So it seems that a group of mostly freshmen Representatives, with the quickest draw in the Tea Party midwest, Michele Bachmann, often playing their face, are hell-bent on acting the idiot’s role into reality. If one precondition for brute fascism is that the actors forget when to stop performing, based on these people we are about there. Even Speaker Boehner is fed up with them. Forcing President Obama to dance was all fun, but they made Boehner shimmy, too. The Speaker didn’t kiss all that ass for that many years only to be saddled with a non-compliant majority. The progressive Left, which came back into the electoral field after at least two decades of irrelevance with Obama’s winning coalition of 2008, has nowhere to go, other than cheering on the few sane voices in Congress ever allowed to reach the national media, ie Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, and a few others. Anthony "the Torso" Weiner did not help the progressives with their visibility problems.
Besides bemoaning the smallness on display and dreading the real hurt that the working classes and all things public will suffer should this systemic dysfunction continue to play out as mindlessly as projected, for some there is the schadenfreude to be gathered while witnessing the establishment go into crisis-management mode. How many times does your average lefty intellectual use the word ‘crisis’? Me, I practically live on the word. For reasons of easing the alarmism, I always like to say that the crisis is not something that arrives, but rather is a time that we are living through. We have already gone over the environmental/economic edge in terms of guaranteed massive change, but it unfolds over decades, not weeks. It is not a news story. And yet here is exactly that, an alarm situation, a newsmedia play-by-play that has gotten the credit ratings agencies seriously involved and the markets spooked. All delivered by a bunch of pukes who rode into office only because the black people and the young people conveniently fell back into their traditional indifference, not showing up to vote in last year’s mid-term elections. Elections have consequences. That’s the new favorite line from conservatives around here, and they are right. For today’s conservatives, election victories are a readymade line absolving them of any and all responsibility, spoken in defense of both Republican intransgiance at the national level and their extremism here in Wisconsin.
So I’ve mentioned Wisconsin. What happened to the Wisconsin movement? No more demonstrations—did those people just disappear? What do hundreds of thousands of mobilized citizens do when the protests are over? Was it a purely foul-weather movement? No, it was not. The mobilization has dispersed throughout the state, leaving Madison a quietly angry summer town. Even though we know now that the Wisconsin Republicans were busy drawing up their ridiculous and transparently vindictative redistricting maps even then, by the time the weather had warmed I sensed that conservatives, too, were worn down by the fights that went through the frigid winter and into the muddy spring. But here we are, in the dog days of a lush and humid midwestern summer, re-energized for the August 9 elections, aka the ballot machine/creative counting event, again with chaotic events reverberating globally in the background, as in the winter and spring.
The last time I reported on the Uprising in any detail here, the movement was in re-group mode. The stolen election of April 5, for a key seat on the state Supreme Court, was still very fresh and a reminder of to what lengths the party of thievery will go to retain power. The impending early summer signing of Governor Walker’s bills was nothing to look forward to, and the recall elections seemed far off, with plenty of time still for the Republicans to pull more abusive moves from the Capitol. The mood was negative, but true demoralization was kept at bay by the constant reinjection of outrage, thanks to the regular pace of variously targeted attacks emanating from the offices of either the governor or state Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald. From assaults on Wisconsin Panned Parenthood that will end up limiting affordable women’s health screening services, to a horribly conceived and written Voter ID law, to the attempts to open up a four-county stretch of northern Wisconsin less than thirty miles from Lake Superior to new mining, and more—the Wisconsin GOP guaranteed that people stayed motivated and involved. They supplied the opposition with fuel for anger, outstripping their own best weapon: despair and paralysis. Top Republicans had been confident that once the bill and budget were signed and implemented, the people of Wisconsin would forget all about the fight and accept the new reality. As many of us probably would have, had the attacks stopped then. But they didn’t. In northern Wisconsin, the fast-tracked move toward mining raised such concern that citizens organized quickly, broadly, and angrily--enough to apply the brakes. Such extraordinary motivation can be found across the state.
Not to be underestimated, the Governor continues his missteps, mostly due to blind spots. Walker mostly certainly has them, that much we have known ever since the “David Koch” prank call back in Week 2. What we have seen over the last several months is a politician who frequently cannot adjust, neither ideologically nor strategically. His failure to read the whole media landscape is encapsulated in one repeating scenario that has become an established pattern over at least five or six occasions since April. Either it is leaked or announced that Walker will make an appearance at a given site, visiting a company, a school, or a ribbon cutting ceremony. Word circulates through social media, with emphasis on the outrage inherent in this governor’s daring. A recurring theme is his daring to pretend all is fine, making pro forma celebratory and laudatory remarks on the site of a public institution or public works, while in reality cutting the legs out from under the public sphere.
