A Recall Post-Mortem

by Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria

June 14, 2012

A year of campaigning and $80 million later the Wisconsin recalls are finally over. News companies all raced to be the first to call the election for Walker before the polls had even closed on Tuesday, June 5th. At first, Wisconsinites watching election coverage in bars and in the streets shrugged off the media as premature. But an hour after the polls had officially closed We Are Wisconsin announced defeat to their packed party at Concourse Hotel in Madison. By 10:30pm, Tom Barrett gave his concession speech.

What happened?

In a repeat of the 2010 election between the same two candidates, Walker actually
improved his lead over Barrett, winning 53-46, with approximately 2.5 million votes cast,
350,000 more than were cast in 2010. Breaking down the numbers some, 59% of white
people voted for Walker, as did most suburbs and small towns, 38% of union households
(rather than unionists) voted Republican
, and support for either candidate was largely
related to the perception of how well this administration was creating new jobs. Most
people had decided who they were going to vote for by April, and many people simply
disagreed with the use of the recall for “political reasons”, choosing then to vote for
Walker. And with the state being so closely split, Walker’s ability to turn out more voters
certainly helped secure a victory.

Over the last week, a number of news sites, commentators, left blogs and radical groups
have written extensively on how and why Walker beat the recall. These all tend to
share criticisms of the recall process (if not strategy), and most have a basic agreement
about the problem of turning movements into election campaigns. Here we can briefly
summarize the important explanations of the recall elections:

First, Reader Supported News reported, “Walker spent 88% of the money to get 53%
of the vote”
. Walker was able to begin fundraising in November as part of a loophole
in the recall laws, and coupled with the Citizens United ruling he was able to win a
formidable financial advantage over his opponents. He was then able to keep a constant
bombardment of advertisements across the state.

Beyond just the money, Walker campaigned, as he did in 2010, around job creation.
Under Walker’s administration, Wisconsin has been the only state in the US to actually
have net job loss, but as Forbes columnist Rick Ungar noted Walker simply chose a
different accounting method to skew the data in his favor.

Along with this, UW-Milwaukee professor Jeffrey Sommers suggested that Walker
was able to win on taxes
, following the strategy used in California’s Proposition 13—
essentially substituting short-term property tax cuts for wage growth and pitting parts of
the working class against each other. Walker was clear in his messaging on cutting taxes,
while Barrett’s approach to taxation would place increased burden on working people for degraded services. Here we would note the absence of any discussion of progressive or
heavy corporate taxation.

In the course of the year’s campaigning, the messages from the Democrats were weak
and unconvincing. Early on, the Democrats decided to play to the center, to disastrous
results in last summer’s senate races and Walker’s recall both. Messaging chosen on
collective bargaining seemed narrow and reinforced the perception that the public sector
unions were mainly concerned with themselves, rather than using the opportunity to
have larger discussions about workers’ rights and living standards in Wisconsin, as Doug
Henwood rightly noted
. Instead, Barrett’s campaign focused on Walker’s divisiveness,
corruption and unwillingness to work across party lines—issues that did not resonate with
the politicized atmosphere.

All said and done, Walker was able to mount a strong, well-funded campaign as against
Barrett who was not able to make any significant inroads and mostly ran a “Vote Walker
Out” campaign. The Democrats were without a compelling vision of their own, deserting
the popular spirit of last winter’s uprising for typical party politics. Lance Selfa’s recent
article at Socialist Worker
was then right to point out that this was not simply an issue of
out-of-state money versus “underfinanced people power”, but an issue of actual politics.

Possibilities: Alternatives to the Recall?

After the defeat at the polls, a number of commentators began questioning the recall
strategy after last year’s protests. What else might the movement have done? The
Progressive’s Matt Rothschild wrote a great agitational piece questioning the recall
drive, arguing that the movement could have opted instead for civil disobedience, “blue
flu’s” and a work-to-rule strategy among the public sector unions. “But”, writes
Rothschild, “the call never came.”

