Why Is Wisconsin Different?

Why Is Wisconsin Different?

Paul Buhle: Why Is Wisconsin Different?

At this writing, as organized signature-gathering groups and thousands of individual collectors press onward, a recall election for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his hapless lieutenant, Rebecca Kleefisch, now seems certain. Perhaps, as John Nichols comments, the most amazing development is the furious pace of signature collecting in small towns and rural areas, even those heavy with votes for Walker only thirteen months ago. The process of recall is assured, Republicans admit, and soon the multi- (perhaps mega-) million dollar election race, with progressives lined up against Walker and his corporate backers, will begin.

If Occupy ends almost everywhere or seeks a new identity by changing forms, with Democratic (with a degree of embarrassment) as well as Republican (here, no embarrassment) mayors determined to apply police force to occupiers, the contrast with Wisconsin could hardly be greater. Here, police joined firefighters in sympathy (and have joined together for petition-gathering!), Democrats have taken the helm of a ship that they could not really steer, and organized labor has been, at all times, near the center of the action. Indeed, it seemed to at least one labor historian?myself, that is?as if CIO-PAC of the early 1940s had been reborn, carrying the Democrats upon its sturdy back. To perpetuate illusion for the sake of veteran Dissent readers: the union members and labor retirees, whose efforts are bound to carry forward into the elections ahead, have a leadership that the late Michael Harrington would have dreamed of, and with good reason. Many of today?s Madison- and Milwaukee-area labor old-timers, still in or near key positions, were in the Democratic Socialists of America for decades.

How to account for similarities of one Occupy (the State Capitol here, in February and March) with other Occupies (across the country), alongside the differences? My friends and I call our volume of essays, appearing in January, It Started in Wisconsin. We admit that we are not quite sure what the ?it? means, although we are awfully eager to find out! But we are confident, if I can speak for the writers as a group, that our Occupation was not so absolutely different from the others, after all. We did not wait for the next election, listening to promises: we occupied.

In February, when the fourteen Democratic Senators fled Wisconsin and a crowd moved into the Capitol building with plans to stay, there was an extended moment when the police were poised to close in. There were many reasons they did not, including the long history of improved police-public relations in Madison after the conflicts of the 1960s; the vital involvement of past-and-future mayor Paul Soglin in the events around the Occupation; and the adamant unwillingness of Occupiers, from elderly citizens to parents with babes in arms, to leave (or offer anything but passive resistance). But one factor was perhaps decisive: the presence of local firefighters, whose endless parades-with-bagpipes brought wild applause and doubtless made official violence almost impossible.

The drama of those February-to-May events has stayed with us and shows no sign of abating. The recall victories of the summer (four out of nine seats taken from Republicans) were short of decisive but instructive in how to be active throughout the state and make it count. Self-made organizers, helped to be sure by union funds and donations, now made up a considerable citizen army eager to take on the next phase of peaceful combat.

Nowhere, not even in Ohio, are events likely to repeat those in Wisconsin. Nor is the momentum here guaranteed to extend into the fall presidential election: significant erstwhile centers of Obama enthusiasm remain sites of bitter disappointment, something with uncertain consequences. And yet spirits could hardly be higher hereabouts, notably in the face of right-wing legislation affecting poverty, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, public schools, the economy, government transparency, the environment, and almost every other imaginable area. The progressive base has shown that it can fight back. Here, then, might be the lesson to others: mobilization in and around elections, but never limited to elections; likewise in and through organized labor, never limited to labor. It has, at any rate, worked for us.