After the Heartbreak in Wisconsin

After the Heartbreak in Wisconsin

There’s no use sugar-coating this defeat—or the sorry state of the Democratic Party.


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.

Now the mic checks have to be put on hold long enough for a reality check.

The recall was a concrete test of whether reactionary or progressive populism (the traditions of Joseph McCarthy or Robert La Follette) would prevail in a state where the vote is 85 percent white. White men voted 55–58 percent for Walker, compared to the 54 percent of all women and the 94 percent of African-Americans who voted against him. In those stark numbers is a message that lots of white people are opposed to their taxes going to African-Americans or the poor, especially in a deep recession where they have no confidence in the government.

Neither were the majority of Wisconsin voters moved to replace a governor they had just elected in 2010 with a Democratic candidate they had rejected in that race. These were the same voters that rejected a respected progressive senator, Russ Feingold, for a little-known pro–Tea Party Republican in that same year, 2010.

It is possible, however, that the gloom will lift if Walker and the Tea Party go too far. An analogy might be Richard Nixon’s triumphant presidential victory in 1972 after the progressive left, feminists and peace advocates had taken over the Democratic Party through the primaries, which allowed citizen participation for the first time. McGovern was crushed, in part because his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was removed from the ticket after it was revealed that he had undergone shock treatments for a mental illness. That wasn’t the primary reason for McGovern’s huge defeat, though it broke his momentum for months. The key to Nixon’s success was the refusal of the mainstream media to pay attention to the unfolding Watergate crisis until after the November election. Here’s the similarity with Walker’s situation today; the Wisconsin governor is being investigated by prosecutors on serious charges of ethics violations. Now that the election is over, the question of possible criminal charges may gain greater public attention. As Nixon fell from triumph to disgrace, the same destiny might await Walker. It’s too early to know.

A more profound unknown is how organized labor, with their numbers declining, will respond to the Wisconsin defeat. It is a true institutional crisis for labor and the Democrats, the greatest since the conflicts of the 1960s. The combination of Citizens United, a pro-corporate Supreme Court and the Tea Party grip on Congress and many statehouses means that the crucial base of the Democratic Party’s campaign funding—organized labor—is facing extinction, with no comparable alternative in sight.

At the risk of offending liberal-left critics of Obama, he often is to the “left” of the Democratic Party establishment on most of these issues. True, he danced with the Republicans in the opening round of the budget debates. But he wants the Bush-era tax cuts to expire on incomes over $250,000—against the opposition of Wall Street’s Senator Chuck Schumer and many Senate Democrats. He wanted some sort of “public option” on healthcare—over the objections of Senator Max Baucus. He once expressed interested in the Robin Hood Tax, but was undercut by his own economic team. He sought to regulate derivatives—but Congressman Barney Frank told him the votes weren’t there. And now Bill Clinton, Ed Rendell, Deval Partick and Cory Booker, among other Democratic leaders, are openly deriding the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital. It’s hard to recall such backstabbing of an incumbent president by leaders of his own party during a re-election fight.

Since the Clinton era, the Democratic Party has joined the Republicans in seeking Wall Street donations. Wall Street is the top investor in the Romney campaign and its allied Super PACs. And Wall Street is the “single largest source of cash for the national Democratic Party’s various campaign committee,” well ahead of entertainment and real estate developer donors, notes Thomas Edsall in the New York Times. Given these polluted streams of campaign money, Obama is “cautious” in his criticisms of Wall Street, while Romney is an “outspoken proponent of the industry’s agenda,” Edsall concludes.

Given these toxic trends, it is entirely possible that by November, Tea Party–driven Republicans will control the White House, Supreme Court and both houses of Congress, pushing the States towards a 1929-style crisis. Or Obama will be re-elected to govern alone in a sea of conservative followers of Ayn Rand and Democratic lifers too timid to fight.

The outcome in Wisconsin only makes that scenario more likely.

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