Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker holds his first cabinet meeting at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 6, 2012, in Madison, after Walker beat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a recall election. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
The triumph of Scott Walker and the Tea Party Republicans in Wisconsin is heartbreaking for the many thousands who devoted over a year of their lives to one of the most inspired social movements of the current century.
Electoral campaigns are governed by deadlines and voting results, unlike social movements, which can ebb and flow for decades. The pain of a stunning defeat inevitably takes a psychic toll on its participants, similar in ways to a seven-game World Series. It takes time to recover, and some never will.
But politics never stops. If Democrat John Lehman holds onto his narrow lead over Republican Van Wanggarrd for a state Senate seat, Wisconsin Democrats will wrest majority control of that chamber from the Republicans, setting the stage for another showdown this November, when sixteen of thirty-three senators will face election. The legislature ordinarily is out of session during the summer, possibly limiting the ability of the new Democratic majority to foil Walker’s triumphal agenda.
But the big picture is disastrous for Democrats and progressives. Walker beat Democrat Tom Barrett solidly, 53 percent to 46 percent, in a campaign fueled by unprecedented levels of corporate money. The Tea Party, which became relatively isolated during the Republican presidential campaign, is back in the saddle. Its triumph in Wisconsin will embolden advocates of slashing social programs and deregulating the economy to become even more adamant during the coming national budget debates.
President Obama may benefit politically in the short term if the Tea Party overplays its hand in the immediate budget and presidential debates. But Obama disillusioned many Democrats in Wisconsin by his tepid support for the recall and the foolish White House argument that “he had a full plate and did not have time to come.” Obama still holds a slender lead over Romney in most battleground states.
What explains the defeat in Wisconsin?
From the beginning there was a utopian expectation among many progressives that the recall effort was such a righteous cause that it was destined to succeed. One leader of the utopian faction was The Nation’s brilliant narrator John Nichols, who is described by his wife, Mary Bottari, as one of the most idealistic bearers of good tidings in progressive America. MSNBC pundits Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow were swept up in the drama as well and expected the election to be so close that returns would take all night. Michael Moore wrote that the sight of the Capitol Rotunda packed with protesters “would bring tears to your eyes,” and that he was witnessing Corporate America’s “come-to-Jesus moment” in Wisconsin. Despite all the hope, the devil won big.
The uprising in Wisconsin was indeed an inspiring social movement in its tenacity, scale, cross-section of activists, range of tactics and permanent duration in spite of freezing snows. Wisconsin seemed to be the place where progressive Americans finally were drawing the line against anti-labor legislation, budget cuts, Tea Party extremism and plutocrats like the Koch brothers.
But at least one year ago there were internal labor polls showing the recall would be very difficult to win. There was no way, however, that a labor leader was going to stand in front of the social movement with a yellow flashing light. Instead, to its credit, labor chose to support the fight in the hope that sheer will power, or mistakes made by Walker, would overcome the odds.