Why Did So Many Workers Vote for Walker?

Jim Cavanaugh, Labor Notes, June 8, 2012 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. ... Why

Not Democratic

It may be true that some people are arguing for entirely abandoning elections as a vehicle for advancing a progressive social and economic agenda, but this extreme position should not serve to obscure more nuanced critiques of elections in general or of the Wisconsin recall in particular. At least three points are in order:

  1. There is a long history of progressive social and economic change in the US and in Wisconsin, but it has rarely been initiated or driven by the electoral process. Instead, it has been the product of the organized efforts of mass social movements that have been able to disrupt (or threaten to disrupt) business as usual in advancing their demands, whether via strikes, boycotts, occupations, or the like. This isn't to say that elections do not matter, but rather that they matter only to the degree that they reflect the balance of social power in society and to the degree that they are democratically constituted.
  2. As currently constituted, elections in the US are not democratic. To the contrary, the electoral arena is a very infertile terrain on which to fight for social and economic justice. Instead, it is a very uneven playing field that systematically favors the most privileged among us, a product of the overwhelming role of money, electoral laws that are designed to cement a two party system, and the resulting absence of a party willing and able to champion an agenda of socio-economic justice. It is thus no accident that most people do not vote in US elections, and that they are disproportionately poor, working class, and people of color.
  3. The recall was an election of choice. In other words, we picked a fight, and on a terrain that heavily favored our adversaries. This was a mistake. The Wisconsin uprising was an unprecedented event that offered a rare once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the kind of social movement that has produced significant social change in the past. As soon as it was transformed into an electoral campaign aimed at "throwing the bum out," it began to lose its capacity to effect change.

No one could dispute that the recall was built on an impressive grassroots effort; the question is whether it was the best place to channel that grassroots energy. It was a high risk/low reward decision that turned into a disaster. But it was done. And now the task is to try to learn from it and figure out the best way forward. Perhaps the main lesson is to refrain from being so easily enticed into the electoral arena, and instead to focus our efforts on building powerful social movements that do not place a priority on getting candidates elected. Paradoxically, it is only when social movements are able and willing to pursue their demands for social justice, regardless of the effect on the outcomes of elections, that their influence on the electoral arena is greatest. And to the degree that we do engage it directly, we should do so with the goal of democratizing it, so that it's not such a minefield for social movements. Anything short of that goal will set us up for yet more failure.

Patrick Barrett, Madison, Wisconsin