Wisconsin Recall: Hijacking or Pilot Error?

I’ve read many post-mortems on the unsuccessful effort to recall Scott Walker, many thoughtful, many not. What I haven’t seen discussed, though, are a few fundamental questions crucial to understanding whether the decision to recall Walker was wise, or the effort conducted well: how was the decision made, by whom, and with what awareness and acknowledgement of the risks and difficulties?

Andy Kroll has a thoughtful analysis of the “Wisconsin Uprising” that was first posted at TomDispatch and is now also up at Mother Jones. It’s a good piece, worth reading, but more starkly than most that I’ve read, it exposes what’s missing from almost all the Wisconsin analyses: Who, and on whose behalf, made the decision to recall Scott Walker?

Kroll’s use of verbs, tenses, group nouns and the passive voice reveal some of the problems with the belief that “the movement” was somehow co-opted or led astray by traditional political actors [emphasis added]:

The energy of the Wisconsin uprising was never electoral. The movement’s mistake: letting itself be channeled solely into traditional politics, into the usual box of uninspired candidates and the usual line-up of debates, primaries, and general elections.


By the time Occupy Wall Street took off, the Wisconsin uprising had swapped its come-one-come-all organizing message for a far narrower and more traditional political mission. Over the summer of 2011, the decision was made that the energy and enthusiasm displayed in Madison should be channeled into recall elections to defeat six Republican state senators who had voted for Walker’s anti-union Act 10. (Three Democratic senators would, in the end, face recall as well.) By that act, Democrats and unions hoped to wrestle control of the senate away from Walker and use that new power to block his agenda.

What, exactly, was the movement? Was it a single entity with a discernable decision-making process? Was it the protests in Madison? Was it a coalition of existing organizations and constituencies, or something new? Was there any process or authority for deciding who was or wasn’t accepted in to the movement?

Who and what comprised the movement? Was it a broader swath of the politically and socially active population of Wisconsin than those who protested in Madison? Was it a mix of activists and institutions, such as labor unions? Did the participants who were members of labor unions act in accordance with the wishes of their union’s leadership, or independent of those institutional structures? Did it include the institutional Democratic Party of Wisconsin? What about elected officials?

In what way did the movement allow itself to be channeled in to traditional politics, and who or what channeled them in that direction and for what purpose? Who had agency, and how did or should they have exercised their agency? Who had authority? Who had legitimacy?

Was there really a movement “message” that could be swapped? Might it have been less a message than shared beliefs that were expressed with no control over the communications? If it was a deliberate message, who devised or began shaping the message, on whose authority, and to what purpose? How was it disseminated? And who decided to change the message, and why?

Who are the “Democrats?” The Democratic caucus in the Senate? Major elected officials, or key funders of the party, or the staff or executive board of the institutional Democratic Party of Wisconsin organization in Madison? And what about “unions?” Should there be a distinction between primarily private sector unions as opposed to the public sector unions such as teachers, AFSCME, fire and law enforcement unions who represent most of the people affected by the Walker’s attacks on public employee collective bargaining rights? And what, exactly, was the “act” which led Democrats and unions to hope to wrestle control of WI away from Walker?

There are plenty of questions to ask about the signature-gathering that placed the recall before the voters:

What followed was more of the same, but with the ante upped. This time, the marquee race would be the recall of Walker himself. Launched last November, the grassroots campaign to recall the governor put the populist heart of the Wisconsin uprising on full display. Organizing under the United Wisconsin banner, 30,000 volunteers statewide gathered nearly one million signatures to trigger the election. The group’s people-powered operation recaptured some of the spirit of the Capitol occupation, but the decision had been made: recalling Walker at the ballot box was the way forward.


By now, the Madison movement was the captive of ordinary Democratic politics in the state. After all, Barrett was hardly a candidate of the uprising…Democrats and their union allies needed to win over new voters and old enemies; by all accounts they failed.

