Paul Beckett : Letter from Wisconsin

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett concedes defeat in Milwaukee, June 5, 2012. Photo by John Gress / Reuters.

After the apocalypse:
Letter from Wisconsin

Frankly, putting it all together, I am very worried about our future, in Wisconsin and in the nation.

By Paul Beckett / The Rag Blog / June 11, 2012

Dear Friends,

Well, we got your attention, didn’t we? Colbert put it best: the Tuesday, June 5, recall election was the most significant event for Wisconsin since discovery of elastic jeans. (Oh, thank you very much, Stephen!)

The race was called by 9 p.m. (some polling stations were not yet even closed). Governor Scott Walker had won the recall election over Democrat Tom Barrett by 7 percent. Worse, county by county, Wisconsin was a sea of GOP red. Sixty of Wisconsin’s 72 counties were carried by Walker! Only small islands of blue mainly clustered around Madison and Milwaukee, and along the Lake Superior shore (traditionally progressive) showed blue above the red tide.

For the many tens of thousands who had been participants in Madison’s version of the Arab Spring, in February and March (2011), and who had, as unpaid volunteers, collected more than one million signatures for the recall petition, it was a like a hard kick to the gut.

You can’t understand, friends, without knowing what those February and March events were like. Never, in my now pretty-long life, have I experienced the exhilarating sense of the people — the real people, the whole people — rising and making democracy real, and direct.

Up to 70,000 at a time packed the Capitol Rotunda, and circled the square. Turnout was largely spontaneous: hierarchy and formal organization largely absent. Anger with the multiple violations of democratic tradition was underlain by a kind of joy which reveled in the sense of commonness, and in the incredible wit of common folks which was displayed on hand-made signs and in slogans.

Inside the rotunda was the beauty of “functioning anarchy” as areas were set aside for families with small children, for eating, for resting. In the enormous and densely packed crowds, neither crime nor violence raised its head.

There was, over all, a sense of irresistibility to this truly popular uprising. Stopping the people so mobilized would be like stopping the flow of the Mississippi on our western border. We thought.

How, on June 5, a little more than a year later, could this defeat have happened?

Friends, if Stephen is right and you all have been watching us, you know a lot of the answer. You know that funding for the Walker side was almost ten times (yes, 10X!) that for the Barrett side. And Walker’s money had come pouring in, mainly from out of state, for months. Totals are almost too obscene for a decent blog to publish (the tracking organization Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates that the final total will push $80 million!).

The infamous Koch Brothers, along with the whole shadowy neo-con/corporate national leadership, knew that a successful recall would hurt rather seriously their movement to consolidate control over U.S. society, culture and, of course, politics. Money poured in to support the Walker campaign, sometimes in half-million dollar amounts. A sophisticated campaign of TV advertising was launched long before the Democrats even had a candidate.

Meanwhile, there was no real “owner” of the recall effort. If the uprising was largely spontaneous and unfunded, so was the subsequent recall petition drive. Once the million signatures were gathered, we stood and looked at each other. What’s next?

The Democratic Party (state and national) was unenthusiastic at the beginning, and gave tepid support after. There was no obvious candidate besides the one who ran against Walker and lost (by a respectable margin) in 2010. And he –– Tom Barrett — could not declare for the race until he had weathered the Milwaukee mayoral election (April 3).

Meanwhile, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk aggressively threw her hat in the ring. She had negotiated her endorsement from the trade union leadership by pledging that if elected she would veto any budget bill that did not restore collective bargaining rights. The unions not only heavily funded her campaign to get the nomination, but actually aired attack ads against Tom Barrett, her most important opponent.

Falk’s “deal” with union leadership was a gift to the Walker side, which had constantly characterized the uprising as only about union rights and as “run by union bosses.”

In the primary, on May 8, Barrett easily defeated Falk. But he then had less than a month to counter what was already a steamroller of cash that for months had saturation bombed the brain of every TV watcher in Wisconsin.

Now let me assure you, friends: Barrett is a good man — tall, good-looking, intelligent, well-spoken, polite, and gracious. His qualifications for the Governorship are excellent. He would surely have been a great candidate some time in the past. (In 2009 Barrett had even displayed old-fashioned personal heroism: he had intervened at the state fair to defend a woman who had called for help and received a lead pipe across the face and a broken hand. In the past, would that have won you a subsequent election or not?)

