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Getting Rolled in Wisconsin

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Posted on Jun 11, 2012
meghankhines (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

A two-week occupation of the capitol and months of protests didn’t,  however, deter Walker and Republican lawmakers. He signed his budget repair bill, known as Act 10, into law in March. But that doesn’t mean the Wisconsin uprising had no effect. For one thing, the “Walkerville”  occupation of the grounds outside the state capitol helped inspire the “Bloombergville” protest in New York City targeting Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That, in turn, would be a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street events of the following September and later the Occupy movement nationwide. Without Wisconsin, without the knowledge that such things could still happen in America, there might never have been an Occupy.

Hijacking the Uprising

By the time Occupy Wall Street took off, the Wisconsin uprising had swapped its come-one-come-all organizing message for a far narrower and more traditional political mission. Over the summer of 2011, the decision was made that the energy and enthusiasm displayed in Madison should be channeled into recall elections to defeat six Republican state senators who had voted for Walker’s anti-union Act 10. (Three Democratic senators would, in the end, face recall as well.) By that act, Democrats and unions hoped to wrestle control of the senate away from Walker and use that new power to block his agenda.

The Democrats won two of the 2011 recalls, one short of gaining control of the Senate, and so the Republicans clung to their majority.

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What followed was more of the same, but with the ante upped. This time, the marquee race would be the recall of Walker himself. Launched last November, the grassroots campaign to recall the governor put the populist heart of the Wisconsin uprising on full display. Organizing under the United Wisconsin banner, 30,000 volunteers statewide gathered nearly one million signatures to trigger the election. The group’s people-powered operation recaptured some of the spirit of the Capitol occupation, but the decision had been made:  recalling Walker at the ballot box was the way forward.

The Walker recall effort would, in fact, splinter the masses of anti-Walker protesters. Many progressives and most of the state’s labor unions rallied behind former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk who, in January 2012, announced her intent to challenge Walker. Tom Barrett,  who had lost the governor’s race to Walker in 2010, didn’t announce his candidacy until late March, his entry pitting Democrat against Democrat,  his handful of union endorsements pitting labor against labor. Unions pumped $4 million into helping Falk clinch the Democratic nomination. In the end, though, it wasn’t close: Barrett stomped her in the May 8th primary by 24 percentage points.

By now, the Madison movement was the captive of ordinary Democratic politics in the state. After all, Barrett was hardly a candidate of the uprising. People who had protested in the streets and slept in the capitol groused about his uninspired record on workers’ rights and public education. He never inspired or unified the movement that had made a recall possible—and it showed on Election Day: Walker beat Barrett by seven percentage points, almost his exact margin of victory in 2010. Democrats and their union allies needed to win over new voters and old enemies; by all accounts they failed.

And had Barrett by some miracle won, after a few days of celebration and self-congratulation, those in the Madison movement would have found themselves in the same box, in the same broken system, with little sense of what to do and, in a Barrett governorship, little hope. Win or lose, there was loss written all over the recall decision.

The Fate of the Uprising

The takeaway from Walker’s decisive win on Tuesday is not that Wisconsin’s new populist movement is dead. It’s that such a movement does not fit comfortably into the present political/electoral system,  stuffed as it is with corporate money, overflowing with bizarre ads and media horse-race-manship. Its members’ beliefs are too diverse to be confined comfortably in what American electoral politics has become. It simply couldn’t be squeezed into a system that stifles and, in some cases, silences the kinds of voices and energies it possessed.

The post-election challenge for the members of Wisconsin’s uprising is finding a new way to fight for and achieve needed change without simply pinning their hopes on a candidate or an election. After all,  that’s part of what absorbed the nation when a bunch of students first moved into the Wisconsin state capitol and wouldn’t go home, or when a ragtag crew of protesters camped out in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and wouldn’t leave either. In both cases, they had harnessed the outrage felt by so many Americans for a cause other than what’s usually called “politics” in this country.


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