While the rest of the American left was out on May Day celebrating, trying to make something happen, or block business as usual, Occupy Madison marked the day by quietly closing down the encampment they’d held for months. The fact that this development meant practically nothing to the Wisconsin movement says volumes about the different political space traveled by the Wisconsin Uprising at this moment, compared to the national Occupy movement. It is not Occupy that is on the mind of Wisconsinites, but rather the upcoming Wisconsin recall election targeting governor Scott Walker and several others.
The election, set for June 5, 2012, only about six weeks from now, was forced by overwhelming petition. Before then, the Democratic and Republican candidates will be winnowed down to one nominee from each party by a primary election set for May 8, barely one week from now. May Day it is not. But unlike the May Day protests, actions, symbolism, and demonstrations—whose sound and fury, let’s face it, are pretty easily tuned out by the mainstream (and not just media, but actual people)—the consequences of this election will be felt concretely by everyone in Wisconsin, activist or not, and for way longer than the news cycle of a single day. Hundreds of thousands in Wisconsin—probably even millions—will feel the effects of this election directly in the measurable forms of a reduced paycheck, a lost job, a health problem that leads to financial ruin, an unmanageable classroom, and twenty other big things. Furthermore, the consequences will ripple out nationally, either to draw a line on austerity attacks or to green light the regressive austerity agenda.
It has been said by Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, and countless radicals that if elections mattered, they would be made illegal. Well, through their various voter suppression efforts, the Wisconsin GOP has been trying to do exactly that—make voting difficult and legally restricted. This election matters and they know it. But the movement grassroots has not grasped yet the meaning of the election. We must discuss this, if the movement is to have any hope of effectively continuing beyond the advertised finality of the recall election. This is my attempt to think through how the movement needs to interpret the election if the Uprising is to remain relevant, powerful, and strategically ready on the morning of June 6, no matter who wins or loses.
Wisconsin has an open primary, meaning anybody of any party affiliation or non-affiliation can vote for any of the candidates. Conservatives can vote for a Democratic candidate and progressives can vote for a Republican. An open primary removes the exclusivity of an official party-identified electorate, which is good. At the same time, the open primary assures an element of cynicism through tactical voting and bad-faith candidacies.
For example, right now the Republicans are running several candidates in Democratic primaries without a shred of pretense that they are anything other than electoral hurdles and tactical disruptions. In the case of some or maybe even all of the “fake” Democrats, there is hardly anything dishonest about them. For example, the Senate Majority Leader of the Wisconsin state senate is Scott Fitzgerald, and he is facing a recall election of his own (also June 5). In order to force the Democratic challenger, Lori Compas, into spending resources on a primary election, regressive Republican activist Gary Ellerman is running as a Democrat. If it weren’t for him, Compas would not have to compete in a primary at all. This helps Fitzgerald by taking the fight to the Democratic primary election, which, if enough Republicans vote in it, theoretically could be won by Ellerman. Then he simply runs a concessionary campaign for the recall election and hands a victory to his buddy Fitzgerald. So Compas must win the primary.
This tactic was used back in the summer of 2011 against some of the Democratic state senators facing recall. It has not been actually successful, not to the point of undermining a good-faith candidate. Not yet. But this time the Republicans are trying harder, and I heard some rumor about Tea Partiers pledging to vote in the Democratic primaries.
The tricky part comes with the rule that however one chooses to vote in the primary, a voter only gets one vote. So if conservatives spend their vote on a bad-faith Democrat, then they leave the Republican side open for progressive voters to do the same thing to them. Democrats, unsurprisingly, are not aggressively taking the opportunity to generate havoc for the Republicans by running bad-faith candidates, somehow being content to leave the Republican candidate unchallenged while they sort out their own. As usual we can chalk up the Democrats’ timidity to a cowardice masquerading as integrity—a lack of fighting spirit that essentially has become the national Democratic brand, from Obama on down.
But here again, an opportunity opens up. Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a young activist with no Democratic Party connection, recognized the gap and filled it by running in the Republican gubernatorial primary as—and get this—not a “fake” Republican, but as a good-faith Lincoln Republican, a LaFollette Republican, which is a posture that carries inescapably more than a whiff of irony, if not exactly bad-faith. Kohl-Riggs is recognized by many in the uprising circles as a regular at Capitol demonstrations and for his social media activism, so it is clear to all that he is certainly not of the contemporary Republicans. But he is playing it straight, pounding the argument that he is, in fact, the true conservative, that Scott Walker is a traitor to the grand Lincoln tradition of integrity, justice, and leadership, and that true conservatives will consider voting for him.
That Kohl-Riggs got himself on the primary ballot means that however secure Walker and the Republicans feel, a signal has been sent. The mantle of the LaFollette tradition—such a Wisconsin thing—could be picked up yet in the future by some enterprising and substantive candidate who speaks the language of Colbert irony, and who potentially could bring a measure of chaos into the Republican side, and do it without any Democratic Party involvement whatsoever. Could there really be an insurgent force of ironic conservatism brewing somewhere that could invade the Wisconsin GOP? Not if the GOP can help it, of course. See how they’ve shut down the principled libertarian candidate, Ron Paul, for years. If Kohl-Riggs dedicates himself to his idea, I for one would not discount the possibility of some youth-driven movement to reclaim conservatism eventually gaining visibility. It might be marginal to the party mainstream, but again like Ron Paul, it would bring into play many new people. Kohl-Riggs is only 23. If he decides to become a politician (as opposed to the citizen-running-for-office that he is now), to perform that act, follow that career, and dedicate himself to the craft of becoming an image, then who is to say where will he be in fifteen years.
