1 Why Did So Many Workers Vote for Walker?
2 Lessons of the Wisconsin Uprising
Why Did So Many Workers Vote for Walker?
by Jim Cavanaugh | Fri, 06/08/2012 - 12:25pm
The results of the Wisconsin recall election were very
similar to the first run of this matchup in November
2010, when Scott Walker beat Tom Barrett. This means
that the radical right agenda of the GOPers elected in
2010 has not turned off the voters.
How can a government of the 1% receive so much support
from the 99%?
In the case of the Wisconsin election, there's been a
lot of finger pointing and speculation post-election:
Walker used loose campaign finance rules to overwhelm
Barrett financially; Obama didn't come to Wisconsin;
unions didn't force the collective bargaining issue
front and center. And so on.
Yet pre-election polling and Election Day exit polling
showed that the vast majority of voters had taken their
positions months before the serious campaigning. So, the
money and the celebrities made little difference. And
people were already as informed on the issues as they
wanted to be.
The fact is the radical right is very good at
propaganda. They have used race and cultural issues to
hold their base and they have used anti-government
rhetoric in an era of frustrated economic hopes and
resentment to expand that base to majority status.
Walker, even more so than in 2010, ran against Milwaukee
His negative ads against Milwaukee Mayor Barrett were
actually negative ads against the mayor's city, equating
it with high unemployment, rising property taxes, crime,
and poverty. This is the tried-and-true GOP race card
because everybody knows Milwaukee has a substantial
population of dark-skinned people.
And Madison, of course, is the state capital where
privileged bureaucrats earn too much, enjoy too rich
benefits, and do too little work.
Walker did not dream up this argument. Even before the
2010 election, on-the-ground research from a University
of Wisconsin professor showed that ordinary
Wisconsinites outside of Madison had a very negative
view of this city of large government office buildings,
a fairly high standard of living, and liberal politics.
Walker simply exploited an existing bias.
Exit polling showed Walker won the votes of a majority
of non-college graduates, along with way too many union
households (around 38 percent) in both 2010 and 2012.
Meanwhile, college graduates--the ever-shrinking middle-
income households--and the very poor did not vote for
In other words, way too much of the working class voted
We progressive labor people might smugly shake our heads
and ask, how can these people vote against their own
interests? While some of them are serious cultural
conservatives or racists, probably a majority
legitimately see themselves as actually voting in their
own self interest.
People struggling to get by on $12-15 an hour have to
watch every penny. And the Republican message of small
government and low taxes resonates every time a worker
pays sales tax, property tax, or income tax.
And thanks in part to a gullible or lazy media which
dutifully and uncritically repeats GOP propaganda about
the eventual demise of Social Security and Medicare,
struggling workers have a jaundiced view of their
payroll taxes. The Republicans, with their expensive
wars and tax giveaways for the wealthy, are certainly
not the party of small government and fiscal
responsibility, but they have sold their message well.
If progressives hope to regain governing power, they
have to win back the "unfriendlies" in the working
class, as Mike Amato correctly points out. They might
not be able to garner the support of the devoted racists
and cultural conservatives, but they can and must win
the loyalty of the others.
We can get started right away with the issue of taxes.
Not by promising tax cuts, but rather tax fairness. At
every level of government in the United States our tax
structure is one of the most regressive in the world.
Obama, to his credit, has made some effort to address
this by calling for the Buffet rule, which would lift
taxes on millionaires, and an end to the Bush tax cuts
for the super rich. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton (who I can
now publicly admit I could never bring myself to vote
for) undermines this push by giving the Republican
argument that rolling back these tax cuts would hurt the
As usual, Democrats do not seem to have a coherent and
consistent philosophy on matters of important public
policy. Nor do they appear to have a plan beyond the
The Republicans clearly do.
Unions and other progressives must push the Democrats or
some other vehicle to pursue a coherent and consistent
pro-working class agenda, or we will continue to be
governed by Walker types and to wring our hands over
this state of affairs.
Lessons of the Wisconsin Uprising
By Chad Alan Goldberg
June 8, 2012
I want to take this opportunity to respond to two recent
blog posts which reflect upon the usefulness of
electoral politics in the wake of the Wisconsin recall
election: one by Jeffrey Goldfarb ("On Wisconsin," June
6, 2012) and the other by Doug Henwood ("Walker's
Victory, Un-Sugar-Coated"). I am in basic agreement with
Jeff Goldfarb's main points, though I have a few of my
own to add. With Doug Henwood, I am in strong
Elections matter, as Jeff Goldfarb argues, and not just
presidential elections. Elections are what enabled
Republicans to gain power in state legislatures and the
U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. Their electoral
success in Wisconsin is what empowered them to legislate
a radical assault on labor and public services there.
Unless they are dislodged from power through elections,
they will continue to use their power in familiar ways.
But ironically, even as the right demonstrates the
effectiveness of electoral politics, some radicals are
now arguing that the left should abandon elections.
Following Walker's victory on Tuesday, a longtime friend
of mine wrote that Wisconsin's unions should have
organized a general strike instead of fighting Walkerism
by means of elections. This is almost surely an
erroneous conclusion. Exit polls showed that 38 percent
of voters from union households voted for Walker in the
recall election, suggesting that solidarity was neither
broad nor deep enough to pull off a general strike.
