Volume 22, Number 3

Aggressively Ambivalent About The Wisconsin Recalls

Fred Schepartz

The revolution WAS televised. We just changed the channel.

This was my post on Facebook on Wednesday, August 9, the day after the recall elections for six Wisconsin Republican senators.

Obviously, I was not in the best of moods.

As a byproduct of the Wisconsin Protests, six Republican senators faced recall elections. The fateful day finally arrived. In the end, four of the six Republicans survived the recall. Republicans protected their majority, though the margin had dropped from 19-14 to 17-16.

I’d worked hard on the recalls, though certainly not as hard as a lot of people. Frankly, the dedicated people in the actual districts performed heroically, busting ass every day from the first day signatures were collected to the moment when the polls closed.

I spent hours making phone calls. I took roadies to Whitefish Bay and Baraboo. I even dragged myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m. so I could canvass Baraboo on Election Day and get back in town in time to work a ten-hour cab shift.

I’d also worked hard making phone calls for Joanne Kloppenburg in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April.

And again, all that work seemed to go for naught. I felt angry, frustrated and a bit used. More importantly, I could not help thinking about what we had lost in the process of the hard work done toward the recalls. Other than the daily Solidarity Sing-Alongs, the Capitol has been like a morgue. Even while I worked enthusiastically on the recalls, I felt like there was this giant sucking sound coming from the Capitol Square.

And I knew what it was. It was the recalls sucking the life out of the tremendous presence of protesters at the Capitol. Now, yes, I know that it would have been impossible to sustain the protests much longer than we did. In fact, it was pretty amazing that we were attracting pretty large numbers for a good month and a half. But the fact remains that the siren call for people to work on the recalls did a great job of dissipating the energy that we saw on a weekly, even a daily basis at the Capitol.

I cannot help but feel that something precious was lost in the process. During the height of the protests, it seemed like there was revolution in the air. It certainly occurred to me that this might be the time to act in a more revolutionary manner because, to borrow a line from Lando Calrissian, “we may never get a better shot at this.”

It is not that I felt that we were on the verge of overthrowing the government, but it seemed like with the numbers and the motivation, we could be in a position to demand a fairly radical change.

Of course, a big part of the problem was that I had no idea what that radical change could or should be, and that did not seem to be a big part of the discussion.

However, there certainly was talk about pushing the envelope toward a more radical form of direct action. There were serious, or at least semi-serious discussions about a general strike. There was even a little bit of planning, but it never got any further than that. In the end, direct action continued, but on a much smaller scale in a much more diffuse manner.

In the end, it all became about the recalls. In the end, the Democratic Party and some of the union leadership succeeded in co-opting the movement at the expense of large-scale direct action.

And in the end, I cannot help but wonder what we could have accomplished if we had put all our energy and resources into a different sort of endeavor that was not of the same all-or-nothing nature as the recall elections.

In July I was out east visiting family and seeing old friends. I looked up an old friend who I had not seen in 20 to 30 years. We were not particularly close, but I wanted to see her because she is active in the Maryland Democratic Party, and I wanted to talk to her about the Wisconsin Protests so perhaps she could get the word out to get Maryland Democrats to support the recalls.

She asked me about my most and least favorite parts of the protests. I said my favorite part was the fellowship with the other protesters. She didn’t care for my reply to the second half of the question. I replied that my least favorite part was working on electoral politics and losing.

But I keep working on these campaigns, even if I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football that Lucy keeps jerking away at the last moment. I will work on the Recall Walker campaign. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the nation to chop off the serpent’s head.

There is a bizarre and cruel irony at work here in Wisconsin. We have become an inspiration to oppressed people all over the world. When they rise up, they invoke Wisconsin. And yet here in Wisconsin, we find ourselves abandoning this kind of direct action in favor of electoral politics because we find ourselves backed into a corner. We live in a democracy, so we are coerced into using the democratic process to make change. The only problem is that our so-called democracy is extremely dysfunctional; yet, if we abandon the process, we do so at our peril.

I’ve written about this before. With electoral politics, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The game is rigged. If your side can overcome the absurd amount of soft money funneled into the race, some obscure county clerk might magically find 14,000 votes to transform victory into defeat. If your candidate does manage to win, the system does not generally allow for genuinely transformative change. And let’s face it, Democrats often don’t have the inclination to act in a truly progressive manner because the party is almost as beholden to corporations and big business as the Republicans. The only difference is that Democrats don’t seem to understand that the big money will go to the other side in a heartbeat if they think the Republicans will win, while the big money only stays loyal to the Democrats if it is sure that they will win.

And again, it’s an all-or-nothing business. You lose, that’s it. You’ve put in a ton of energy and resources that could’ve been deployed elsewhere, and you have nothing to show for it. You win, great, but that is only a means to an end. It is not an end unto itself.

All that said, I will state for the record that I would do it all over again if given another chance.

