Earlier this year, John Nichols published his latest work, from Nation Books: Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street. The book combines stellar reporting with a genuine hopefulness for the political potential of the mass protests in Wisconsin that began last February. Nichols shares with his readers the inspiration felt by many in Wisconsin and around the country when Scott Walker, the incumbent governor of Wisconsin, tried to pit firefighter and police unions against one another, only to result in a renewed solidarity between the groups. The two unions ended up being key players in the struggle for Walker's recall. Nichols notes, "The uprising of February and March 2011 would make a single word, 'Wisconsin,' not just the name of a state but the reference point for a renewal of labor militancy, mass protest, and radical politics."
Now, after Walker defeated the recall attempt on June 5, the Internet is replete with analyses of what went wrong and what to do next. How did the movement go from a robust display of "radical" politics, to business as usual? How did we go from occupations, sit-ins, and breathtakingly inspiring actions of solidarity to a state Democrat allegedly saying to thousands of workers outside the Madison Capitol Rotunda on March 12, 2011: "Put down your posters and pick up a clipboard"? According to Steve Horn and Arun Gupta, the answer had something to do with how the energy was channeled into electoral politics rather than street strategy. The duo write in Truthout, "At the last big rally in March, with more than 200,000 people present, [one Democratic Senator] said, 'I don't want to see you people back here. Go back to your home communities and work on the recall.'"
Many progressive analysts see this as a victory for "dark money" in our post-Citizens United political landscape. For instance, Nichols quotes Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), "What [Citizens United] did is open the floodgates so that billionaires like the Koch brothers and others are now prepared to spend unbelievable sums of money to elect extreme right-wing candidates." While vociferously condemning the asymmetric influence of rich Republican donors and Walker's clear economic illiteracy, what many of these articles lack is a substantial critique of the Democrats, as well as a serious analysis of what went wrong between the time of the massive Wisconsin protests in early 2011 to present day.
There are a few pieces that attempt to fill this gap, but one of the most powerful and eloquent articles came this past week from Andy Kroll, an investigative journalist for Mother Jones and associate editor at TomDispatch. Kroll attempts to discover why the "Democrats and labor unions got rolled" in a state that just a few months ago saw more than 100,000 people mobilize against economic injustice. The short answer: the Wisconsin uprising was hijacked and sold out by electoral politics and Democrat-style politics as usual.
Kroll argues that the political will of the Wisconsin uprising was never electoral in nature. The movement's primary mistake was "letting itself be channeled solely into traditional politics, into the usual box of uninspired candidates and the usual line-up of debates, primaries, and general elections." He demonstrates that the Walker recall effort splintered the masses of anti-Walker protesters. By the time Barrett was officially nominated, the Madison movement "was the captive of ordinary Democratic politics in the state." Kroll stresses, "Barrett was hardly a candidate of the uprising." He claims that the new populist movement in Wisconsin is not completely dead, but rather it is a "movement does not fit comfortably into the present political/electoral system…It simply couldn't be squeezed into a system that stifles and, in some cases, silences the kinds of voices and energies it possessed." He concludes his article on a relatively positive note, drawing from the work of Nation Institute fellow Jonathan Schell who argued that social movements can gain important victories without channeling a majority or all of its resources into electoral politics.
In the 2011 classic Death of the Liberal Class (Nation Books), Nation Institute fellow Chris Hedges makes a prescient and convincing argument that the traditional venues for progressive change in the United States — such as universities, the mainstream press, and the arts — have been co-opted by corporate interests and are unable to deliver the radical change that is needed to reverse the "corporate coup and complicity of the liberal class in our disempowerment."
The [Democratic] party consciously sold out the working class for corporate money. Bill Clinton, who argued that labor had nowhere else to go, in 1994 passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which betrayed the working class. He went on to destroy welfare and in 1999 ripped down the firewalls between commercial and investment banks to turn the banking system over to speculators. Barack Obama, who raised more than $600 million to run for president, most of it from corporations, has served corporate interests as assiduously as his party. He has continued the looting of the U.S. Treasury by corporations, refused to help the millions of Americans who have lost their homes because of bank repossessions or foreclosures, and has failed to address the misery of our permanent class of unemployed.
Hedges concludes that the Democratic Party no longer functions as a platform for real progressive change — a theory that progressives would do well to grapple with in light of the events in Wisconsin.