Selling Walker Short
We should let some mourning time pass before we figure out exactly why Scott Walker easily withstood Tuesday’s recall effort. It’s too soon for post-mortems. But analysis has already been put forward. It’s commentary largely centered around the influence of right-wing Super PACs and how badly Democratic challenger Tom Barrett was outspent.
The LA Times even ran a piece with the headline, “Billionaires buy Wisconsin recall election for Scott Walker.”
This may be partially true, but it misses a key campaign lesson: Walker had a real social base. We paid attention to the thousands mobilized to defend union rights in Wisconsin, but thousands were also energized around anti-union resentment. To them, union pensions, health benefits, and worker protections weren't the just reward for hard labor, something everyone deserved. Instead, many viewed them as special privileges stolen from more productive sectors in the private economy.
"Why not me?” wasn’t the question middle-class Walker supporters were asking. They were demanding to know, “Why them?” The rhetoric of austerity and shared sacrifice found a receptive middle-class audience far before Citizens United set free the coffers of billionaires.
There’s historical precedents for this. One can look at 1980s England and the way Tories like Margaret Thatcher rallied middle-class voters against the bureaucratic grey of the welfare state and the power of the British trade union movement. The working class there hasn’t feared well since, with a Third Way-minded Labor Party taking power in the 1990s, but continuing policies that served to undermine its very social base.
This brings to mind the ways in which Democratic governors and mayors across the country have continued with their own austerity agendas. They aren’t as bold as Walker and they’re keen to avoid set-piece battles, but the death by a thousand cuts variant of austerity is just as damaging.
So what is to be done? I’m not sure, but I do know it’s more than just getting money out of races like Tuesday’s recall. Placing some restraints will help, but in a class society, the rich are always going to find ways to exert their influence disproportionately. And, worst of all, the focus on Republican spending seems to go in hand with a tendency to see activity on the Right as “astroturf,” cooked up by the Koch brothers in some lair somewhere.
For starters, we should acknowledge right-wing political ferment as real and authentic, buttressed by real ideas. Our task going forward is to change the narrative and to contest the right-wing critiques that are fueling the in-roads against the social safety net.
On the political strategies and organizational forms that can help make this happen, Doug Henwood has an excellent post. My favorite part of it is the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
We didn't and the past day has felt like a long march to the gallows. A reminder, once again, of what losing feels like. It’s a feeling we've become far too comfortable with.