Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What's the matter with Wisconsin?

Why didn't Wisconsin recall Scott Walker? A year and half ago, hundreds of thousands of people marched and occupied the Capitol. Millions more--around the country and, indeed, around the world--were electrified by this sharp up-tick in mass struggle. But yesterday Wisconsin voters decided not to recall the Governor whose union-busting, austerity program sparked the revolt in the first place. What happened?

In liberal circles, there is a narrative emerging--reminiscent of Thomas Frank's 2004 book What's the Matter With Kansas?--that suggests that large swaths of the population in Wisconsin "voted against their own economic interests". This kind of talk has been accompanied by hand-wringing and consternation about what this might mean for the November presidential elections. Propagandists for the GOP are putting forward the very same analysis except they rejoice where liberals fret.

The trouble is that this entire way of thinking about what happened yesterday misses the mark.

In reality, the vote wasn't a referendum on Scott Walker. Voters weren't asked to simply appraise Walker's policies in the abstract. As always, they were asked to choose between Democrats and Republicans, between the political lines put forward by Walker and (2010 gubernatorial candidate) Tom Barrett. Yesterday's results must be evaluated in light of what voters took those two choices to represent.

Perceptions aside, what did each candidate actually represent? Those liberals most disturbed by the result tend to almost entirely ignore the politics of the Democrat challenger. They've attacked those who didn't vote for the Democrat as dupes who simply don't understand the nature of their own interests, but they've said almost nothing about whose interests Barrett's politics advance. To be sure, it is quite right to say that the interests of the vast majority of Wisconsin's 99% aren't advanced by the politics of union-busting and austerity pedaled by Walker and the Republicans. But neither were those interests advanced by the positions staked out by the tepid Democratic challenger.

As Socialist Worker noted recently, Barrett and the Democrats conceded to Walker on every single issue that brought people out onto the streets of Madison in the first place:
During the Senate recall races last summer, Democrats quietly dropped restoring collective bargaining and union rights from their campaign speeches
In this spring's primary to choose a candidate against Walker, other Democrats attacked Falk, a former Dane County Executive and the labor leadership's favored candidate, as being in the pocket of unions.
In an op-ed supporting Barrett, former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz jabbed at Falk: "A candidate beholden to big unions is no more appealing to independent voters than one who answers to the Koch brothers."
During a debate with Walker, Barrett made a point to mention that he was not labor's candidate. Rather than put up a defense of unions, the Democrats have treated them as supporters of "special interests" and an embarrassment.
Barrett has ceded further ground to Walker on austerity. Walker's rationale for budget cuts has been a familiar one: the state is out of money and needs to control its expenses. Yet despite the fact that Wisconsin's corporations are taxed at a rate below the national average--and that the current tax burden is primarily on Wisconsin's middle class rather than the rich--Barrett made no attempt to challenge Walker's claims.
Instead, Barrett emphasized that he won't increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy. He told a Milwaukee radio station, "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."
While Barrett says he will reverse corporate tax cuts that Walker passed in January 2011, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that "he doesn't want to raise taxes beyond the levels they were at when Walker took office." This means that while Barrett could shift some priorities around, he wouldn't be able to restore most of Walker's cuts, including $1.25 billion taken from education and $500 million from Medicare.
Now, I was out on the streets of Madison when the uprising was white hot. I was joined by hundreds of thousands of other people who chanted, "How to fix the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich!" and "They say cut back, we say fight back!". I saw thousands of people who had no direct personal connection to public sector workers stand up and defend their sisters and brothers who were under attack.

If you'd have said that unions were a "special interest group" on par with corporations you would have been booed. If you'd have said that taxing the corporations is wrong and cuts to social services are necessary, you would have been mocked.

But, as we've seen, these were precisely the positions taken by Democrats in the recall campaign. 

Thus, the whole "Thomas Frank" line about how Wisconsin workers betrayed their own interests is absurd precisely because it assumes that the Democrats stand for advancing those interests. As was to be expected, the Democrats cozied up to Walker's line on every single issue that sparked the rebellion in the first place. And Wisconsin Democrats weren't alone in doing this--they were toeing the same line as their pro-austerity, anti-union counterparts in other so-called "blue states" such as Illinois, New York and California. This isn't a problem of this or that Democrat politician; it's a national problem that concerns the entire Democrat edifice.

Seen in this light, I have a hard time getting worked up over the fact that Walker outspent his Democrat challenger 5-to-1. I also have a hard time getting upset about the fact that the DNC didn't allocate as many resources to the election as it could have. The obsessive focus on funding obscures the substantive political questions facing ordinary working people in Wisconsin, such as how to defend collective bargaining and fight austerity.