Let’s parse out the present situation.
Scott Walker, the incumbent Republican governor, faces a primary challenge from Arthur Kohl-Riggs.
Democrats Kathleen Falk, Kathleen Vinehout, Tom Barrett, and Doug LaFollette are running against each other in the primary. Gladys Huber, a known Republican, is running as a bad-faith Democratic candidate.
Voters get one vote, and it goes to only one of the above seven candidates—the vote will be spent on either a Democrat or a Republican, not both. Say a sizable bloc of progressives decide to vote for Kohl-Riggs. Maybe a previously non-voting bloc comes out of the woodwork, attracted by the Kohl-Riggs novelty. Whatever the case, the vote total for Kohl-Riggs is sure to be small. But in a tight Democratic primary, those votes (or rather, the consequent non-votes for the Democrats) will make a difference. Where might those non-votes leave Falk, given that, presumably, many of those people would have voted for her over Barrett? Then again, a prediction based on ideological correspondence perhaps would have many of Kohl-Riggs’ crossover voters going for the outsider-ish progressives,Vinehout or LaFollette.
Similarly, conservatives who might otherwise have voted for Huber just to mess with the Democrats might feel some pressure to spend their vote on the Republican side for Walker because of Kohl-Riggs. If he were to attract even a five-digit vote total, Kohl-Riggs, the future/throwback candidate, might garner more media attention embarassing to Walker, and therefore (though we know that Walker himself plays the unflappable zombie to inhuman perfection) further damage the Republican brand. I can imagine conservative activists thinking it more important to put on a display of overwhelming support for Walker than throw vote wrenches into the Democrats’ race by marking the arrow for Huber.
As in an epic sporting contest in which the bad breaks, bad calls, and bad bounces on both sides cancel each other out, perhaps the tactical manuveurs will ricochet through all corners of the contest, leaving no perceptible effect. Or, maybe it is all even until the very end, leaving a final surprise to stand as the defining controversy that shifts a race this way or that. Of course, unlike in sports, political candidates feel no special obligation to respect the rules. They bend or challenge them all along the way. And that, of course, only guarantees the expansion of cynical tendencies in two directions—ie, that platoons of lawyers searching for technicalities end up deciding the contest for the parties while ordinary voters throw up their hands and wonder, why did we even bother doing this?
My armchair dissection may not clarify the elections themselves, and likely further confuses one’s predictions. But the very futility of sorting through the permutations and possible outcomes of tactical versus naïve voting makes apparent the larger but hardly abstract problem of legitimacy as it relates to elections in general, and to this election in particular. Because of the unavoidable cynicism and calculation inherent in voting, there can be no moral legitimacy gained or lost in an election victory, period. The Wisconsin movement must be very clear about this. No matter who wins or loses, we will not accept the victory as the final stamp of legitimacy—any outcome is in essence illegitimate on the level of values. An election is a non-violent contest for control over the state’s levers of coercion—and that is all it is. This is a crucial statement to broadcast because should he win, whether it be fairly or by theft, Scott Walker will wear the victory on his sleeve, using its aura of legitimacy as a bludgeon. Make no mistake, Walker and his GOP cabal have a second, more horrible act of legislative aggression at the ready, to be unveiled just as soon as he beats back the recall. To the good people of Wisconsin: be prepared to fight a governor unafraid to rule by emergency executive decree—and everyday forward, he will remind everyone that this is what the voters decided. Such will be the emboldened Scott Walker we will face after his victory.
Thus, it goes without saying that we must defeat Walker in June. This is no small task given that Walker will have amassed a war chest that guarantees dominance of television and radio advertising, and has the support of any number of third party groups, flush with cash and a willingness to lie.
But should this much-desired defeat come to pass, whoever the Democrat is will have earned no legitimacy on a values level. The movement grassroots must view and treat the new governor as distrustfully as any other ambitious, ego-driven careerist politician all too capable of selling out the public interest once in office (which is, of course, a specialty of the Democrats). The values of the movement will only be expressed by the elected leadership if the movement remains large, vital, visible, and beyond the reach of both union and Democratic Party control—or, in other words, dangerous, hydra-headed, and untamed. How to be that movement and yet engage in the most difficult and momentous electoral contest most of us will have ever seen is the paradox within which the Uprising now exists. Let us embrace it.
My last thought concerns the mentality and commitment of a winning movement. The last and perhaps most meaningful victory gained in the Wisconsin movement was the successful blockage of new mining up north—a key item on GOP’s corporate agenda. (For those interested in the story, Rebecca Kemble’s reporting for the Progressive is a great place to start.) The victory was gained at the Capitol through a state senate vote, but was won over a translocal theater of activism and coalition-building, binding together numerous groups and constituencies across different parts of the state. Of complementary significance was the willingness and even resignation among coalition members regarding the likelihood of having to fight an eventual ground war up north, pitting our bodies against their machines. Without this coalition, led by the native peoples of the Bad River Band Chippewa, the victory could not have been won. Without the latent militancy, spiritual dedication, and specter of nihilism belonging to a people who recognize a battle for survival when they see it, the victory could not have been won. Without the ability to simultaneously: lobby legislators politely and agitate on the streets angrily; collect independent, scientifically-sound research and launch barbs of wit and ridicule at GOP targets; pack the assembly hearings in person and disseminate information through social media, the victory could not have been won.
The lesson is clear. Prepare for the worst. Work for the best. Make our appeals to the hearts and minds of the unconvinced while standing firm at a threshold of ultimate defense. And deal with whatever comes.