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Were recalls the way to go?

As is well known, there have been mammoth efforts to recall six Republican state senators in Wisconsin who, earlier this year, voted to end public employee collective bargaining rights; yesterday, ThinkProgress provided as good a backgrounder [1] as any on the specific races involved.

Now, the results are in, and they’re mixed — which is to say, they’re not good enough [2]: two senators were recalled, but that fell one short of what was needed to wrest control of the state Senate from the GOP.

Before going on, let me emphasize: my hat is absolutely off to the many good volunteers who worked in these campaigns.  What they achieved was remarkable.

Having said that, though, the more I read about these elections after the fact, the more I wonder about the strategic wisdom of the whole thing.  The elections the GOP re-won were all in what were more or less GOP strongholds to begin with.  A whole lot of time, money, and effort later, they pretty much still are.  Under these circumstances, to emphasize how much of an uphill struggle it was always going to be (see, e.g., Howie Klein [3], digby [4], or the John Nichols [5] interview on Democracy Now!) is not even cold comfort, it’s cause for concern: were frontal assaults on well held positions like these really the best plan?

Of the losing challengers, Clark came closest (lost 52-48%), but that’s still a pretty definite loss, and no one else came close at all. As far as I can tell, the thinking seemed to be (1) everyone who was really mad in February and March would stay mad for 5 months, (2) the GOP would be asleep on Election Day and not turn out their voters, too, all (3) in GOP-leaning districts.  The strategy amounted to absolutely needing three tough away game wins out of six.  Getting two was great, but the overall result was not a win. So it was a loss.

There was an alternative, discussed at the time both by labor leaders in Wisconsin [6] (both AFL-CIO and IWW [7]) and in the national media [8]: a general strike, i.e., a “a strike involving workers across multiple trades or industries that involves enough workers to cause serious economic disruption.”

Yes, that might have lost some kind of ‘high ground’ among independents, conservatives, and even some “liberals” — but nearly anything runs that risk.  Yes, it’s technically illegal (under the Taft-Hartley Act [9] — passed over Harry Truman’s veto in 1947)  — but technically so are other forms of civil disobedience.  When there’s a full-blown emergency, it’s appropriate to take emergency measures — and do so smartly.  One could imagine calling general strike for two days; then quit; then do it again; then quit again. Etc.

A general strike (or two, or three) would have been a way to immediately parlay the huge enthusiasm in Madison into ongoing action, instead of a momentum-draining 5 month wait.  It’s a labor and left wing tactic of long standing, as opposed to a “historic” (read: untried, roll of the dice) tactic like multiple recall elections.  The target?  Scott Walker’s financial base.  He wasn’t listening to protesters — but you can bet he’d have listened to Republican campaign contributors being hit where it hurts: in their pocketbooks.

There’s another way of looking at it, of course, and Howard Dean is its best-known advocate.  Dean, now leader of “Democracy for America” says the recalls were a kind of “50 state strategy” writ small [10]:

Democrats standing up for their core values and running to win in every district of every state, even so-called “Republican” districts — [t]hat is what a 50 state strategy looks like and this is proof that we can win with one. Yes, we came up short in taking back the Wisconsin Senate last night, but we went up against everything the right wing had to offer and proved that people power can beat big corporate money, even in “red America.”

I was a big “50 state strategy” advocate [11] when Dean  — whom I continue to admire and value — pushed it as chair of the Democratic National Committee.  But I think it’s not necessarily always the right kind of strategy.  A “50 state” type of strategy is a long term and party-building strategy, it’s one designed to identify candidates and supporters, and it’s one that presupposes that electoral success is the primary goal.  That’s true for Democrats (or Greens, or whatever other party needs to build itself up), but it may be less true for unions and/or civil society campaigns like this one.

In Wisconsin this winter and early spring, mass power was roused in defense of a human right under attack; most sympathetic observers agree it was the most stirring mobilization this country has seen in ages.  That momentum needed to be harnessed and spent in a way that maximized its effect on that issue, and that took advantage of its lightning-like effect on the Wisconsin and national landscape.

Instead, it was arguably used up on behalf of the Democratic Party — to little apparent benefit of either that party or the issue — first in a judicial recall race and now in state Senate recall races. The Democratic Party per se may have identified new supporters in those Wisconsin Senate districts, but the cause of collective bargaining wasn’t materially advanced, despite being the issue that galvanized so many supporters.

