Wisconsin and the Left

by STEVE HORN

There was an expression among activists that went “One year longer, one year stronger” a year after the beginning of the “Wisconsin Uprising” here in Madison, WI. The reality is that one year+ longer, the left as an organizing force is “one year weaker.”

The truth? People, as a mass movement in the United States, are attracted to right-wing populism, embodied by the likes of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who recently won the recall election by an astounding 7-percent landslide.

Sure, there are refrains, such as “this was an auction, not an election,” and that “money won this election.” But people still voted and have agency. And Walker won by a long-shot.

Many important questions arise for those who consider themselves, broadly speaking, on the left: a.) Why the grassroots attraction to right-wing populism? b.) How’d the left (both liberals and leftists alike) get steam-rolled so badly? c.) What’s next for the grassroots activist of a left-leaning orientation now that, bluntly speaking and when looked at through a sober viewpoint, the cause has been so badly bludgeoned since last year’s “Uprising”?

Right-Wing Populism Explained

Many schools of thought exist as to why people of a working class background have flocked toward the Tea Party.

There’s Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” argument, which posits that, in essence, working class people are duped by wedge issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, into voting against their economic class interests. This, of course, assumes the Democratic Party is the “party of the people.”

There is also the Chris Hedges’ “Death of the Liberal Class” argument, which says what he conceptualizes as the “liberal class” is dead and has lost its legitimacy among the United States’ citizenry. Another way to refer to the “liberal class” is to call it the “liberal elite.” This argument is far more compelling and complex than the Frank argument.

Hedges posits that long ago, liberal elites abandoned the rank-and-file of the working class, though they have continued to, in a hollow manner, speak on behalf of it. Because an untold number of people feel abandoned by liberal elites, its void has been filled by an organized and outraged right-wing populist front, argues Hedges. Hedges argues that Wall Street Democrats like President Bill Clinton and President  Barack Obama serve as Exhibit A of the liberal class. I would take that a step further and say so too did Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett.

Then there’s the Noam Chomsky argument, which in most ways mirrors the Hedges argument, but directly addresses the question of the Tea Party. In a speech he gave in Madison, WI in April 2010, he stated, “Ridiculing Tea Party shenanigans is a serious error, I think. It would be far more appropriate to understand what lies behind them and to ask ourselves why justly angry people are being mobilized by the extreme right and not by forces like those that did so in my childhood, in the days of formation of the CIO and other constructive activism.”

What Happened to the Left?

Emma Goldman had it right when she stated, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Labor and the left in Wisconsin committed suicide when it demobilized a legitimate grassroots movement and turned it into an electoral campaign. It has been a long, slow death.

Grassroots activists with righteous indignation gave up their agency to do that which was deemed “acceptable” to the powers that be, namely the “Union Bosses” and the Democratic Party apparatchiks. Why was a general strike never considered? Why not creative tactics to “kill the bill,” Act 10, the reason for the “Uprising” and recall to begin with? How’d this all morph into what it’s morphed into?

In the main, the left has failed to understand that what populist right-wing activists hate more than anything else is the Democratic Party and unions, two pillars of what Hedges defines as the “Liberal Class.”  Their hatred is justified, given that, as Hedges points out, these institutions abandoned working class people long ago. Thus, the left confused real grassroots power with the Liberal Class and are now paying the consequences.

What’s Next?

Some will say that the John Doe affair could bring the demise of Walker, keeping hope alive of a Walker unseating. Others will say it’s time to put all efforts into the Obama campaign.

But that’s all, for the most part, a grand charade for movements representing the working class.

What’s really needed?

An acknowledgement, at the very least, that the working-class grassroots in the majority of Wisconsin are attracted to right-wing populism. They see Madison (rightfully so, I’d argue) as an elitist, detached enclave 77 square miles surrounded by reality. Any left-leaning independent activism strategy that has any force, meaning and direction will have to see that these are people are allies in the fight, not people to scoff at as dumb, naive or absurd.

For now, it’s “One Year Longer, One Year Weaker,” but it doesn’t have to be like that forever. In the meantime its “Back to the drawing board,” as the old adage goes.

Steve Horn is a researcher and writer at DeSmogBlog. He is also a freelance investigative journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @Steve_Horn1022.

Will Falk moved to the West Coast from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender.

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