The failure of the June 5 recall campaign against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—while heartbreaking for union families and the great activist movement that developed to oppose the governor and his policies—offers profound lessons not just for Wisconsin, but for progressives who are wrestling with fundamental questions of how to counter corporate and conservative power in the era of Citizens United. Those lessons are daunting, as they suggest that the “money power” that populists and progressives identified a century ago as the greatest threat to democracy is now a force that cannot be easily thwarted, even by determined “people power.”
The Wisconsin result—which followed upon a campaign that saw the anti-labor governor vastly outspend Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, thanks to the tens of millions of dollars that Walker’s billionaire backers flooded the state with—should send up red flags for Democrats as they prepare for this fall’s presidential and Congressional elections.
But the quick calculus that says organized money always beats organized people misses the fact that those who sought to depose Walker made mistakes. They were also let down by national Democratic players who never quite recognized the importance of the race, while the Republican National Committee and “independent” groups on the right were deeply involved, testing and perfecting strategies for November.
By and large, those strategies worked, preserving the governorship of a “right-wing rock star” whose re-election became the top priority of the GOP, the conservative movement, and the billionaires of the 1 percent. Walker won with relative ease, as did Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. One bright spot, at press time, was the likely victory of the Democratic candidate in one of the recall races targeting Walker’s allies in the State Senate; if John Lehman pulls out a win in his closely contested Racine district, that will, at least for the time being, prevent Walker from launching new assaults on labor rights, voting rights and the environment.
But good news was in short supply on June 5. For those who see democracy as a spectator sport with clearly defined seasons that finish on election day, the Wisconsin numbers were simply depressing. But for those who recognize the distance that it and other states—like Ohio, which restored collective-bargaining rights in a referendum last fall—have come since the GOP won almost everything in 2010, the recall story is instructive.
The Wisconsin vote was only the third time in American history that a governor has faced a recall election. The previous two were organized by the right, with substantial corporate support. In Wisconsin, the labor movement and its allies forced the vote, relying on grassroots activists who gathered more than 900,000 signatures in almost every township, village and city of the state. That’s a remarkable accomplishment.
But Walker posted a remarkable accomplishment of his own. The governor’s response to the recall challenge was to collect more than $30 million. That not only outstripped Barrett’s direct fundraising by more than 7-1; it was also more than anyone running for any office in Wisconsin history had ever raised. And 70 percent of it came from out of state. It was used to frame a message rooted in fantasy, suggesting that up is down and right is left, and that Walker’s economic policies—which have spawned the worst job losses in the nation—were actually “working.”
Those economic policies have not worked any more effectively than the European austerity measures they mimic. But Walker’s ads moved him up in the polls, even as Democrats were struggling to identify a candidate to challenge the governor. That gave Walker a poll advantage that spooked national Democratic strategists, who were overly cautious about entering the Wisconsin battle. There was no caution on the other side; RNC chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native, was always “all in,” as were the party’s top donors. And that mattered: a loophole in Wisconsin law allowed Walker to collect unlimited amounts of money before the recall election was formally scheduled. And the billionaires who weren’t donating directly to his campaign were setting up “independent” expenditure groups on his behalf. All told, more than $45 million was spent on Walker’s victory, more than doubling Barrett’s $18 million.
Meanwhile, Democrats struggled to adapt the radical rhetoric of 2011’s Capitol protests to the narrow confines of electoral politics. Too much soft messaging about important issues, from education to voting rights, took some of the edge off the movement. And the failure to maintain a dialogue about the collective-bargaining concerns that were central to the struggle in its early stages hurt even more. June 5 exit polls showed that 36 percent of voters who said they came from union households intended to vote for Walker. Private sector unions found themselves scrambling in the weeks before the election to shore up a base that should have been secured from the start.
The Wisconsin results say that big money matters more—perhaps much more—now than it ever has. Many of Mitt Romney’s backers celebrated Walker’s win as a message that would resonate nationally (in fact, it may not even resonate in Wisconsin, as exit polls showed Obama leading Romney by a significant margin among voters who re-elected Walker). But that does not have to be the end of the story. “Democrats don’t have to have as much money as Republicans to compete in campaigns,” insists State Representative Fred Kessler, a Democrat who has been running campaigns for fifty years. “What they have to do is figure out how to spend the money they have in a way that counters the big money.”
“You can’t spend all your money on television. You’ve got to spend it on the ground,” says Congresswoman Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Milwaukee, which saw a significant increase in African-American turnout from 2010. “That’s the most important thing to take away from Wisconsin…. Even if it wasn’t quite enough, people have to realize that’s where you begin. That’s how you build the base for winning next time.”
And there has to be a next time. Republicans will continue to push their austerity agenda, in Wisconsin and nationally, and progressives have to get better at beating them. The great Wisconsin Progressive Robert La Follette, who suffered more than his share of defeats before he started winning against the robber barons of a century ago, got it right—for his time, and ours. “We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle,” he explained. “It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”