For example, Walker tried to speak at the centennial celebration of Gateway Technical College—a public college facing massive difficulties after Walker passed his budget, cutting $30 million from the already barebones and affordable technical colleges. For this kind of insult, people turn out to boo at the top of their lungs. Each such appearance gives activists an occasion to make the negative connections between the Walker agenda and wherever the place his appearance happens to be. Protestors show up, footage of the demonstration gets returned to social media, and the best of the videos—the ones that capture anger, hurt, sincerity, cleverness, and commitment—get thousands of views. Seeing images of people birddogging Walker in a new location every two or three weeks has provided the mobilized with a constant new infusion of morale, motivation, and yes, entertainment.
And the best one, from a few days ago:
These repeated victories in the war of images filter through to the mass media and therefore have something to do with Walker’s declining approval ratings, helping to associate the carefully groomed and disciplined Walker brand with controversy, unhappiness, and general negativity. And yet the man continues to stake his career on the conventional playbook, believing that by making public appearances he is projecting normalcy, showing people that he is not afraid, not rattled, and will not deviate from his agenda. To the many tens of thousands now dedicated to opposing him, such images are read quite differently, as the picture of entrenched defiance against popular opinion, an ideologue so committed to his program that the term “weapon of mass destruction” reasonably applies. Walker’s minions, from Prosser to Hopper, also continue to screw up, undone by their own essential asshole-ness, apparently. On the day these scoundrels are turned out, we will have the Governor and his troops to thank in no small part.
The truth is, the Walker agenda may come to a halt, more or less, after tomorrow, August 9. That is the hope. Voters in six state senate districts will go to the polls to vote on their recalled Republican state senators, all of whom supported the Walker agenda. The opposition needs to capture at least three of those six seats and then hold their two Democrat seats in another two district elections a week later. This round of recalls, including the inevitable efforts concerning Walker himself, may ultimately require as many as 22 elections. Factor in the weaponization of redistricting, in which the current Repubican-controlled legislature deliberately mapping some of the Democrat challengers out of the districts that they would be representing should they win. That, and the massive inflow of national money, the possible disruptions (for example, a suspicious fire last week that destroyed a building that included the La Crosse office of We Are Wisconsin, a group coordinating the recall effort targeting Republican Dan Kapanke), and what we have is a state-level display of American democracy in a vital and almost electric, but heavily degraded condition, in what had been for decades one of the cleanest and most straightforward political systems out of the fifty states.
With the movement’s attention and activity channeled into this avalanche of recall elections, we have another occasion to feel all the excitement, trepidation, and despair about electoral politics as a direction for a social movement. Instead of the usual voting vs. non-participation debate within leftist circles, I propose that we judge electoral politics on the basis of a different kind of efficacy. Today the exercise of political power is equally legitimate, compromised, and problematic at every level and in every mode. The reformism vs. radicalism debate is not relevant when, for the change Wisconsin and the world needs, voting is necessary but not sufficient but the same can be said of any other kind or instance of political engagement.
The alternative criterion is this: any particular exercise of democratic power gains in surplus political potential when it also unleashes a process of rewriting social relations. By this measure, most instances of electoral engagement stay very much within their pre-determined bounds of possibility, ie everybody from candidate to campaign manager to volunteer canvasser to voter has their strictly limited role to play. The same is true of most large and established activist organizations—ie the professionalized left and the non-profit industrial complex. In the context of an evolving social movement, however, in which a campaign for office is not entirely under the control of an official campaign, often some social creativity overflows the expected bounds. This has been true in the season of Wisconsin recall elections. Partly because each of the recalls was started as a citizen-initiated grassroots effort, these efforts have been far less conventional in their social aspects, with truly promising communities of social action appearing in some of the contested districts, out from the previously undifferentiated citizenry blob. Based on this criterion, for example, the Playground Legends—a grassroots squad doing creative voter education in the African American sections and documented confrontations in the ultra-conservative parts of Alberta Darling’s state senate district —is as valuable a contribution as the Capitol occupation was, as is the ongoing Solidarity Singalong. New social forms, all. If the Singalong and the related Heart Balloons Rotunda action still fall into the category of “cute activism,” when put under the duress of Wisconsin’s “cute” tyranny (see the story of the locally infamous Heart Balloon Assault of several weeks ago) they nonetheless have the effect of knitting people together in a new and meaningful sociality.
Yes, we need progressive legislation. The regressives put their money and organization into the electoral process because they know that nothing legitimizes like an electoral and consequently legislative veneer. And yes, we need to apply pressure through creative disruption, to carve out the political space for meaningful change. But, above all, our worlds need different social relations, cultures of new value systems built up in a political context. No matter what the results on Tuesday, no matter how they resonate nationally or don't, those of us who identify with the movement must continue our activism such that the organic and immanently energetic social formations that have come out of the Wisconsin Uprising continue to grow and proliferate.