Vision: The missing element in the Wisconsin recall

The 99 per cent must find a positive vision, with or without the help of existing parties and powers.

    Vision: The missing element in the Wisconsin recall
    Gubernatorial candidate and Milwaukee's Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett trailed his Republican opponent in raising campaign funding by a factor of 7 [REUTERS]

    San Pedro, CA - In the simplest terms, the Wisconsin recall election, which failed to remove Governor Scott Walker from office, was a post-Citizens United battle of people power vs money power, pitting an unprecedented army of home-grown volunteers against an avalanche of outside money.  

    On the anti-Walker side, it was only the third time in American history that enough signatures were gathered to recall a governor - the very first time they were gathered to recall a right-wing one. In sharp contrast, Walker wallowed in a 9-1 cash advantage, amounting to tens of millions of dollars flooding the Wisconsin airwaves for months in advance. Walker raised $30.5 million, roughly 66 per cent of it from out of state, his Democratic opponent, Tom Barret, raised just $3.9 million, only 26 per cent of it from out of state. What's more Walker spent some of those millions railing against out-of-state money being used to finance the recall effort against him. From the very beginning, in February 2011, sinister out-of-state influences have been a staple of Walker's rhetoric. 

    But in broader terms, that contrast between people and money only begins to tell the story that climaxed with Walker's survival yesterday. After all, a similarly lopsided money advantage did Republican Meg Whitman absolutely no good in California in 2010. Even virtually unlimited money can't always buy everything. There has to be something for the money to work with - something more that those fighting against it just can't overcome. To understand Walker's recall victory, we have to understand the larger battle it is part of - which takes us back to how it all began.

    In February 2011, demonstrations erupted in Wisconsin just days after Egyptian protesters drove "President" Hosni Mubarak from power. Beginning with crowds of about 10,000, the numbers swelled continuously day to day, eventually surpassing 100,000. The connection between the two events was unmistakable, affirmed repeatedly by demonstrators on both sides. There were vast differences, of course, not least the massive deadly force used against the brave Egyptians who captured the world's imagination. But both were part of a much broader mass uprising against unaccountable elite power, encompassing not just the Arab Spring, but European countries as well, from distressed southern European countries like Greece and Spain all the way up to Britain, where UK Uncut gave rise to an American off-shoot which served as a precursor to the Occupy Movement.  

    I wrote about this global wave of demonstrations and its historical antecedents - most notably, 1848 and 1968 - here last June, saying, "These recurrent world-historical waves represent a prolonged struggle to realise a more just, egalitarian world - a yearning that crosses all manner of cultural boundaries, though it finds unique expression wherever it arises." Since I wrote that, Egypt's elections and ongoing repression have brought considerable disappointment to many whose hopes were raised by the overthrow of Mubarak. A similar dynamic of disappointed has played out in Wisconsin as well.  

    But this was always to be expected - at least to some extent - as the examples of 1848 and 1968 foretell. Neither of those revolutionary waves succeeded in the short run, but they permanently altered the landscape of imagined possibilities in which the shape of the future was forged. In the first case, a generation later Otto von Bismark - one of Europe's leading conservative politicians of the century - established the German welfare state, largely in order to co-opt support for the socialist-oriented Social Democratic Party, and their plan for universal healthcare - all of which came directly out of the revolutionary visions of 1848. Similarly, social movements which played a leading role in 1968 have redefined how virtually everyone, from California to Calcutta, thinks about race, gender, the environment, and human rights.  

    Thus far, the Arab Spring and its global echoes have not been as path-breaking as the revolutionary waves of 1848 and 1968. Like the revolutionaries of 1848 before them, the youth of 1968 wanted something more and different from the world that was offered to them. But the youth of 2011 were - at least initially - responding to seeing a world they wanted being snatched away from them. This was certainly the case in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It was the case for Mohamed Bouazizi, and for the vast majority of other Tunisians inspired by his self-sacrifice.

    They were motivated by promises made and broken - and this is what has mostly dominated the Democratic organising in Wisconsin as well. A more pro-active vision, drawing on a wider range of dreams, has begun to emerge since then, most distinctly, in the US, via the Occupy movement, but also in the Egyptian Facebook generation's continuing struggle for democratic self-governance and new forms of organisation. If the world-wide revolutionary wave of 2011 is to reshape the world over the course of decades, it will need to shift much more decisively into nurturing, developing, and working out the implications of a whole new set of dreams and aspirations that simply cannot fit within the confines of the pre-2011 world.

    Wisconsin was not the only state where Republicans moved to crush public-sector unions by taking away fundamental rights in 2011. As Harold Meyerson pointed out just before the recall, a very similar attempt in Ohio - a more GOP-friendly state - was defeated overwhelmingly (2-1) by voters, because Ohio has a referendum process that allowed voters to directly reject the anti-union measure without passing judgment on their governor. In contrast, Meyerson noted:

    "The Walker-Barrett rematch has been about a lot more than the repeal of collective bargaining rights - it's been about the state's overall economic performance and a host of other issues, as well as the controversial law that gave it rise. For some voters, it's also about the propriety of recalling a governor who may have committed political sins but, at least as yet, no indictable crimes."

    In short, it was embedded in the entire pre-existing matrix of American politics. The Wisconsin recall was not just dominated by out-of-state Republican money, but also by out-of-state Republican narratives as well - which is just what happens when fresh new narratives are lacking. These ranged from blaming the government for the private sector financial meltdown, to fantasies of rampant voter fraud. It matters relatively little that all of these narratives are false - they still determine what people are paying attention to - and what they are not. In this battle, Republicans are greatly assisted by the fact that many elite Democrats (up to and including President Obama) at least partly share in some of the underlying assumptions.

    In the immediate aftermath of the election, conservative exile David Frum wrote:

    "Democrats interpret Wisconsin not as a battle over wages and benefits, but as an illegitimate attempt to rewrite the rules of politics to their permanent disadvantage. They are confirmed in a view that the Republican party is a force for concentrated wealth, contemptuous of democracy and fair play. Democrats will emerge from this loss radicalized, not chastened."

    This viewpoint is well-justified by the facts. It's essentially the same perspective expressed by congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, in their new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, which I discussed two weeks ago ("Breaking ranks: The sidelining of two establishment giants"). And it's nothing new. From Watergate to Iran/Contra to Bush v. Gore, Republicans have a long history breaking the rules, and ignoring the norms of decent democratic behavior.  

    The last time a governor was recalled, back in 2003 in California, cognitve linguist George Lakoff wrote about what was happening then, and noted that only one framework adequately and successfully described what Republicans were up to - the framework of a power grab. It was a framework that some Democrats briefly used, and hastily dropped, but one that is profoundly appropriate, given how relentlessly Republicans seek to change the rules any time that it suits them. And yet, it is only sufficient to name the negative. In certain limited situations - like the Ohio referendum to restore union rights that Meyerson cited - this will be enough. But in the long run, as the examples of 1848 and 1968 teach us, it is the positive vision of something new that is key to the reshaping of history. That is what was missing in the Wisconsin recall fight. That is what the 99 per cent most needs to find, with or without the help of existing parties and powers.

    Paul H Rosenberg is Senior Editor at Random Lengths News, an alternative bi-weekly newspaper in the Los Angeles Harbour Area. Prior to that, he freelanced primarily as a book reviewer, specialising in serious non-fiction - history, science, culture, politics, public policy, etc. Rosenberg runs the site, Merge Left - a community of progressive thinkers free to submit their own content.

    You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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