What we stumble on to here is one of the classic problems that socialists have faced for
nearly one hundred years: potential exists in a movement but the ability to realize that potential is blocked by ruling-party
politicians, union bureaucrats, and other leaders far removed from genuine democratic
process. So what do you do to work around that? This is exactly what happened in
Wisconsin when organized labor and the Democrats went all in on the recalls, pouring
in millions of dollars with institutional support and organization: the “from below”
course the movement could have taken after in the Wisconsin Uprising had institutional
obstacles in the way. Given a thirty-year relationship between public sector unions
and the Democrats and an enormous financial investment in the recalls (and policy in
general), mounting a good argument was not going to simply change the course.

In response, a number of activist coalitions were organized in Madison after the Uprising
to try to influence and lead politics in an alternative to the recalls. This was a particularly
difficult task with an unclear strategy, but there was an effort outside the recalls to
maintain an independent movement and to take up militant tactics apart from the electoral arena.

Wisconsin Wave, a coalition begun by the Green Party, initiated campaigns that
focused on the business interests behind Walker such as Wisconsin Manufacturers
and Commerce
, organizing rallies, media exposure and some civil disobedience,
going on later to organize a Peoples’ Assembly to assert popular democratic demands
independently. Wisconsin Resists targeted M&I Bank as the recipient of federal bailouts
who simultaneously foreclosed on private homes while giving major financial support
to Walker. Another important formation, the Solidarity Roundtable, brought together
a number of left, activist and union groups to protest the Wisconsin Biennial Budget,
attempting to shut down the Capitol in the process. Months later, a trade unionist
who advocated for an organizing orientation rather than simply just recalls mounted a
campaign for president of the South Central Federation of Labor, seeing the potential in
organized labor.

These coalitions organized at the grassroots level were able to maintain a degree of
militancy and provide acting alternatives to the electoral route. But given the complexity
of the situation the coalitions had a hard time articulating a strategy, responding instead
to the flurry of austerity attacks as they came for the rest of the year. More still, without support (specifically
from organized labor as the key actor) these coalitions were not able to grow to a
statewide scale to compete with and ultimately challenge the rightward pull of the recalls.

This Changes Things.

Where does a Walker victory leave us? In terms of policy it’ll certainly be more of
the same. Both Walker and Barrett were committed to capitalist austerity, making
workers pay for the crisis. Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation wrote a defense of
Walker’s plan
to privatize the pension system, and Right to Work advocates in Minnesota
have been praising Walker’s victory, signaling that Walker’s program is coming to a
state near you. So nothing really new there. In the state Senate, Democrats have finally
won a majority after three rounds of recall elections beginning last summer, allowing the
potential to block some legislation. Keeping in mind that state contracts were voted down
in 2010 by a Democrat-controlled legislature, having a bloc vote against Republican
legislature is hardly a guarantee.

What’s really worth thinking about is how this will shift the balance of political power
in Wisconsin. For thirty years, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has had a very close
relationship with public sector unions, based off of bargaining between the state and the
unions, where hypothetically the Democrats were the political advocates of the public
sector. Since the implementation of Act 10, public sector unions have seen a precipitous
decline in membership
, choosing to invest in the recall rather than maintaining union
locals. Unions seem to have artificially extended themselves through the recall process,
betting on restoration of bargaining rights, which will clearly not be happening.

This affects the Democratic Party not because the party will lose union money for
campaigns, which is relatively small compared to corporate funding, but because the union political infrastructure will not be able to continue as their base disappears. During
elections in general and this recall in particular, unions put their members to work in
Get Out The Vote (GOTV) drives while lending staff for campaigning. Importantly, this
had a kind of hegemonic relationship between union and party, and with the decline of
public sector union support the Democratic Party will not have the same reach as it did
previously. More to the point, problematic as we know it to be, the absence of union
sway on the Democratic Party opens the Democrats up to even more blatant capitalist
influence for resources needed to win elections (not just money, but vote drivers), and
we can expect the party to shift even further to the right. In such a situation the dynamic
between the capitalist parties, and the impact that has upon ordinary people, is likely to

Are there opportunities here? There is increasing need to respond to the crisis, and
Walker’s attacks in many ways point to what a left will have to take up: new (and old!
) forms of worker organization, demands for the protection and extension of public
services, engagement with Walker’s strategies including demands for a just tax system,
development of independent politics as the Democrats move further to the right and
experimentation with militant tactics, especially as the contracts binding public sector
unions disappear. The future is what we make of it.

Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria are members of Solidarity in Madison, Wisconsin.


