Activists will rightly be dismayed that Scott Walker defeated the union-backed grassroots campaign to recall him. The repercussions will be felt in states across the country as right-wing groups see it as a vindication of their hostility to state workers’ unions. Let’s not forget, however, that Republicans lost control of the Wisconsin State Senate. There is a chance this could be reversed in November, but for now it will prevent them pushing through further right-wing legislation.
Interviewed on Democracy Now, John Nichols pointed out its immediate significance: “Governor Walker is an incredibly ambitious partisan. … He is particularly interested in taking apart many of the state’s environmental laws in order to allow for a particularly controversial form of mining in northern Wisconsin. That is likely to be blocked. Additionally, he’s been very, very aggressive on voting rights issues. He’s a big backer of voter ID laws, changes in registration laws, things of that nature. That would have been the sort of thing that you might have seen him initiate, and his allies initiate, if they had control of the State Senate.”
The narrative on the left is that big money unleashed by the “Citizens United” decision swung the election despite the massive effort behind the recall campaign. Nichols explains: “Over the period not just of this campaign but really of the better part of a year, he [Walker] used massive television advertising, as well as astounding amounts of mailings—more than $5 million worth of mailings—and huge amounts of internet and social media communication, to basically alter people’s impressions of him sufficiently to win a 53-46 victory.”
This has some validity, but it is not the whole story. Money gave Walker the advantage of being able to frame the issues before the Democrats had a chance to get started, but his Republican rhetoric would have had little impact if it didn’t resonate with popular prejudices. In the absence of any accountability for bankers and plutocratic privilege, state workers have become the scapegoats for the recession.
The most important statistic to come out of the exit polls, in my opinion, is that Walker won nearly half the vote from members of union households who were not themselves in a union. The Washington Post suggests that: “Democratic and labor efforts to turn out their supporters (which is labor’s calling card) were largely successful. The problem was that too many of those who came out sided with Walker… the backlash against him was limited to the Democratic base and those directly affected by his decision [to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector unions], while Walker was able to garner plenty of support from everybody else — including family of union members.”
Walker succeeded – and this has to be faced squarely – in leveraging the underlying and growing resentment on the part of Americans made vulnerable by the recession against those who are not yet playing by the new rules set by the plutocracy for the rest of us. The new normal is accepting day to day life as being economically contingent and disposable without protection against corporate abuse. Under the guise of self-sufficiency, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and the characterization of organized labor as mobs, leeches, monsters, etc., plutocrats have adjusted the collective expectations of the middle class to essentially accept the same lot as the immigrant farmworkers they also vilify.
Walker managed to divide the electorate using the fear people clearly have against this new reality as a wedge. Wisconsin Democrats were unable to counter Walker’s narrative and get across the importance of collective bargaining for all workers, not just those in the public sector. John Nichols commented: “This battle over labor rights was where the fight in Wisconsin began, and yet it was Scott Walker who, for the last year, did a lot more of the messaging on the assault on collective bargaining rights that he launched back in February 2011. Similarly, I think that Democrats and labor needed to talk about the recall power and explain it in much more detail. Walker was very, very critical of the recall. And I think, again, he used a lot of money and messaging to win that debate.”
Many voters were opposed to recalls as a means of political protest, so they responded to this criticism. And Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, a centrist Democrat who was not labor’s first choice, had little to offer his base. Gary Younge of the Guardian was not impressed: “In the five days I’ve been reporting from the state I have yet to meet a single person who voted for him as opposed to against Walker. In the end this was just not enough. His failure to give some vision for what Wisconsin under his stewardship would look like could not win over the coveted independents or sufficiently inspire his base. When it came down to it, the people of Wisconsin wanted more than the absence of Scott Walker. They wanted the presence of an alternative.”
The lack of an effective counter-narrative left voters open to Walker’s claims that he was attempting to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. The fact that he balanced the budget with large cuts in further education and mortgage settlement money was drowned out. In These Times reports on a long discussion that John Dupies, a special education teacher in the Milwaukee schools, had with a voter when canvassing. “Dupies asked him, ‘In years, have you seen our state divided like it is now?’ The voter said he supported Walker: ‘I’ve got to pay for my own healthcare…everyone else should do it too.’ … After a friendly exchange about common acquaintances in the local schools, the voter said, ‘As a small business owner, I bust my ass, I pay my own bills, plus I’m paying for all of the illegals.’ Dupies asked whether he thought it was fair for big corporations to get away with not paying taxes. He answered, ‘No, I don’t think it’s fair. But there’s nothing I can do about it’.”
The battleground in Wisconsin sums up the dilemma of the left today. Since Obama has not jailed a single CEO or top banker for crashing the economy and plunging America into recession, it appears that there’s nothing that the people, through their government, can do about it. Matt Stoller writes in Naked Capitalism: “Up and down the ticket, Democrats are operating under the shadow of the President, associated with unpopular policies that make the lives of voters worse and show government to be an incompetent, corrupt handmaiden to big business. … Obama’s economic policies have made economic inequality sharper than it was under Bush, due to his bailout of banks and concurrent elimination of the main source of wealth of most Americans, home equity. With these policy choices, Obama destroyed the Democratic Party and liberalism – under Obama’s first two years, the fastest growing demographic party label was ‘former Democrat.’ … Then, in Illinois and Maryland in April, liberal labor-backed candidates were absolutely wrecked in primaries. … In Wisconsin, the stage was much more high-profile, but the dynamics were the same.”
The national story is what frames the lives of Americans, whatever the local issues. In order to counter the Republican onslaught, the progressive wing of the Democratic party—reduced as it has been under the Obama administration—needs to regroup and reassert its presence. The Occupy movement has begun this conversation; the best hope for countering the plutocratic Republican brand of fear and envy is Occupy’s message of how we can recover our solidarity for a more just America. That my neighbor has healthcare and I don’t does not mean that he should lose it to make things fair; the fair thing, in this enormously wealthy country, is that we both have it.