Why the Wisconsin recall failed

August 23, 2011

Madison activist Andrew Cole looks at why the effort to recall Republicans fell short.

NEARLY HALF a year after labor went into revolt following Republican Gov. Scott Walker's February announcement that he intended to bust Wisconsin's public-sector unions--prompting 14 Democrats to leave the state for a month in an attempt to block the legislation--voters went to the polls in nine recall elections that unions and their supporters hoped would put the state Senate in the hands of Democrats.

Despite an absolutely obscene amount of money flowing into the state over the past several months, labor fell just one seat short of its goal. The state Senate remains in the hands of the Republicans for the time being, while angry Wisconsinites set their sights on their primary target: Scott Walker himself.

What should we make of these results? Why were the Democrats ultimately unsuccessful? John Nichols, an astute observer of Wisconsin state politics for many years, has been making the case that the gain of two Democratic seats, while disappointing and short of what was needed to take control, is actually a victory.

State Sen. Randy Hopper (speaking) was one of two Republicans unseated in the recent recall elections
State Sen. Randy Hopper (speaking) was one of two Republicans unseated in the recent recall elections (WisPolitics.com)

After all, these districts were deliberately drawn to favor Republican incumbents in 2000. During the 2008 Obama landslide, all six of these districts elected Republican state senators, and in 2010, all six voted for Scott Walker. Wisconsin labor ought to take heart that two of the districts changed their minds about the Republican agenda.

Nate Silver at the New York Times' 538 blog crunched the numbers. He figured that if Walker were up for recall during the Senate votes, he might have lost.

Additionally, Nichols notes that Sen. Dale Schultz, the lone Republican dissenter on the collective bargaining vote, who represents a moderate to left-leaning district in southwestern Wisconsin, may find common cause with Democrats on other issues, occasionally giving Democrats the check on Walker's power that they desired.

Analyzing the recall results on Democracy Now! Nichols ruled out the possibility that Schultz would consider switching parties or declaring independence, but it will certainly be easier for him to buck his party now that his vote is decisive.

BUT LEAVING aside these expectations, the Democrats are at least as responsible for the frustrating performance as gerrymandered, Republican-friendly turf and underhanded voter suppression tactics.

As SocialistWorker.org pointed out, Democrats expected to ride a tidal wave of anger back into power without speaking to the very issue that sparked Wisconsin's political turmoil: "[M]ost Democrats involved in recall elections have completely ignored the issue of reinstating collective bargaining, even though it is the unions who generated the activists going door-to-door to campaign for these candidates."

Mike Tate, chair of the Wisconsin state Democratic Party, said in a press conference that only the media believe the elections are about collective bargaining.

A similar point was made by Jack Carver on the Isthmus' Daily Page: "Democrats tacitly play into [Walker's] game. Instead of articulating how unions benefit the general population, they speak in the vaguest terms about the importance of preserving the rights of public workers."

While conventional wisdom dictates that it was good politics to de-emphasize collective bargaining, Democrats avoided any attempt to change the terms of the public debate on organized labor. Walker and the Republicans spent weeks demonizing public workers and the unions that represent them. Yet instead of hitting back on behalf of the very same people who worked tirelessly to help them seize the Senate, the Democrats decided to accept the Republicans' terms.

Even if Democrats eventually take both houses and the governor's office, can labor really count on them to restore their rights?

Before the election, union-organizer-turned-journalist Josh Eidelson suggested that the Democrats were embracing a class-based populist message, and that the recalls would provide a test case for this strategy going forward.

Eidelson notes that Democrats often "dabble in populism" without actually embracing it once elected, but seems to think that something is different this time: the Democrats may have had a genuine change of heart when it comes to speaking in stark terms of rich versus poor or worker versus boss.

From my vantage point, it looks like the Democrats are still dabbling. Their rhetoric is missing the fire and militancy of a genuine workers' party, which ought to speak in terms of protests, occupations and strikes, and help workers understand and articulate an alternative vision of economic justice, rather than emphasizing elections and accepting the terms of corporate capitalism as the limit of its vision.

Moreover, the Democrats channeled the movement's best energies into electoral politics with the aim of increasing their own power. By abandoning the collective bargaining issue, the Democrats showed their true colors, and proved once again that the Democratic Party exists solely to elect Democrats.

OF COURSE, the Democratic Party can certainly spin the recall elections as a victory and enhance its own political power. But it was working people, union and non-union alike, who occupied the Capitol for weeks and prompted the 14 Democrats to leave the state to tie up Walker's legislation. Tens of thousands of people in the streets of Madison sent a message to the elite that they could not ignore.

The protest movement, with spontaneous acts of civil disobedience, mass rallies and a militant posture, genuinely empowered workers to take matters into their own hands. The Democratic Party co-opted that energy to serve its own political ends, and did more to demobilize the protest movement than any Republican could have hoped for. But the question that must be answered is: Are their ends the same as ours?

The Democrats talk a mean streak, but the prospect of a militant mass movement of rank-and-file workers who are prepared to strike to win their rights back frightens them almost as much as it frightens the people who finance their campaigns. It means they might have to take a stand against their corporate masters and the global push for austerity, or risk losing the loyalty of workers.

Tragically, Wisconsin's labor leaders are committed to pursuing the electoral strategy to its bitter conclusion in what's sure to be a tremendous expenditure of scarce resources in an effort to replace Scott Walker with another politician who will likely abandon workers once elected.

Imagine what could happen if, instead of pouring millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours into electing "Walker Lite," labor invested those resources in strike funds and organizing the rank and file for action. The bureaucrats in charge of the unions see their fate as bound up in the success of the Democratic Party.

If left to their own devices, union leaders will most certainly continue to tell angry members to go vote--and nothing else. That's why it's up to the rank and file to demand better leadership and organize ourselves for the struggles ahead.

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