But Barrett was not the man for 2012. Barrett has a now-unfortunate habit of not talking down to the voters, compounded by a tendency to tell the truth, a political defect made even worse by a predilection toward real discussion of real issues.

Meanwhile, Walker was the perfect neo-con candidate, saying little, generating perfect video image material in the “aw-shucks” mode, while looking like a bashful choir boy (does he have a portrait of himself hidden away in an attic?). Never did Walker stray from the familiar jingles authored by his advertising companies.

Meanwhile national support from the Democratic Party remained minimal, and President Obama made it a point not even to come into the state.

All these facts notwithstanding, the surprise, Tuesday evening, made most of us sick to our stomachs.

There are, of course, different ways to view the events, and they tend to replace each other as time goes on. There is the way you feel the day after (that the sky has fallen). There is the day after the day after. Then, again, there is the day after that. Let’s take them in order.

1. First day after: ‘The Apocalypse Is Here’

The election lent itself to apocalyptic thinking on the liberal-progressive side, and triumphalist thinking on the right. Perhaps, we thought, Wisconsin has now completed a gradual transition from marginally blue state to solidly red state. An open Senate seat will be contested in November. It now seems even more likely than before to go to a right-wing Republican (is there anything else these days?) , who will join the right-wing Republican (Ron Johnson) who defeated Senator Feingold in 2010. Barack Obama, who carried Wisconsin in 2008 by an amazing 14%, is now expected to have a hard fight (at best) in the state this fall.

Worse, and more fraught with consequences, the deluge of money from billionaires which funded incessant and ultimately unavoidable “30-second drive-by attack ads” (as candidate Barrett called them) seemed to work. Those of us who hoped there might be some eventual tipping point of excess, some point of overkill, after which the public would react against the perpetrators, came away disappointed. Is the lesson of the Wisconsin recall that you cannot, ever, have too much money, and that NO level of saturation bombing with the ads the money buys is too much? It may be.

If so, in light of the number of right-wing billionaires now at large in America, and the Citizens United decision, American democracy is less imperiled than already destroyed. Political advertising, devised by subtle and well-informed minds, is aimed at dumbing down political culture within a wider American culture already dumbed down remarkably by television.

The problem with where we are now is less with Citizens United and the nearly unbelievable accumulation of wealth available to contribute painlessly to political campaigns. It is more with what the money buys: TV advertising. It punishes depth, it punishes honesty, it punishes creativity and imagination on the part of politicians. It is un-speech which drives out and suppresses real speech.

Political cartoon by Mike Keefe /

2. Second day after: ‘Hey,Things Could be a Whole Lot Worse’

This, the central philosophy of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, comes forward on the day after the day after. Maybe the defeat was not so crushing, and maybe it doesn’t mean as much as we at first thought.

First of all, we look again at the numbers. It remains true that Walker took 60 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. But guess what? His margin in the vast majority of those counties was thin; in many, razor thin. The counties where his majorities were large to huge were those counties (led by the infamous Waukesha County) which are safe Republican counties in all elections. Walker “flipped” four counties that had gone for Barrett in their first contest (the gubernatorial election in 2010) — but the “flips” were by modest margins.

Meanwhile Barrett, while losing by about 7 percent overall, managed to “flip” three counties that were taken by Walker in 2010. Turnout was massive on both sides, and Walker received 205,900 more votes overall than he did in 2010. But: Barrett received 158,482 votes more than he had in 2010. Not bad for the victim of a drubbing!

There is another important factor. A significant portion of the pro-Walker vote was motivated by distaste for the recall procedure itself.

It should be acknowledged that this position is not an unreasonable one. All of the elected figures who were subjected to recall elections will be up for regular election in 2014. None of them are (as yet) charged with personal corruption or other illegal activity (although Walker is part of a very slow-moving investigation of illegal activity in his office before his accession to the governorship, and this could result in an indictment later).

Thus, many voters voted against the recall procedure more than for the Walker policy package (or the Walker persona).

It is impossible to say how many voters were so motivated. But it is safe to say that it could represent a substantial portion of Walker’s seven-percent margin.

And as far as the November election goes, exit polls reported by the Washington Post and others showed surprising support for Obama over Romney, even among those who voted for Walker!

