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by danps

The Wisconsin recall: myths and talking points

1:20 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Part 1.

Part 2.

Yesterday I looked at Bruce Murphy’s article about the Wisconsin recall, and how Murphy thought Democrats and unions brought defeat on themselves. There is one point he made that fits in with a purely political analysis, which is what I’m focusing on today. He writes: “Had Tom Barrett — or any Democrat — offered an alternative, some approach that would eliminate the abuse of public benefits without crushing unions, while protecting the many public workers who are not overpaid, this could have carried the day against Walker.”

This is actually really off base. Barrett has a famously equivocal relationship with unions, and was definitely not their first choice. Given how central unions were to initiating the recall, it seems crazy to have nominated someone who has clashed with them in the past. Wouldn’t a solidly pro-union candidate have been a better choice – someone who could have amplified the issues of the previous year and forcefully made the case for the right to collective bargaining?

Political analysis elsewhere seems off as well. One talking point is that Walker was able to use his vast war chest to rehabilitate his image in the months before the election. Maybe, however, his low poll numbers were almost bound to improve.

Simply put, once the union-busting law was signed he didn’t have anything close to that controversial going on. At that point regression to the mean took over. We actually have a useful parallel in Ohio. John Kasich’s poll numbers have gone up ten points since the hottest part of the SB5/Issue 2 controversy last year. His approval rating is still very low, but it’s nothing like it was when he was actively antagonizing a large part of the citizenry.

Yet Kasich hasn’t been running ads or otherwise making himself visible to Ohioans; he’s just stopped pissing them off. That’s enough for a pretty substantial rebound in approval. There’s no reason to think the same wouldn’t have happened with Walker even without a single TV ad. I don’t think it’s quite right to say he bought his way out of his hole.

I think people may be overreacting a bit to the role that money played in this race, and in the role it plays nationally. Or at least, the ability of money to shape public opinion in the absence of an effective countervailing force. People might by default be receptive to what they see on TV, but are much more powerfully influenced by the actual people around them and by their lived experience. That is yet another reason for the left to devote its energies to building mass movements instead of buying mass media.

We can’t compete in the money race. We are outgunned. We might be able to mitigate its worst effects with some of our own money, but trying to go toe to toe at that level is a fool’s errand. Our advantage is in the ability to appeal to people’s real lives, and to build up our numbers by grassroots organizing. We’ll never be able to outspend them, so we should focus on outworking them. (Caveat: my understanding is that the Tea Party folks did a good job of GOTV – including finding Walker voters in left-leaning areas like Dane County.)

Of course, doing that would require a less vertical hierarchy. It would require making room for other groups to be empowered and for more local control to flourish. In other words, finding ways to partner with the mass movement instead of trying to co-opt it – and finding a way to get all those thousands of people who stood out in the cold involved in a way that resonates with them.


One of the driving factors of the recall effort was the success in Ohio of the No On Issue 2 movement. The resounding success of that vote was a real jolt of adrenaline for Wisconsin activists, and they charged ahead with their petition gathering. If I recall correctly, the state Democratic party was ambivalent, and the national party actively discouraged it. That might explain the reluctance of the party apparatus to give its unstinting support to the effort.

Ohio and Wisconsin both ended up with a little over 900,000 verified signatures for their efforts. Ohio ended up with over 2 million votes against Issue 2 (also Cf.); Wisconsin just over 1.1 million for the recall. Ohio has more voters, so there was a higher ceiling. Assuming everyone who signed a recall petition voted for the recall, Wisconsin activists did an astonishing job of reaching out during the petition drive. Just imagine if that energy had been properly harnessed.

by danps

The Wisconsin recall: how the movement could have helped

4:55 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Part 1.

Since the recall was run as a conventional political campaign, instead of one grounded in the turmoil of last year, it’s fair to ask how the latter might have looked. Doug Henwood offered these thoughts:

Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign – media, door knocking, phone calling – to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.

It seemed like the Barrett campaign never bothered to make the case for unions in general or collective bargaining in particular. I kept thinking, did last winter just go down the memory hole? Why isn’t anyone bringing up the unjust law that was the catalyst for all this?

It’s possible Barrett didn’t share activists’ sense of urgency, or Democrats had reasons for running a conventional campaign, or there were some really hard hitting attacks on Walker’s union busting not visible outside the state. But Barrett’s campaign sure seemed spectacularly unsuited for the moment it occurred in.

The unwillingness to speak up forcefully in favor of collective bargaining left the field open to the right. Bruce Murphy’s post-election analysis shows how the issue got framed in conservative-friendly terms. He uses the Milwaukee County pension scandal from years ago as his jumping off point.

I don’t think it’s specious to keep highlighting it, either. It could be seen as nursing a grievance or as trying to wring every last ounce of political advantage out of a favorable issue, but I’m a believer in revealing moments: Those rare times when some person or body does something that shows an essential quality they are otherwise careful to conceal.

That is why I think Paul Weyrich’s comments from way back in 1980 are still worth quoting: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Vote suppression is a longstanding conservative priority, but most of the time they are too smart to state that plainly. So they jump up and down about things like vote fraud that exist only in their elaborately constructed fantasies but not here on planet Earth, and in the name of fighting that nonproblem create an actual problem. Weyrich’s moment of candor deserves to be remembered because it reveals what is really going on.

Of course, that same principle is available to conservatives. Someone like Murphy is free to make the case that the pension scandal deserves to be mentioned even a decade later because to him it reveals something essential about unions. If you want to know what they are really after and what they’ll really do when given the opportunity, look at the pension scandal. It has iconic status on the right and will be regularly hauled out by them for as long as the left cannot be bothered to come up with a forceful response.