One response to “A Recall Post-Mortem”

  1. Allen - Madison Avatar

    [The piece below initially appeared on the Progressive Magazine’s webzine on June 21, 2012. I wrote it in part in response to Tessa and Andrew’s in an attempt to deepen the discussion and our understandings of “what happened” in Wisconsin. -AR]

    A number of post-mortem analyses surfaced almost immediately, and they were somewhat helpful in conveying various understandings for the defeat of the recall effort against Scott Walker in Wisconsin. They got most of the immediate facts straight. But they were lacking in various respects. We need a deeper social and political analysis to understand some of the other factors behind the defeat. This is key for the development of future strategies and tactics.

    While the inordinate out-of-state amount of pro-Walker (and anti-Barrett) money and media time, the weaknesses and shortsightedness of the Democratic campaign, the failures of the trade union leadership, the all-in emphasis on the electoral effort, and the structure and timing of the recall process (“recall fatigue”), all had a part in shaping the outcome, other factors helped give the victory to the right.

    For instance, we have been told that, “59% of white people voted for Walker, as did most suburbs and small towns,” and that “38% of union households (rather than unionists) voted Republican.” Several pieces stated that support for either candidate was largely related to the perception of how well Walker’s administration had been creating new jobs.

    Modest improvement (if any) in the number of jobs and improvements in the state of Wisconsin’s economy, distorted and trumpeted by the Republican’s propaganda mills, certainly were made a key issue. (The Barrett campaign spent a whole lot of energy and resources responding to the Walkerite’s framing of that issue).

    But “jobs, jobs, jobs” was not the sole reason why people voted the way they did. As in any election, various subjective factors, some of which could be described as key “wedge issues,” played a significant role. How else, might we otherwise begin to understand why “38% of union households” (Up only 1% from 2010, according to a New York Times exit poll) voted against their own (material) interests?


    Key among the “wedge issues” was that of race, utterly ignored by the overwhelming majority of commentators. It is well known that Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country, surrounded by bands of predominantly white suburbs. (Walker was the former county supervisor of Milwaukee County, put there by a suburban “white flight” Republican electorate.

    Across the state, but especially in those suburban, small town and rural areas that went for Walker, the TV images and radio airwaves carried a barrage of anti-Barrett ads inundated with a racist subtext of the mayor’s failings in regard to crime and the failure of his “liberal policies” (despite the fact that Barrett has been in-step with the neoliberal and austerity agenda pushed by the DLC Dems and Obama). The sub-textual thematic line of all the ads was the same: “Barrett can’t govern (manage? control?) Milwaukee. How’s he going to govern the state?” Manipulation of white racist fear of “the other,” of “them,” of “Milwaukee” and “Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett” as a code for the “out of control, crime-ridden inner city,” filled the airwaves and exacted its toll.

    Reportedly in some up-state and out-state media markets, anti-Barrett ads paid for by Super Pac or Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) spoke of Barrett’s failures while showing images of people of color.

    The county is comprised of the city of Milwaukee and an inner ring of older suburbs, such as West Allis, very white working class and the former site of Allis Chalmers and other heavy industry, now a classic example of the rust belt, as is Milwaukee in general: the massive site of AC is now basically strip malls. (Some of that “inner ring” contains still contains well-to-do enclaves, it should be noted.)

    Milwaukee-proper has experienced a lot of white flight over the last 30-35 years. Shrinking in population by about a third, and is now a so-called “majority minority city” in which the African-American population in particular is isolated and deeply impoverished. The Latino population has also grown significantly.

    A sociologist friend familiar with the Milwaukee area’s social geography found,* not surprisingly, that most of the support for Walker in Milwaukee County came from the wealthier suburbs. According to his figures, the population of the County in 2010 was about 950,000, 61% “white” and 75% 18 or over, with a median household income of $43k. Almost 393,000 people voted in the recall, about a 55% turnout. Walker got 143,000 of those votes.

    A second ring of newer suburbs, which extends beyond Milwaukee County, has been one of the main bastions of support for Walker. For example, Waukesha County immediately to the west, alone provided Walker with another 154,000, nearly 100,000 more than Barrett, which alone negated Barrett’s advantage in Milwaukee. Waukesha is 91% white with a median income of $75k and there was a 72% turnout of eligible voters there!

