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The Wisconsin recall: a movement sidelined

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.

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