Murphy starts with the greedy, corrupt public official angle (emph. in orig.): “County Executive F. Thomas Ament and the board of supervisors passed a plan that would have given Ament a $2 million lump sum pension had he served until 2008 as he planned. Countless county veterans left with payouts of $300,000 to $1 million, and this was in addition to a monthly pension they will draw for life. The plan’s obscene costs must be paid by local property taxpayers, few of whom will ever enjoy such a lucrative retirement.”

Note that this has nothing to do with unions or collective bargaining. That doesn’t matter though; the ability of the right to conflate public corruption with unions is what matters, and liberals need to find a way to sever that connection in the public mind. Running a conventional D vs. R campaign is just about the worst way to do that, because it invites all those who might have been sympathetic towards the thousands protesting in the statehouse to think instead of party machinery.

An argument like Murphy’s is almost guaranteed to get traction then, and here is the irony: Those involved in the movement might well have exactly the same dim view of the (risk-averse, cynical, grasping) officials and union leaders as the conservatives do.

Next, Murphy brings up this: “Numerous UW officials gained a $7,000 to $12,000 sweetener in their annual retirement payment…[and] a second plan that increased the lifetime retirement payment for some teachers (again, a privileged group of veterans) by as much as 400%. Add to that the lifetime health insurance Milwaukee teachers had successfully bargained for, and the impact for taxpayers was huge.”

Here again, there was no rebuttal. How many people think an extra $7,000 per year in a pension is an outrageous extravagance? What was the amount the second plan added up to? More generally, what do people think is a fair and decent pension for those who have spent decades in public service? Should we begrudge them every penny and honor those commitments with an air of pinch-faced resentment? Or is it fair to say that a comfortable retirement is an appropriate benefit for those who went into professions with a lower wage ceiling because they wanted to serve something more than a corporation’s executives and shareholders?

It’s not hard to make a case against the politics of grievance: Hey, if cops, teachers and firefighters have a good pension, why shouldn’t you? Instead of trying to chisel them out of their benefits why not start asking why yours aren’t that good? Maybe the scumbags rewarding themselves hand over fist could share a little with the workers who create the profits in the first place. Maybe workers should be able to successfully make demands on management. Maybe a strong union and collective bargaining would help do that. Seems like a winning message to take to the voters.

by danps

The Wisconsin recall: a movement sidelined

4:10 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The recall election in Wisconsin has produced a great deal of analysis, most of which seems to have highlighted the poll finding that 60% of voters thought a recall was only appropriate in cases of malfeasance. I have a hard time seeing that as being decisive, though. The biggest reason is that zeroing in on exit polling overshadows potentially more important factors that were in play leading up to the election.

Bruce Dixon’s post on the recall is the best one I’ve read, because it puts the spotlight on the real problem: The channeling of a mass movement into an electoral campaign. He notes the irreconcilable differences between the two; for instance, mass movements require a certain amount of risk taking by leaders. By contrast, a typical political campaign is almost pathologically risk-averse – from the candidate to the major supporters and all the way down the line.

There was lots of talk during the Madison occupation about a general strike. Now, some of that may have just been garden variety wish fulfillment, but there seemed to be a genuine amount of sincerity as well. But a general strike is not something that happens spontaneously or quickly; it’s the result of a long process and the culmination of a series of smaller efforts. At least, winning ones are. (Winning matters!) The Madison protests could easily have been the impetus to start something like that.

Successful actions that built towards a general strike might have worked, particularly if timed in conjunction with the recall vote. Perhaps it could have been tied to a good government initiative like holding elections on the weekend – when it’s far more convenient for most people. That initiative could then be pursued after the election regardless of the result. It would also provide a source of ongoing engagement for those participating in what had been a nascent mass movement. (A year probably wouldn’t have been long enough to build towards a general strike; the point is to look for smaller actions to connect to larger strategic goals.)

The electoral process can certainly play a role in that process, but it must remain distinct from it. A mass movement should only get involved at that level to the extent that is serves the movement’s long term goals and strategies. The Kloppenburg/Prosser state Supreme Court election was a good example. It happened after the union-busting law was passed and provided a rallying point for many activists who were demoralized; it connected to the movement because of its potential to change the political composition of the body that would ultimately rule on the legality of the new anti-worker legislation; it happened at (I believe) a relative lull when there were no other major initiatives underway. In short, it was an election that fit well with the movement’s objectives.

Having the entire movement subsumed by the political process is a great way to destroy it though, as Dixon explains. Movements need the ongoing pursuit of goals, and that obviously is not going to be enthusiastically supported by political parties – which prefer to conserve their energies for election season. To the extent that the movement allowed its energy to be channeled into elections and away from activism, it allowed its vitality to be sapped.

Having the campaign subsume the movement didn’t work from a political perspective either. The lack of a strong outside presence continuing to press the case against Walker’s policies turned the recall into a rerun. Same two candidates, same talking points, same everything as a year and a half ago. And as it turned out, same result.

Finally, everyone was making a big deal about the resistance of the electorate to use the recall for political reasons (though see here), and Walker’s subsequent ability to blanket the airwaves with anti-recall messaging. That analysis misses two things. First, Walker’s money advantage may well have bought more ads, better consultants, extensive focus group testing and so on – but it’s also just possible that Walker is a very gifted politician with a flair for framing issues in an advantageous way.

Second, if Walker wanted to talk about usurping the democratic process, why didn’t we hear about how Walker and company short-circuited the legislative process to hustle through laws on concealed carry, voter screening, gerrymandering, tax cuts for businesses and funding cuts to public education? Why didn’t we see videos like the one here, or this one, or reminders of recent history? The recall effort was conceived in extraordinary turmoil, not garden variety sour grapes. Without the movement around to remind people of that, all that was left was an ordinary campaign.