Again, there’s a “decision” that was made but is not described or explained. Who made that decision? On whose behalf were they making that decision? Reading this piece, one might get the idea that Democratic leaders, funders and elected officials decided to co-opt  the activists throngs that had taken over the capitol. But at the same time, we’re told it was a grassroots effort of 30,000 volunteers. A look at United Wisconsin’s board of directors and staff does not look like a roster of people involved or influential in ordinary Democratic politics in Wisconsin. Not a single person’s bio suggests any significant experience in electoral or partisan politics or any authority in a major institution or constituency closely allied with Democratic politics or with significant political and monetary resources.

It may be true that “Democrats and their union allies needed to win over new voters and old enemies,” but it’s certainly not clear it’s a task they willingly sought or accepted as part of a deliberate strategy. It may be–and in fact, I’ve heard some suggestions to this effect–that institutional Democrats and labor leaders had little to do with starting the Walker recall, and because they recognized the risk and likelihood of failing, did not want the recall. [They may also have done polling and focus groups that showed the recall process itself was unpopular, and too many independents not thrilled with Walker still thought it unfair to expel someone who {at that point} hadn’t been indicted or convicted and who had won his election fairly.] But once the effort took off, they had to get on board or risk losing their legitimacy with the hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists who wanted the recall. It may not have been a task they accepted as much as something they would have preferred avoiding but was dumped in their laps.

It may seem I’m being excessively harsh toward Kroll’s piece. Maybe I am, but it’s one of the few pieces that I think raises–even if somewhat inadvertently–many of the tough questions about the recall and the broader effort to hold the line against Walker’s attacks on unions and his effort to dismantle many key progressive pillars of Wisconsin state government. And though again I think it raises more questions than provides answers, Kroll seriously engages the question of “what should Wisconsinites do next?”

The takeaway from Walker’s decisive win on Tuesday is not that Wisconsin’s new populist movement is dead…It simply couldn’t be squeezed into a system that stifles and, in some cases, silences the kinds of voices and energies it possessed.

The post-election challenge for the members of Wisconsin’s uprising is finding a new way to fight for and achieve needed change without simply pinning their hopes on a candidate or an election…


In the wake of the recall losses, the people of Wisconsin’s uprising must ask themselves: Where can they make an impact outside of politics? The power of nonviolent action to create social and economic change is well documented, most notably by Jonathan Schell in his classic book The Unconquerable WorldThe men and women in Schell’s invaluable history—Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his civil rights fighters, the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, and so many others—can serve as guides to a path to change that doesn’t require recall elections…

I encourage you to follow the link to Kroll’s interview with Schell; it’s a subtle discussion about the role of non-violent resistance to tyranny. The problem here, though, is that I don’t think these examples are particularly illuminating or applicable to this case, or to most political problems in the US and most other wealthy, pluralistic  democracies. Each person Kroll mentions was fighting for basic rights of liberty, freedom and participation–Gandhi against imperial rule, Havel against totalitarian communism, King against the second class status of people descended from slaves. Schell also discusses members of Poland’s Solidarity movement, and probably could have included Nelson Mandela.

What did these people and movements aspire to, achieve and then practice? Among other things, full participation in electoral democracy. The US Civil Rights movement began to face its stiffest, most violent opposition when it moved from protests to registering voters. Havel became Czech prime minister, Mandela and Solidarity leader Lech Walensa were elected presidents. The figures of conscience and resistance Kroll invokes didn’t build their power on recall elections, because they operated in places and times where they had no recourse to electoral options.

Scott Walker is a jerk and practices very undemocratic (and possibly even illegal) politics. But as bad as his destruction of Wisconsin government has been, he has not turned Wisconsin in to a totalitarian society or one where vast numbers of people are categorically denied their basic rights of citizenship. A non-electoral form of resistance probably has less chance of achieving significant policy change–and really, that’s mostly what is at stake in Wisconsin–than did the recall, and a majority of Wisconsinites didn’t think even the recall was a legitimate tool to be used against someone who hadn’t been indicted.

