Which Wisconsin?

Jeffrey Phelps/AP Images
Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, right, and his Democratic challenger in the recall election, Tom Barrett, before a television debate, Milwaukee, May 31, 2012. Walker won the election on June 5 with 53 percent of the vote to Barrett’s 46 percent.

The campaign to recall Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker (and several state legislators), which has now been decisively lost (except for one state senate seat), began two emotionally bitter winters ago. A piece of Walker-sponsored legislation known as Act 10 was put forward without much public warning: it was a proposal that, among other things, increased state employees’ contributions to their health insurance (causing a substantial cut in their take-home pay) and eliminated public workers’ collective bargaining rights (an exception being made for police and firemen, who had supported Walker’s campaign). This move, something Walker had not initially proposed when he ran for governor, seemed part of a larger right-wing agenda being tried out for national spectators.

Shoved forward during a February thaw, Act 10 was thought to be shrewdly if mischievously timed—a Friday!—but it backfired. The weather was sunny and warm for winter and the organization of rallies began that weekend: Madisonians, a huge portion of whom work in some way for the public sector, and many of whom feel the union is the only thing that has their backs—not only teachers but sanitation workers, prison guards, and hospital workers—took to the streets and marched on the capitol, occupying it for months. They were quickly joined by people from all over the state, as well as by Susan Sarandon and Jesse Jackson.

At that time, the protests were full of surprising unity, even between protesters and police, who would high-five one another in a friendly manner despite the cops being on duty. All was nonviolent. Farmers drove their tractors around the Capitol Square; parents brought their children to show them what civil disobedience looked like, taking photos of the kids holding “Recall” signs. Such teachable moments as family outings were everywhere. Microphones were set up, speeches were given, music was played, chants were chanted, pizza was delivered, drums were drummed. For weeks, people clapped, shouted, and danced.

By St. Patrick’s Day the feeling of angry camp-out and festival was still in the air, though there were more leprechaun costumes and some of the chants had been hijacked by teenaged interlopers: Hear it loud, hear it clear, we want union rights and beer. Nonetheless, it became a source of local civic pride that the protests seemed a direct prompt to the subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement. Some Madisonians would claim the Arab Spring as well. Scott Walker took to wearing a bulletproof vest.

Despite the assertion by journalist David Brooks (and others drawing from the ideas of Cass Sunstein or Bill Bishop) that Americans live in more like-minded communities than ever before and are therefore cut off from values and opinions at variance with their own, more than a year later Wisconsin’s recall of its governor and several legislators pitted neighbor against neighbor. It was being called “a civil war,” and as in our American Civil War some family members were not talking to other family members. Despite a history of bipartisanship, people chose sides (as midwesterners tend to do in divorce; not for them the pseudo-sophisticated friends-with-all approach). Tales of confrontation abound: a driver with a “Recall Walker” bumper sticker would be tailed on the highway then passed in the adjacent lane by someone holding up a “Fuck the Recall” sign.

There were calls for civility and healing as well as for further debate. Days before Mother’s Day, on the eve of the Democratic primary to choose Walker’s opponent in the recall, Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive who had been one of the first candidates for the nomination, endorsed by unions and environmentalists but mysteriously considered “unelectable” even by her admirers, said that the state was crying out for “a mother’s touch.” It was not her finest moment. But when she said that “a budget is a moral document,” she was back on track.

The widely considered “more electable” Milwaukee mayor, Tom Barrett, who defeated Falk in the primary, has been defeated by Walker before, in the 2010 gubernatorial election, so what constitutes electability for the Democrats is a little fuzzy. Barrett was said to have run a lackluster campaign in 2010, and luster is still not his strong suit: he remains stolid and mild and intelligent, perhaps temperamentally unsuited for campaign life, though he can do fieriness if absolutely necessary. Barrett, the people’s mayor of Milwaukee, is chiseled, handsome, and dignified in an almost regal way; in a rally with Bill Clinton the weekend before the election, even while costumed in a Milwaukee Brewers jacket, the very tall, polite Barrett made the crowd-pleasing Clinton look like a raspy, wispy tough guy.

Meanwhile Scott Walker, a former county executive turned mascot of the wealthy, in public debates looked sleepy, even a bit cross-eyed. To study his notes in a televised appearance he bowed his head so low that viewers saw his bald spot in back. The pose looked almost like shame. But when he lifted his head back up again he became magically fast-talking. Since Walker never graduated from college, in public settings he plays his Eagle Scout card in a way that impressed even me, though I know the Eagle Scouts boast a bunch of unlikely suspects (among them, the film director David Lynch). With Barrett and Walker facing each other down, the recall election had the look of a rematch, although Democrats insisted it was not. With Barrett hurriedly chosen in May and behind in the polls from the start of his brief month-long “speed dating campaign,” as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune described it, the recall began to have the sad-making whiff of futility.