    Immediately to the north, in Ozaukee county, which is 95% white and has a median income of $75k, Walker won by more than 20,000 (with a 73% turnout) and to the northwest, in Washington county, which is 96% white with a median income of $64k, he won by 36,000 (with a 69% turnout).

    The white suburbs and urban outskirts have also witnessed the growth of “industrial parks” detached from the city, often employing non-unionized workers, who but a generation back remained tied to the urban core. They now travel the outer rings for their work and leisure and as consumers, and rarely enter the now alien city, except for an occasional night out or a weekend event.

    The one “bright spot” hailed by liberals and progressives was the recall victory (currently being challenged) of Dem. John Lehman over Republican state Senator Van Wanggaard in de-industrialized Racine County, on the lake shore south of Milwaukee. In the county as a whole, Walker won by 45,480 to 40,191. That total represented 58.3% of eligible voters, based on the 2010 census. 74.4% of the county is white and it’s got a median family income of $54k.

    So what happened there? The Lehman plurality of 840 votes came about in large part because of the city’s Latino and African-American turnout, people who came out not in lockstep as so many Democratic faithful, but as those who already had some real sense of worsening results if the recalls failed.

    From what I have been told, a well-organized grass roots activist effort won the day there, at least as of this writing. (One might ask why the voter turnout by people of color in Milwaukee proper was not higher, based on their previous experience with Walker as County Exec? The short and simple: Milwaukee’s already hard-pressed inner city was already well-acquainted with Barrett on various fronts.)

    Other than Dane County with Madison at its heart, 85% white with a median income of $60k, where Barrett beat Walker by 98,000 votes (with a 66% turnout), and a few other counties, primarily in the far northwest up by Lake Superior and toward La Crosse in the west where he beat Walker by fairly small margin, the Dem contender (sic) got his butt kicked in most of the rest of the state.

    “Those Liberals in Madison”

    Other “wedge issues” contributed to the outcome. The right wing assault, the absolute vilification of all things “liberal,” pushed not just by the Tea Party, but by the conservative movement as a whole over a longer period of time, took its toll. “Liberal” in the minds of many has replaced “communism” as the bogeyman of the post-Cold War era. For some these days, it has become interchangeable with “socialism”! (One only had to witness the signs at any of the right-wing mobilizations in the state over the last year to get a sense of that.) “Liberal” for many, with their ears tuned to the omnipresent demagoguery of Fox and the non-stop squawkery of conservative blab radio, has come to mean the “tax and spend” interventionist and regulatory state. The now decades-long ideology of neoliberalism has taken its toll.

    That, of course, leads to another significant, yet different code: “Madison.” Long a liberal and progressive center as home of the University of Wisconsin and heart of the state’s progressive tradition, the city and its Dane County environs have long been viewed as out of step, unreal, and out-of-touch by out-state residents; the home of “those protesters” and “hippies” ever since the 1960s.

    The city has also been viewed as the home of well-off intellectual elitists, as well as the source of “big state government” policies, the birthplace of regulation and state taxes hampering and burdening the “little guy,” a citadel of “pampered and overpaid” state employees and their unions. A legitimate concern at various levels, “What has the state done for me while increasing what I have to shell out in taxes and fees?” has effectively been taken up, and manipulated by the right.

    Anti-intellectualism, always a key ingredient of right-wing populism, certainly figured in as well as conservatives looked to the state capital over the span of 2011-2012. The University at Madison, in an earlier time was largely perceived across the state as an institution directly serving the needs and interest of Wisconsin’s residents through its Extension and in-state accessibility, a key of the “Wisconsin Idea.” In recent years, it has been transformed into a largely corporatized research university, now increasingly cost prohibitive for the state’s middle and low income kids and is now increasingly seen as a rest home for overpaid “do-nothing” tenured faculty spreading “subversive” ideas.

    “Kirche, Küche and Kinder”

    There’s been very little, if any, discussion of the role of the Christian right – the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant and Catholic churches. Those very same elements who have been “pro choice” in regard to public school privatization and the (primarily) Republican push for school vouchers and charters paid for with school district funds, have also stood opposed to women’s right to choose and other liberal heresies.

    Sex education and the teaching of evolution in the public schools have continued to be salient issues propelling the popular movement for charter and voucher schools in many cases; i.e., the shift of funding from what the Catholic and Protestant right refers to as “government schools” to parochial school education. Part of the agenda of Walker and his cohorts in the Legislature has been the expansion of that “privatization”.