So are there other examples of politics for places and times of injustice, corruption, inequality that fall short of tyranny or systemic denial of basic rights? Kroll has an example from Wisconsin:

Wisconsinites could also turn to one of their own: Robert “Fightin’ Bob” La Follette. He created his own band of “insurgents” within the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Republican Party. Together they formed the Progressive Party, which fought for workers’ rights, guarded civil liberties, and worked to squeeze corruption out of government.

LaFollette is in some ways an obvious model for post-recall liberal politics. His policies were wise, effective and progressive, and he did these things in Wisconsin. But despite what Kroll says about getting away from traditional electoral politics, LaFollette points right back to electoral politics. He didn’t lead a “movement,” he was an elected official who eventually found his own party when he ran for president in 1924. And one of LaFollette’s most significant legacies to Wisconsin politics is the very thing Kroll believes the “movement” should have avoided: the recall process.

Kroll is doing the right thing by pushing political and campaign junkies to think of politics as something broader and deeper than simple votes in an election. He’s right to be thinking about ways to harness energy principled, progressive fervor like what drove the Wisconsin protests in the Winter of 2011. But if the movement’s goal was to reverse Walker’s policies, since (unlike Ohio) Wisconsin doesn’t have referenda, recalls were probably the only option until the 2014 election. If the movement’s goals were something else, we first need to have a better understanding of “the movement” and who made which decisions, and how. Rather than accept that “the movement” was channelled in to a bad strategy, we must first eliminate the possibility that the bad strategy was the result of bad decisions–or no actual deliberated decisions–by the Wisconsin Uprising itself.

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4 Responses to Wisconsin Recall: Hijacking or Pilot Error?

  1. scandalousmuffin says:

    Oh, this is fantastic commentary. I too hate it when journalists describe movements as these nebulous, autonomous entities while ignoring the constituent relationship.

    Getting re-blogged.

  2. scandalousmuffin says:

    Reblogged this on Clantily Scad: Dyslexistentialist Commentary of the Culturally Incorrect Kind and commented:
    One of my main criticisms of Occupy was its inability to support specific legislation out of fear of appearing partisan or something. This blog post runs a similar vein about the Wisconsin recall and criticizes a journalist that criticizes the “Wisconsin uprising” for using “traditional politics.”

  3. Far be it from me to question your analytics of the situation, but I’m disappointed that more people are not asking the more fundamental question which I’ve been asking: Did Walker actually win? It is a truism that when exit polls and election results vary widely, the problem is probably with the election results (See: Ukraine, Nov. 2004). As we saw in 2000 and 2004, that rule doesn’t seem to apply in the United States.

    Maybe it should.

    While exit polls showed the races for Walker and Kleefisch too close to call, they both ‘won’ by wide margins: Walker by 7% (72,000 votes), and Kleefisch by 6% (46,000 votes).

    2,511,585 votes were cast in the gubernatorial recall. 2,454,741 votes were cast in the Lieutenant Governor’s recall. Why did 56,844 more people vote in the Walker recall than in the Kleefisch recall? Did they simply forget?

    In an exit poll of a hypothetical race between Obama and Romney, Obama won by 3%. Is it really likely that Obama would win a hypothetical race among actual voters by 3%, while Walker and Kleefisch would win by 6-7%?

    As Brad Friedman (“TheBradblog”) often points out, electronically tallied votes are only actually counted when a recall is required. If a race is not close, then the challenger must pay for the manual count. In the Walker/Kleefisch recall, the margin was wide enough that a manual count would have to be paid by the challengers.

    Elections aren’t just about counts. They are also, and mainly, about TRUSTING the counts. I may be totally wrong in my conclusions, but I think the observations make the questions justifiable.

    I have initiated a petition for a manual vote count in the Wisconsin recall before the ballots can be destroyed. If you wish to sign on, please go to http://signon.org/sign/re-count-the-wisconsin?source=c.url&r_by=443990

  4. Pingback: The Wisconsin Recall Is Old News. Or is it? | ThinkWing Radio with Mike Honig

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