In unfortunate phrasing handed to him by someone on his campaign, Barrett declared himself “rock solid” while he called Walker the “rock star” of the national right wing. Walker blames the left for “starting it”—“it” being the state’s affairs going national—with activist movie stars, union support, and continual media coverage last winter. In addition to his right-wing, right-to-work policies, Walker’s out-of-state speaking engagements became an issue, as was his quest for national attention, especially since it has involved the unprecedented accrual of out-of-state cash—over $21 million, 70 percent of his total. At another time this might be a genuine sticking point in the traditional midwestern “who do you think you are?” psyche, but voters turned out to care less about Walker being a “rock star” than Barrett’s campaign managers hoped. It was not the most stirring theme to run on.

There can be a begrudging provincial respect for someone in the national eye, even if it’s the eye of a storm, and of the Tea Party, as well as the out-of-state billionaires who have helped fill Walker’s campaign coffers, which ended up with more than $31 million—an unprecedented amount in Wisconsin political history and about eight times more than Barrett raised. Walker, who last year fell prey to a taped prank phone call from a blogger pretending to be one of the Koch brothers, used Koch cash to run Willie Horton–style ads, the most recent featuring a photograph of a dead Milwaukee toddler who had been beaten to death, a crime whose controversial aftermath Walker tried to lay at Barrett’s feet.

The issue of public employee unions was getting lost amid such distractions. Unprecedented money meant an unprecedented number of television ads. Walker’s ability to get almost a third of the union vote may have been based to some degree simply on the ability of some union members to identify with a man being ousted from his job. But the effects on voters of money-fueled ads—illegal in places such as the UK but now completely unleashed in this country by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—can hardly be overestimated. Outspent almost always means overpowered and drowned out.

Barrett, partly because of recall rules that limit the funds a challenger can raise but not those of the incumbent, never had any such national money. But to have insistently called Walker a “rock star” may have exalted Walker more than was understood by the Barrett campaign, which was hoping for the mythic Wisconsin wholesomeness to prevail at the polls. Certainly corruption seems to surround Walker, and he has a criminal defense fund already in place—the first time a sitting governor has ever had one. Rumors of indictments are still in the air, regarding both his time as Milwaukee County executive and his possible current use of state money for that very defense fund. But many people in self-contradictory Wisconsin, the home of both the Progressive Party and Joe McCarthy, may not care deeply about the charges against Walker. That he has sold his soul to corporations (“job-makers”) may seem like nothing new. In fact, observing his seemingly benign unimpressiveness, some may have sympathized or identified with him. It has worked for Republican candidates before, and divides the populist sentiments of any electorate.

While the state struggles financially, and Walker and his Republican henchmen in the legislature attempt to bestow both tax and environmental breaks to open-pit mining companies while rejecting $810 million of Obama stimulus money for a high-speed train between Madison and Milwaukee, the town-gown-style split that has always existed along various fault lines across the state reemerged during the election, this time cutting through small-town neighborhoods, Indian tribal land, and even academic departments. Wisconsin has long been considered a collective of liberal college communities and working-class cities connected by interstate highways crisscrossing the farmland. But especially with the rise of suburban sprawl, it has become much more unpredictable than that.

With Walker’s victory by 53 percent to Barrett’s 46 percent, the sorrow over so much grassroots political effort coming so spectacularly to naught is profound. There is a feeling that corporate anarchy has now come to Wisconsin and that more widely in our democracy the bottom line will be the bottom line. From “Obama Nation to Abomination” quipped local radio show host Michael Feldman, though the extent to which the recall election is also a referendum on the Obama presidency is unclear. (The 2012 Obama campaign slogan is “Forward,” the longtime state motto of Wisconsin.) A June election, its timing determined by recall rules, seems far away from November. Over 100,000 students have dispersed for the academic year—many are out of state for the summer; some entering freshman have yet to turn eighteen. Wisconsin has a long history as a swing state: in 2000 Gore won it by only six thousand votes, and if Florida had been successfully contested, Bush was going to demand a Wisconsin recount; Kerry took Wisconsin by only 12,000.

Despite this, and despite the Republican legislature’s newly stringent voter ID laws, and despite its new nickname of “North Tennessee,” Wisconsin could still be Obama’s. But it won’t be the comfortable margin of 2008, when his lead was almost half a million votes.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the victorious Walker campaign has been its demonstrated ability to get out the vote, a ground game to rival the Democrats, and Walker is trying to signal this new ability to Romney. On Election Day even Madison Democrats, to their great astonishment, were receiving get-out-the-vote calls from Walker supporters. Such right-wing energy proved a kind of through-the-looking-glass experience that continued into the evening. Outside of Madison musician Ben Sidran’s “Jazz Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Freethinkers,” people gathered on the curb to watch the Transit of Venus, through binoculars placed backward to reflect upon a clipboard. It was a small dot traversing the broiling sun, but it looked like the world going to hell in a handbasket.