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The Progressive

Accountability in Defeat: On a Whupping in Wisconsin

Spare me the spin. This was a whupping.

After sixteen months of the most historic and exciting citizens’ uprising that I’ve ever been a part of in my thirty-five years of progressive activism and journalism, we’re left with this disaster.

Scott Walker is governor for another two and a half years.

He claims vindication for his rightist onslaught.

The national rightwing media is carrying him around on their shoulders.

And the Koch Brothers are popping the expensive champagne.

Meanwhile, the movement—a real giant grassroots movement, which flooded the capitol square with more than 100,000 people and which gathered a million recall signatures—is disintegrating.

Actually, it began to disintegrate the moment the leaders (and who were they, exactly?) decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party channels rather than explore the full potential of the power that was latent but present in the streets back in February and March of 2011.

There were both strategic and procedural blunders that need to be accounted for.

Procedurally, decisions were made (again, who made them?) in a very undemocratic way. Here we had 100,000 people storming the square but there was no effort to include them in any meaningful—or even symbolic—decision-making process. No voice votes, no show of hands, no breaking up into smaller groups and reconvening with a set of demands and desires that flowed from below, no people’s mic ala the Occupy Movement.

We gathered at noon every day, we gathered every night, and we massed on the weekends, but then the decision was made (by whom?) to stop marching and essentially to go back to our home districts and throw all our energies into recalling state senators. I remember being at a protest and being told to do so from the podium.

There was a failure of imagination, and a failure of nerve, and a failure of process.

This has had at least four detrimental effects.

First, it diffused the protests not only geographically but emotionally.

Second, it destroyed the lesson that you can exercise power outside the electoral arena.

Third, it fed the assumption that the Democratic Party was the be all and end all.

And fourth, it took the mass power off the streets when it was needed there in case calamity struck.

Calamity did strike when the Republicans railroaded the bill through.

Calamity did strike when the state supreme court validated the decision in the most corrupt decision since Bush v. Gore.

Calamity did strike when the bill finally was implemented in August.

Calamity did strike when Waukesha County clerk Kathy Nickolaus all of a sudden found 14,000 missing votes in the state supreme court race to throw it to David Prosser.

But the people by then were dispersed.

There were many opportunities available to challenge Walker’s policies with mass civil disobedience.

One was when the Department of Administration refused to allow the occupation of the capitol to continue.

Another was when the Department of Administration closed the capitol doors.

And certainly when the bill was shoved through, that was an occasion to call for mass civil disobedience.

But the call never came.

Nor were more creative strategies tried. The Teamsters with their 18 wheelers, whose support was so emboldening, could have driven down Interstate 90 and 94 at 45 mph all day long for a week’s time to demonstrate that workers in Wisconsin weren’t going to take this lying down.

No coordinated workplace strategies were adopted.

Every union in the state could have caught the blue flu, so that workers in one trade after another would call in sick on alternating days.

They didn’t understand that Walker and the Fitzgeralds didn’t want to horse trade; they wanted to massacre.

Or unions could have told their members simply to “work to rule”—doing the bare minimum that their contracts required.

But none of these options were taken, and the only channel that all of the people’s energy was poured into was the very narrow and murky channel of the Democratic Party.

There was a failure of imagination, and a failure of nerve, and a failure of process.

There also was naivete. I was at a meeting of progressive activists and legislators shortly after Walker won the first time, and one of the legislators warned us that something terrible was going to come down soon. I asked how the unions were responding, and the legislator said, “They’re trying to hire the best Republican lobbyists they can find.”

They didn’t understand that Walker and the Fitzgeralds didn’t want to horse trade; they wanted to massacre.

Tactical blunders continued in the lead up to the recall. Walker was allowed to run one commercial after another from Thanksgiving to April Fool’s Day with barely a counter from labor or the Democrats. Where was the national AFL with its treasury during this time? This was the biggest pitched battle against workers, and the AFL-CIO barely showed up. Where was the Democratic Governors Association? Where was the DNC?

Then the union leadership handpicked Kathleen Falk, even though there was no groundswell of support for her whatsoever, a choice that embittered much of the movement’s base and proved unpopular on primary day.

And finally, Barack Obama never deigned to make an appearance, literally mailing it in with an Election Day tweet.

Yes, Walker had more money than Croesus, but come on!

And fundamentally, progressives and unionists in Wisconsin also have to wrestle with the obvious problem that union members, to an astonishing degree, actually voted for Walker. According to the exit polls, 38 percent of union households in Wisconsin voted for him—even more than last time!

Something is seriously wrong with the union movement in Wisconsin when so many of its own members actually vote for the guy who’s got his boot on their throats.

How can that be?

Have members become so disengaged from their unions that they don’t know why they exist?

Has the education arm of the unions simply withered away?

We, all of us, in unions and out, need to start talking to people right now who don’t agree with us and actively work to show them the damage that Walker and his ilk are doing to Wisconsin and to this country.

We can’t stay in our womb-like refuges in Madison and listen to Stephanie Miller in the morning and watch Ed Schultz at night and call it a day.

We’ve got to get out there and do the work of politics, which is talking to people and opening eyes and changing minds.

We can’t afford another loss like this one.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine.

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