Scott Walker survived his recall last night in Wisconsin, and when all is said and done, he will have defeated Tom Barrett by almost precisely the same spread as in 2010 – by around 53-47. The sour mood of the night was tempered somewhat by an apparent victory for Democrat John Lehman in one of the four state Senate races, which gives control of the state Senate back to Democrats, the first time a recall election has led to a change in the composition of a legislative chamber in US history. This does at least end the trifecta in Wisconsin, and divided government will possibly keep at bay any further impositions from the Walker agenda.
But for a moment, let’s focus on the Walker recall. He succeeded in keeping a stable 53% of the electorate in his corner, despite an extreme overreach from the themes of his 2010 campaign, despite the pushback from the left in the state. The money helped – Walker and his allies massively outspent Barrett, and discounting outside money it was about 10:1 Walker – but you also must weigh in a number of factors.
• The real fundraising imbalance: I see a lot of people saying “it’s Citizens United” as shorthand for the explosion of spending in this, the most expensive election in Wisconsin history. That’s not true. The real culprit was an obscure state campaign finance law that allowed Walker, the incumbent, to raise unlimited money while recall petitions were processed all the way through to the recall primary. Barrett’s donations were term-limited. THAT was the source of the massive imbalance in campaign spending, not any judicial ruling at the federal level. It’s frightful that never became an issue in the campaign, or that nobody understands that.
• Wisconsin’s view on recalls: 6 out of 10 in exit polls said they only viewed serious misconduct in office as a threshold for recall. Given the numbers, obviously some voters felt Walker rose to that standard. But not nearly enough. This was the end of a long road of voting for Wisconsinites, many months removed from the uprising in Madison, and a majority of voters just didn’t believe in the project, in the end. That owes a lot to…
• The grasp for a message: The impetus for the recalls, the reason voters went to the polls yesterday, faded into the background. “Collective bargaining” wasn’t at the top of voters’ minds. Tom Barrett ran a campaign where he first appealed to the need for unity, when voters showed with their above-2010 turnout in early June for a recall that they weren’t interested in unity. Then he ran with jobs numbers, which devolved into a he said/the guy with a lot of money said, and the guy with a lot of money won that argument. Then there was a late push to capitalize on the John Doe investigation, which still may ensnare Walker. Ultimately, it was too late to get traction there. Never was there an effort to actually recapture the spirit of the recalls, by stating clearly and forcefully why assaulting worker’s rights was out of bounds.
Maybe it was impossible to do that in a traditional electoral campaign. When protesters put down their protest signs and picked up a clipboard, they necessarily squeezed themselves into a narrow form of political action, and an uncertain one at best. They had to contend with Barrett, who wasn’t the first choice of labor, given his forcing through concessions on Milwaukee public employee unions, as their symbol, rather than a decentralized movement of citizen activists. They disempowered themselves by running through a traditional party apparatus. I am not completely convinced that striking would have been worthwhile, or in some respects, even permissable. But it’s worth asking.
But the most important point to be made, the one that makes me call this a continuing blow to labor, is the simple point that:
• Walker already won the war. The policy of defunding the left, defunding the checks on conservative power, was the entire point of Scott Walker’s agenda. And it was successful when he signed Act 10, the anti-worker law, last year. The entire point was to decimate public unions, one of the last bastions of labor strength. And that’s exactly what happened; public unions in Wisconsin lost thousands of members over the past year. As a result, labor couldn’t keep up with outside spending to compensate for the massive loophole-induced funding lead Walker had. Labor didn’t have the numbers or the public sentiment to make the argument for the importance of unions and collective bargaining. Walker divided and conquered, and it worked. Middle class workers look on public employees with increasing envy, coveting their pensions and benefits. The middle class was pit against one another, and without a base to collectivize their power, the forces of management, of business, cruised to victory. This becomes a downward spiral; labor cannot get back their rights, workers see no reason to keep paying dues for nothing, and the organization fades away.
The Nation’s John Nichols is often so sunny on TV and in print that he can seem out of touch, but he told me in February 2011 – during the occupation of the Capitol – that Walker would likely survive a recall. He understood the shift in the power dynamic here. The unions were punched in the gut by Act 10, and they had a series of poor choices, which they bungled in their own right. This may have been a wake-up call to the left, but that should have happened the moment that Walker stripped workers of their collective bargaining rights. And if conservatives are smart – and on this stuff, they are – it will be just the beginning. Indiana went right-to-work this year. Wisconsin’s rollbacks on worker power have been cemented. Every other state currently led by conservatives will be next.
The labor movement represents one of the only remaining checks on corporate power, in the fight for economic justice. They have not proven themselves capable of withstanding what amounts to the final onslaught. Union density has declined from 33% in the 1960s to 8% today. I don’t think you can look at this result and say they’ve reached the bottom. Labor must come up with a different strategy to fight back. But there’s a question of whether the deck is too stacked against them now.