So, if you ask me, the tragedy wasn't that the DNC didn't match Walker's massive war chest. If anything, the tragedy was that Wisconsin unions spent so much money funding a candidate that had no intention of fighting for them. That money would have been better spent mobilizing their workers and supporters to take the struggle to the next level when hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets of Madison. A labor movement with a self-confident and energized rank-and-file is worth infinitely more than any election victory for the corporate-friendly Democrats. 

In reality, the real defeat didn't happen yesterday. The real defeat was imposed on Wisconsin's 99% a year and a half ago when the Democratic Party suffocated the movement, wound down the protests in Madison, told people to stop occupying the Capitol and decreed from above that the panacea was a long, drawn-out recall campaign to elect Democrats with politics similar to Walker. Speaking from the front of the demonstration, Democrats told us to lay down our placards, go home, and operate through the "proper channels" to garner votes for them. This, we were told, would be represent the full realization of all that the movement stood for. But this effectively snuffed out all of the energy that electrified participants and supporters of the Madison uprising in the first place.

The bottom line is this. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. Leading Democrats are nothing but corporate-funded opportunists who take and take from dedicated, progressive people, but give them nothing in return.

What's more, it's worth pointing out that the Democrats aren't really even a lesser evil. On the contrary, they are an essential part of a two-party system that serves the interests of the 1% and preserves the status quo. They are two factions of one basically pro-Business party. They are both part of a convenient one-two punch that works wonders for the 1%. When one of them draws the ire of the population it's always possible talk about "throwing the bums out" in order to deflect anger from the system onto a particular mainstream party within it. This virtually apolitical back-and-forth between status-quo party A and status-quo party B does nothing for our side. It leaves us powerless and without voice.

In an era where social struggles the world over are heating up, nobody but the most hardened cynic could say that buying into the two-party duopoly is the best the we can do. Accepting the two-party straitjacket means accepting the fact that the Democrats are under no pressure to pass any progressive reforms since they know that left-leaning voters won't vote GOP. It means accepting that the basic political views of the majority of the population will not be represented at all in formal, representative institutions. When ordinary working people give money, verbal support, and political energy to the Democrats, in effect, they consolidate their own political marginalization and further entrench the dominance of the 1%.

What's the alternative? The very sorts of actions that sparked the Wisconsin uprising in the first place; The sorts of possibilities opened up by the Occupy movement; The months-long struggle of Longview workers to fight for their rights; The inspiring struggle of teachers in Chicago to stand up and defend the future of public education. Succinctly put, the alternative is to mobilize the still unrealized potential of ordinary working people to use their own power to stop austerity, layoffs, foreclosures and all the rest. Once that sleeping giant is awoken, previously unthinkable possibilities emerge. In the 1920s, everyone thought the labor movement was dead in the water, but by the mid 1930s the US was experiencing an unprecedented surge in militant working class activism that shattered those expectations and transformed the social/political landscape for a generation.

We forget at our peril that every single major progressive gain in this country--from free public education to the abolition of slavery, from women's suffrage to Social Security--was won through hard-fought struggle by social movements who set themselves on a collision course with both major parties. Without struggle, there is no progress. We can't expect the licit leaders of corporate-funded political franchises to take care of us. We have to rebuild a fighting, self-confident Left and organize independent social movements that can confront the ruling class head on, no matter which of their two teams is in control in Washington.


Richard said...

the recall of Walker would have only been personally vindictive, and while there is something to be said for revenge, it wouldn't have, as you observe, reversed the anti-union measures nor appreciably addressed the economic distress of people

t said...

I agree. Don't get me wrong--I wanted to see him go down in flames. I'm not pleased that he's still sitting in the governor's office. But Barrett was awful. Whether or not Walker is in power, working people in Wisconsin still face the same basic challenges: how to organize to defend unions and fight austerity.

For me, this whole debacle further clarifies the role of the Democrats. The take home message here is that the Democrats are a conservative force that stifles independent movements. The pressure from above to have a long, drawn-out recall effort wasn't just tactically awful, it was also a recipe for political betrayal of the very energies that produced the uprising in the first place.

JM said...

Speaking of unions:
although the WSWS really hates the unions, paying their workers minimum wage:

and then there's this:

Anonymous said...

WSWS has a totally abstract assessment that basically leads them to have the same position as Scott Walker on unions. Rather than seeing them as contradictory--conservative as well as possible vehicles for class struggle--WSWS sees unions as the root of all evil. I sometimes think they might hate them more than they hate the bosses.