None of this is to say that the recall effort against Governor Scott Walker should be abandoned, or that the Wisconsin judicial and Senate recall efforts were entirely in vain.  But the return on investment looks pretty slim so far, and the prospects aren’t necessarily better going forward.  These choices may arise again as misguided “austerity” and and a prideful upper class continue to reign in Washington and in state houses around the country.  If (hopefully when) lightning strikes again as it did in Madison, we may want to bottle it differently next time.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Were recalls the way to go?"

#1 Comment By Mary Ray Worley On August 10, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

I really think we accomplished a lot yesterday. And I know recalling Walker won’t be easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Sometimes you just have to do things, not because of the anticipated result, but because they’re the right thing to do. The idea of a general strike scares me because the costs would be even greater to many people, assuming that we could get people to actually do it. The recalls cost money, effort, and time; a general strike would cost some people their livelihoods.

#2 Comment By Thomas Nephew On August 10, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

Two state senators really is a lot, and congratulations; I didn’t give that achievement as much credit as I should have.

Like I say, I’m not advocating reversing course and not trying to recall Walker. The die is cast, the recall strategy is the one that was chosen — this time. I’m trying to open a discussion about when a general strike is the way to go. You’re right that it’s a very big deal, one that can cost people their jobs. I’d only advocate it when the stakes were very, very high. I thought and think this might have been such a time.

#3 Comment By Mary Ray Worley On August 11, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

Thomas, you’re not the only one thinking along these lines: [12]

I think the problem is, though, that midwesterners especially are very unlikely to go along with a general strike. Honestly, and perhaps sadly, I just don’t think it’s in our nature.

#4 Comment By Thomas Nephew On August 11, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

Thanks for the link; as you may have seen, Blake Rogers has supplied [13] at the Facebook conversation we’re having about this post.

Best of luck going after Walker — sincerely. You and your state deserve better.

Re “very unlikely to along with a general strike… don’t think it’s in our nature,” I guess I think after the huge protests in Madison, you’re maybe selling yourself and your fellow Badgers a little short there. No one else came close to doing what Wisconsin did. Though I was hundreds of miles away, I know I joined hundreds and thousands of people in demonstrations and even an occupation of a lobbyist building in support of you all.

A general strike sounds radical and is risky, but my sense is that it can also be a time of huge solidarity. Seems to me no one does that better than Wisconsin. Keep up the great work.

#5 Comment By ballgame On August 12, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

Though I think your article was very thoughtful, Thomas, I pretty much disagree with it. I think the recall effort was exactly the way to go. The positive outcome was quite tangible if the effort had been fully successful, and it came very close.

I honestly don’t understand what the reasonably-expected outcome of a general strike is supposed to be. In a parliamentary system (or a moderately-sized country), I could see one bringing down the government. But I don’t see Walker resigning in the face of such a strike (at least, not in the short term), and I think a lot of people on his side of the fence would see the stakes as clearly as you do and would encourage him to ‘stay the course’ precisely to deny the Left a ‘demonstrable win’.

In order for a general strike to be successful, would it not be reasonable to believe that you’d have to have the overall public support that would be sufficient to generate three recall wins out of six (even if those districts were historically tilted Republican)?

BTW, it’s good to see you back!

#6 Comment By Thomas Nephew On August 29, 2011 @ 11:47 am

Ballgame, thanks for the comment and the welcome back! I’ve been on vacation and out of convenient Internet range the last couple of weeks; then Hurricane Irene took out our power until last night.

The goal of a general strike need not have been “regime change,” it could have been confined to forcing Walker to abandon the legislation, or it could have been simply punitive. One could just as easily wonder what the near term goal of a successful 3-recall campaign might have been; though tangible wins, you’d still have Walker and the House to contend with. Re the public support needed: (1) it might have been there at the time, and particularly (2) in the Madison / Milwaukee / maybe LaCrosse urban areas of WI. Instead the fight was moved to the conservative ‘burbs surrounding those areas. It’s as if Paul Revere had decided to fly to London to oppose the British march to Lexington instead of rallying Massachusetts residents.

You speak of potentially successful positive, tangible outcomes — but tangible outcomes for whom and for what? There’s [13] of Dem Party leadership and candidates diluting the issues of labor rights to near unrecognizability. Now that’s arguably what they needed to do to win those elections — but that’s my point. People had rallied to labor and collective bargaining rights as human rights, but that was abandoned in favor of a ‘let’s elect more Democrats’ campaign.

Or so I worry. I don’t live there, and people I respect like Mary worked for these campaigns and don’t think a general strike would have had much success there. I hope they’re right that these electoral campaigns are the best use of the considerable energy progressive Wisconsin has brought to the fight.