Joanne Kloppenburg was not a viable candidate for State Supreme Court, but almost won (or did, in fact, win). Her victory would have been an instant game changer, especially given that several lawsuits have been filed against the Walker regime.

As for the senate recalls, I agree with the argument that they were successful. Granted, we did not succeed in the Holy Grail of taking back the senate. However, the bottom line is that the Democrats are in a stronger position than before. And fairly progressive women have replaced two white men of questionable ethics. Nothing wrong with that.

Most importantly, the impenetrable Republican majority that allowed Walker and the Fitzgerald Brothers to ram through their extremist agenda is gone. The dynamic at the Capitol has been changed dramatically. There are swing votes that didn’t exist before. It is likely that Republicans will be forced to compromise and moderate their positions, something they are loath to do.

Unofficial Wisconsin Protest mouthpiece, John Nichols first presented this theory to Ed Schultz on Election Day. Some have dismissed it as spin. I don’t totally disagree with that notion, but I think there is a great deal of validity to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Walker/Fitzgerald reign of terror is over though we are going to have to wait and see what happens when some of the more pernicious legislation that is still out there hits the senate floor.

The primary swing vote belongs to Republican Senator Dale Schultz. Schultz attempted to introduce an amendment to sunset the collective bargaining legislation so that it would expire at the end of this fiscal year. The amendment never drew any traction, and Schultz claims that he was duped into missing his opportunity to introduce the amendment when he was called into Walker’s office. While Schultz met with Walker, the senate held a preliminary vote on the budget repair bill that prevented Schultz from ever being able to introduce his amendment.

In the end Schultz voted against Act 10. In addition, he has made overtures calling for more bipartisan cooperation. He and a Democratic Senator Tim Cullen toured each other’s districts. Last month, a group of Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of Health Services Dennis Smith (a Heritage Foundation hired gun) calling for Smith to reconsider turning down a grant from the federal government to pay for certain health services. Schultz was the only Republican to sign the letter.

However, it would be unwise to put a lot of faith in Schultz. I checked his voting record. He received high marks from both Wisconsin Right to Life and the obnoxious pro-business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

Still, Schultz is alienated from his own caucus and has demonstrated an ability and a willingness to listen to reasonable arguments, regardless of the source. As I posted on Facebook, Dale Schultz is my new BFF. Translation, I plan on writing to him about certain pieces of legislation that I would hope he would vote against. Yeah, maybe it’s a bit of a crapshoot, but we were not having this conversation prior to the recalls.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the new dynamic in the senate may actually make it easier for senate Democrats to pass bills that will become law. Had the Democrats taken back the senate, the result would’ve been gridlock. That’s not a bad thing. It would have spelled the sure end to Walker’s reign of terror. However, I think we can be pretty certain that the assembly would have refused to pass any bills passed by the senate because that’s how the Republicans roll. Now, if the senate Democrats pass a bill, it will be with bipartisan support, which certainly would make it more likely to pass in the assembly and be signed by Walker.

Wonkishness aside, perhaps the most important victory we can claim from the recalls is that it was a strong demonstration that we are the people with the real people power. We forced six Republican senators to face recall. The Republicans could only challenge half that number of Democrats. We won two elections. Republican candidates lost all their races by double-digits. Walker showed declining support in almost all districts. He’s in trouble, and he knows it.

So-called conservative movements have been exposed as nothing but smoke and mirrors. The poor showing in the recall elections lends strong credence to allegations of fraud perpetrated during the recall petition canvassing campaigns. Tea Party candidate Kim Simac, who was supposed to seriously challenge Jim Holperin, lost by ten percentage points. And let’s not forget the big deal made over Sarah Palin coming to the Capitol. Despite the fancy setup bankrolled by Koch Brothers front group Americans for Prosperity, the crowd to see Palin was quite sparse and was well drowned out by Capitol Protesters who outnumbered the conservatives by a wide margin.

All this fuss about the supposed grass-roots nature of the Tea Party. The reality that we saw in the recalls is that it’s really about a small, noisy group that’s allied with some serious big money interests.

Or in other words, the Silent Majority is neither.

Lefties, progressives, liberals and Democrats. They’re the ones with the real people power.

And that brings us back to my original point. We’ve accomplished great things, and I believe we will continue to do so, but we cannot forget about direct action. We cannot afford to ignore the electoral arena, but we must not let it be the be-all and end-all.

We can work with the Democratic Party, but we need to lead it. We cannot let it lead us.

Most importantly, we need to think in a genuinely strategic manner. And let’s remember, strategy is not tactics strung together. I don’t know exactly what our strategy should be, but I would say we need long-term goals above and beyond electing Democrats.

Maybe I do have an idea. I’ve said all along that the struggle in Wisconsin is about preserving human rights. Perhaps what we need is an American Declaration of Human Rights. That’s just my idea. I think it’s a good one, but I know it’s not the only one.

What’s most important is that we continue to act, that we don’t go back into hibernation, that we do something—anything.