Voters across Europe are rejecting politicians who have placed the mania for deficit cutting above all other needs, and the mainstream media are beginning to echo the mood, with even The Economist arguing that austerity is “strangling the eurozone’s chances of recovery.” As deeply flawed as the European experiment with austerity has been, however, at least it is commonly understood as a policy response to serious fiscal challenges. It’s different in the United States, where there has been little honest debate about the reasons for or the failures of austerity. This is unfortunate, as such a discourse would make it much easier for pundits to understand the June 5 Wisconsin recall elections for what they are: a grassroots rebellion against the determination of Republican Governor Scott Walker and his legislative allies to destroy unions, slash public sector wages and benefits, cut education funding and shred the social safety net.
Part of the problem is Walker’s steady refusal to be honest about his intentions. A year ago he claimed fiscal necessity required him to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. That claim, which Walker still repeats, was called into question this May by the release of a damning videotape from January 2011 that shows the governor discussing with a billionaire campaign donor strategies to weaken public sector unions and then go after all labor organizations to make Wisconsin “a completely red state.” The tape confirmed the worst suspicions of grassroots activists, who have demanded that Walker, his cronies and their crude fiscal and political intrigues be held to account.
It is because of that demand that Wisconsin is witnessing the most ambitious set of recall elections in American history: not just the executive branch but the most powerful legislative chamber could be flipped from Republican to Democratic control. If Walker and his allies are removed from office, the results will be seen across the country as a rejection of the false premise that cutting taxes for the rich while attacking unions and slashing services will somehow spur job growth. Walker promised that his policies would create 250,000 jobs. Instead of growth, the governor’s austerity agenda has brought about what the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies as the worst pattern of job losses in the nation. Walker’s Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, argues that the governor abandoned fiscal common sense and “created an ideological civil war…in the State of Wisconsin.”
Barrett, who handily won a crowded Democratic primary on May 8, is Walker’s opposite. Former Senator Russ Feingold hails Barrett, a former Congressman, as “a lifelong progressive [who]… stood with me in voting against the deregulation that led to the Wall Street crash, opposing the Patriot Act, and reforming our system of campaign finance.” Barrett also broke with Democratic and Republican presidents to oppose NAFTA and champion labor rights. But the Democrat is not just ideologically distinct from Walker. Whereas Walker’s a my-way-or-the-highway pol, Barrett is known for getting people to work together. Though his pragmatic approach to balancing budgets frustrated some local unions in Milwaukee and led to a split in the labor movement over whom to back in the primary, Barrett has now united unions and the party in the campaign to defeat Walker.
The challenge is that Republicans are also united, not just in Wisconsin but nationally, in their support for a governor hailed by Mitt Romney as a hero and role model. Barrett spent around $1 million to win his primary; Walker has already burned through $21 million, and his billionaire backers have spent millions more on “independent” ads. The unprecedented spending on behalf of Walker and his allies has made these recall elections an example of what campaigning has come to look like in the Citizens United era: Democrats can’t hope to match the staggering level of corporate cash raised by the GOP, so they will have to accelerate grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote drives. Wisconsin will test the prospect that people power might yet beat money power. Despite Walker’s cash advantage, his approval ratings are declining, and Barrett is running even with him in most polls. Why? Some of it has to do with the state’s stagnant economy, as well as corruption scandals that have led to felony charges against Walker aides and donors. But Walker’s big money from outside Wisconsin could probably spin those challenges away. What’s tripping him up is the fury of organized labor—which is providing some of the resources to fight the TV wars and is most focused on a massive voter mobilization campaign—combined with the tens of thousands of grassroots Wisconsinites who are determined to oust the governor.
The movement that occupied the state Capitol a year ago to oppose Walker’s attacks on unions and public services trained hordes of volunteers to gather the almost 1 million signatures that forced the recall election. Now those volunteers are countering Walker’s advertising onslaught with a door-to-door campaign focusing on the jobs data, which confirms the failure of his austerity agenda. Walker admits that if he is beaten on June 5, he won’t be the only loser. Other governors and policy-makers in Washington will, he says, be afraid of adopting his approach. He’s right. If people power beats money power in Wisconsin, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to sell the austerity lie as the fix for what ails America.