    In early April, Walker signed a bill repealing the state’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in state courts for “equal pay for equal work” discrimination. That Walker move may have pushed some voters in Barrett’s direction, but the repeal bill was aimed squarely at a tier of white male voters, for whom women, like people of color, are seen to have taken away their jobs, dignity, authority, etc., ad nauseam. (According to New York Times polling, inconclusive on this theme, 59% of males went for Walker, up 2% from 2010, while women gave him only 47%, down 2% from the preceding election cycle.)

    The Small Towns

    We need to take a closer look at the social geography of small town Wisconsin. One results of the longer term de-industrialization and rust-belting of the Lake Michigan cities like Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Manitowoc and other formerly heavy manufacturing and lake trade centers was not just the shipping of production and jobs to other regions of the country or “offshore,” but the dispersal of light and medium manufacturing to small and medium towns throughout the state.

    There hardly exists a town or village in the state that does not have some light industrial firm manufacturing you name it. As small and even medium farms disappeared and more families were forced off the land, various “developers” and entrepreneurs took advantage of relatively cheap non-union labor, lower land prices and tax incentives to set up new firms producing various parts and components, agricultural equipment, and capital and consumer goods ventures, often but not always tied to the agricultural economy. Often locally owned and family run and employing local labor, such firms often belonging to the WMC, have become lynchpins for the local economies in communities where people know each other, some of them tied together for generations through the churches, schools and extended families. Many of them, it can be imagined, have felt the effects of the “Great Recession”.

    Often socially conservative, they have looked for redress not necessarily coming from Washington or Madison. Some have consciously turned to the Tea Party while others have readily taken to a broader populist ideology appealing to the “little guy” with its promise to “take back” whatever – “our government,” “our democracy,” “our freedom” – from “big government” with its faceless, far away bureaucrats.

    What can be said about the “opportunity lost” when the “Wisconsin Uprising” became channeled into an all but singular focus on the recalling Walker and his cronies? It isn’t clear if other options were possible based on the correlation of forces in the field — the proscribed nature of the movement, its inability to go from the initial level of protest to forms of resistance and mass civil disobedience; the atrophied memory of labor’s mass struggle experience; the deference to a conservative leadership, and narrow understandings of “politics” and the possible all played a part. Things certainly could have been different if there had been an organized left pole alternative to the Democratic and trade union’s conservative leadership. A huge “if,” for sure.

    What remained surprising, indeed puzzling to some during the Walker recall effort was the lack of support for the Barrett campaign from the national Democratic Party – the silence and invisibility of Obama, the Democratic National Committee, or for that matter, the national leadership of the major trade unions.

    While that could be explained by some assessments of the current political terrain at this, the lead up to Obama’s increasingly uncertain re-election bid, there are other concerns at work.

    A kind of mistrust of an uncontrolled mass movement exists; a downright mistrust, if not fear of an uncontrolled popular insurgency from below. The Democratic leadership and its labor allies absolutely dread a return of those kinds of movements and mass mobilizations, dating back to the Great Depression and extending through the strike wave immediately following World War II, the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, and the Anti-War Movement later that decade, that challenged power from below succeeded in exacting concessions from the system.

    Such insurgencies, polarizing in their effect, also provoked the kinds of reaction that led to the ascendancy of Nixon and Agnew, the McGovern beating in ’72, the rise of the “New Right,” Carter’s loss in ’80 to Reagan and worse, subsequently. In response, the Democratic leadership chose a more conservative course, one leery of its own social base.

    The Point is to Change It

    What has been offered here are some preliminary thoughts, hopefully a contribution to a deeper collective assessment that needs to take place if we are going to move forward. Clearly, a lot more needs to be fleshed in and understood and the way out of the wilderness is going to be long and hard. The point is not just to understand our history, but to change it.


    * His calculations were based on the 2010 census figures for total population, percentage of the population 18 or over, and median household income. That data was then compared that to the vote totals for the two candidates. An obvious caution: It should be noted that one cannot draw too many conclusions regarding a direct correlation between income figures and voter preferences. Such numbers do convey some sense of class composition (based on income, exclusive of wealth) and voting preferences.