Obama himself, accept the neoliberal ideology that banks must be supported at all costs.
Instead of taking up the critique of the Occupy movement, the national Democrats have helped foster the belief that the crimes of the rich operate at an incomprehensible economic level and to be “part of the way business works”; this impression is reinforced by the fact that no high-flying executives have yet been jailed.
They are accomplices in the Obama administration’s purging of whistleblowers and the federal use of agents provocateurs against Occupy protests across the country. But they will be unable to control the growing movement of political defiance: like the grassroots movement to recall Walker, which was initially opposed by Democratic political operatives, it will break through the party straitjacket and create new and more effective forms of resistance.