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.”