So, maybe not so much has changed. As my friend Harry Targ, a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog, has put it:

Wisconsin has [long] been a deeply divided political state. In fact, two important political figures in the state’s history personify the political divisions that shaped competition in the state and the United States at large for at least one hundred years. Senator Joseph McCarthy represented the outlook shared by many that government is the enemy of humankind. . . . And . . . to the contrary, Senators Robert La Follette Senior and Junior represented that strand of political discourse that sees the possibility of creating governmental institutions that can protect the innocent from the criminal, provide for the less fortunate, and use public resources to advance human possibility. Descendants of both political traditions have fought it out over the years . . . (– Personal communication of unpublished paper, June 7, 2012)

Wisconsin remains divided. This time, it was 1,334,450 for the right, and 1,162,785 for the left. The next time around it could be the other way. The division is probably sharper than any time before. But, hey, things could be a lot worse!

This second-day view leaves us with the idea that given all his advantages, Walker should have won much bigger. Along with that comes the idea that maybe overwhelming monetary advantage is not so decisive, after all.

Students form peace symbol on the floor of rotunda at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison in March 2011. Photo by John Hart / AP / Missourian.

3. Third Day After: ‘Actually, Things Could NOT Be a Whole Lot Worse’

Friends, let’s face it. The situation in Wisconsin and the nation is very bad. Electoral analysis (as above) may make us feel a little bit better. But it largely misses the point. The right has been enormously — and, to my mind — tragically, successful.

The right has nearly absolute mass media dominance, a financial blank check with no evident limit, unity around central doctrines combined with complete party discipline, control of the Supreme Court, and a noisy and highly active popular movement (the Tea Party) to provide media excitement, and to act as enforcers of party discipline.

The Democratic Party, with none of these, has become a timid shadow of the party of Franklin Roosevelt. All discussion has been skewed far to the right. Legislative party discipline is non-existent. We are engaged only in rear-guard battles, and only in trying to reduce (usually slightly) our losses. Our maximal promises are, well, minimalist.

Some aspects of this have been touched on already. But there is another, deeply disturbing, aspect of the situation. Let me quote a former Madison neighbor, the author Dean Bakopoulos:

As Wisconsin’s new political landscape so clearly indicates, conservatives have now managed to vilify plain old working people as elitist fat cats. Librarians, teachers, public employees, and union laborers: Basically, people who earn health insurance and decent wages have suddenly become the things that stagnate an economy and raise taxes, when in truth they, and those wages they enjoy, have been the lifeblood of a struggling post-industrial economy.

But by declaring war on teachers, union laborers, and public sector employees, the well-heeled spinners behind the rise of Scott Walker have managed to make struggling Americans vote against their own best interests out of a sense of fear and envy. Struggling workers — and most comfortable middle-class workers — often to need an identifiable villain, someone who is holding them back from success, in order to vote Republican. If Republicans can present themselves as an enemy of that villain, they win. That’s what happened last night in Wisconsin. (Salon, June 8, 2012)

Frankly, putting it all together, I am very worried about our future, in Wisconsin and in the nation. And the Democratic Party is certainly not going to get us out of this, whatever happens in November.

In fact, dear friends, I can only say we’re in a bad patch, and I think we must look beyond it, beyond November, beyond the Democratic Party, way, way beyond the present. We need to remember that things really don’t need to be this way, that, as the World Social Forum series insists, “Another [and much better!] world is possible.”

Howard Zinn has told us how to think about it:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

― Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, 1994

OK, dear friends, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, I mean, Lake Wingra. Stay well, and come visit. The brats and brews are on Kathie and me! And elastic jeans can be found if you need them.

Your friend always,


[Dr. Paul Beckett lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be reached at Read more articles by Paul Beckett on The Rag Blog.]

Go here for Paul Beckett’s earlier coverage of the movement in Wisconsin on The Rag Blog.

The Rag Blog

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1 Response to Paul Beckett : Letter from Wisconsin

  1. Anonymous says:

    Public sector union are legalized theft. Local governments “negotiate” with unions, and one must include the quotes as they are negotiating not with their profits and livelihood, but with taxpayer monopoly money, and in return unions donate to and support Democrat politicians .. around and around it goes.

    In the mean time, you can argue all you want about money, but those who have learned the most about money are Wisconsin unions themselves. No longer able to squeeze dues out of members, the number of dues paying members is declining and with it, the funds unions use to strong arm elections and negotiations.

    May the death knell for public sector unions peal loudly and long and spread quickly. Taxpayers deserve better.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

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