Moreover, rather than forcing a repeal of Walker's anti-
union legislation, a strike in Wisconsin would more
likely have ended like the 1981 PATCO strike, another
iconic instance of government union-busting that
reportedly inspired Walker. I do not oppose strikes and
other forms of disruptive protest under all
circumstances; I only insist that anyone who cares about
the consequences of their actions must use these methods
intelligently. Their effectiveness depends on the
ability of protesters to surmount a host of practical
obstacles, well documented in sociological studies of
social movements, including the likelihood of severe
reprisals. Without some serious thinking about how
protesters might withstand reprisals and overcome other
obstacles, calls for a general strike-both those made in
Wisconsin in 2011 and those made retrospectively now-are
nothing but foolish bravado. Lastly, to insist on either
disruptive protests or electoral politics is a false
choice. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward showed
in their classic study Poor People's Movements, protest
movements have historically been most successful when
disruptive protests worked in tandem with-not as an
alternative to-electoral volatility.
Doug Henwood, a contributing editor to The Nation and
the publisher of Left Business Observer, echoed my
friend's rejection of elections in his blog: "channeling
[sic] a popular uprising into electoral politics," he
commented, was a "horrible mistake." In his view, unions
would have been better off supporting a "popular
campaign-media, door knocking, phone calling-to agitate,
educate, and organize on the importance of the labor
movement." This suggestion dovetails with Jeff
Goldfarb's argument that progressives must work to shape
"how the broad public understands the problems of our
times" or, put differently, "to win hearts and minds."
But as Jeff understands, this kind of education is
entirely compatible with and indeed a necessary part of
electoral politics, and it is in fact precisely what
Wisconsin union members were doing when they made a
million phone calls and knocked on two million doors in
the weeks before the recall election.
Just as "giving up on electoral politics, or blaming
Obama, . is extraordinarily foolish," in Jeff Goldfarb's
words, it is equally foolish to give up on or blame
organized labor for the outcome of Wisconsin's recall
election. This is precisely what Henwood does in his
blog post. Labor unions aren't popular, he argues,
because the anti-labor right is correct about them:
rather than fight for the public interest or the needs
of the working class as a whole, he insists, they are a
special interest who care only about the wages and
benefits of their "privileged" members. The right has
always depicted labor unions this way, but it is
astonishing to see an avowedly progressive intellectual
embrace the most anti-labor elements of the right-wing
vision about America. It suggests that progressives need
to start within our own ranks if we want to shape how
the public understands the problems of our times.
Contrary to Henwood's sweeping condemnation, organized
labor has used its political clout since the New Deal to
promote full employment and decent wages and to improve
health care, education, and housing-for all Americans,
not just union members. Furthermore, Henwood ignores the
efforts within the labor movement since the 1990s,
documented by sociologists Kim Voss, Dan Clawson, and
others, to reach out to groups that were previously
alienated from unions (students, immigrants, and so
forth), organize the unorganized with innovative
grassroots strategies (e.g., the Justice for Janitors
campaign), and build a new "social movement unionism."
Lastly, Henwood's characterization of unions is
contravened by their role in Wisconsin, where they
spearheaded a broad-based recall movement that was
motivated by far more than the loss of collective
Rather than dismiss the entire labor movement,
progressives should support this kind of unionism-
indeed, they should join unions whenever and wherever
possible. While recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere
have undeniably weakened organized labor, they have also
shown the extraordinary commitment, energy, and public-
spiritedness of union members. Progressives still need
unions to help realize their political agenda.
While it is a mistake to give up on electoral politics
or unions, we need to do more than participate in
elections. We need to fight to ensure that the electoral
process is fair and inclusive. One of the chief reasons
that Wisconsin is so politically polarized at present is
that what we have seen there is not ordinary partisan
politics within stable and consensual rules. Rather, the
radical right is using its monopoly on political power
in Wisconsin to alter the electoral process itself.
After the 2010 election Wisconsin was effectively a one-
party state with virtually no checks or balances:
Republicans controlled the governor's office and both
houses of the state legislature, and they held a
majority on the state's supreme court. Moreover, the
agenda of Scott Walker and Republican legislative
leaders was closer to the radicalism of the Tea Party
than the moderate conservatism of previous Republican
administrations. They sought not merely to enact their
agenda but to ensure that it could not be undone. By
crippling public-sector unions and thereby eliminating
an important source of funding for the political
opposition, gerrymandering legislative districts, and
passing a highly restrictive voter ID law that will skew
the electorate in its favor, Walker's party has worked
ruthlessly to give itself a permanent advantage and to
cement its grip on power for the foreseeable future.
(Although the June 2012 recall election appears to have
given Democrats a razor-thin majority in the state
senate, they are likely to lose it in November when the
new legislative districts will be in effect.) This
strategy has implications at the national as well as the
Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald,
speaking on Fox News in March 2011, boasted that if
their efforts succeeded, Obama would have a "much more
difficult time getting elected and winning the state of
Wisconsin [in 2012]." Add to this state-level corruption
of the electoral process the untrammeled flow of
corporate money into American politics as a result of
the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the
electoral dice begin to look frighteningly loaded.
Effective resistance to this power grab will require
both symbolic work and material resources. Progressives
must work to win over hearts and minds but also to
safeguard democratic institutions.
Although a progressive-labor coalition failed to unseat
Scott Walker in the Wisconsin recall election, and this
failure will undoubtedly embolden those who wish to
imitate him outside of Wisconsin, the struggle will
continue in Wisconsin and elsewhere, at the state level
and the national level. We must fight a war of position
and not a war of maneuver. I can attest that for many of
us Wisconsinites, the failure was heartbreaking and
bitter, but we can perhaps take courage in the words
that Max Weber famously uttered in 1918:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard
boards. It takes both passion and perspective.
Certainly all historical experience confirms the
truth-that man would not have attained the possible
unless time and again he had reached out for the
impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader,
and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very
sober sense of the word. And even those who are
neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with
that steadfastness of heart which can brave even
the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right
now, or else men will not be able to attain even
that which is possible today. Only he has the
calling for politics who is sure that he shall not
crumble when the world from his point of view is
too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.
Only he who in the face of all this can say `In
spite of all!' has the calling for politics.
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