When the idea of recall was first posed during the protest, it was one of many means of taking on the Republicans. When the “Budget Repair Bill” passed, the mass movement deflated and strike action was taken off the table, leaving the recall campaigns as the movement’s dominant strategy. Hundreds of thousands of workers and young people looked toward the recalls to strike back and teach corporate politicians a well-deserved lesson.
For many, the recalls appeared to be a safe alternative to striking. After all, recalls were perfectly legal and would, presumably, result in the repeal of the bill. This notion was encouraged by the union leaders and Democratic Party politicians. However, the senatorial recalls resulted in the Republicans staying in power, while workers were left in the decidedly unsafe position of dealing with the effects of the bill without the solidarity they had developed.
The August recall elections in Wisconsin ended with the Republican state Senate majority narrowed to 17-16. Two of six Republicans facing recalls lost the election for their collaboration with Governor Walker. The three Democrats who also faced recall elections – for fleeing the state to prevent a quorum for a vote on Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” – managed to keep their seats. For both Democrats and Republicans, over $31 million were poured into these campaigns from sources in and out of the state.
The fact that 9 politicians – 6 Republicans, 3 Democrats – were facing recalls all at the same time is an historic feat rare in the history of state politics anywhere in the country. It could only have happened as the result of the powerful protest movement in which hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites and supporters from across the country took part.
Yet the fact that Democrats failed to get a majority in the state Senate was very disappointing to many looking to roll back Walker’s agenda.
The problem with placing all hopes on electing Democrats goes far beyond inept or misleading campaigns. The reality is that the Democrats’ basic agenda cannot be trusted to be in the interests of ordinary workers and the poor. Despite their rhetoric, the Democratic Party’s actions nationally and locally place it squarely in the camp of the banking and business elite.
While they attacked Walker’s extremism countless times, they never attempted to reframe the debate about who created the budget crisis and who should pay for it. Instead, they talked about “shared sacrifice” and smaller cuts to programs that benefit working-class people. This could only mean that workers are counted as equally guilty for the economic crisis that was created by Wall Street and the corporate elite.
The only fair program to solve the deficit is hinted at by a chant often heard during the protests in Madison: “How do you solve the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich!” The Democrats, however, were prepared to vote for Walker’s cuts if he eased up on collective bargaining, citing the fact that union leaders themselves had offered steep concessions (“In Letter, Wisconsin Democrats Demand Compromise, Offer to Meet Walker at Border,” AlterNet.org, 3/7/2011).
Failure of the Recall Strategy
Back in March, after weeks of protests failed to get Walker to back down, the idea of a general strike was being widely talked about in Wisconsin by rank-and-file workers. Instead, union leaders took their cue from the Democrats and opted to direct all hopes to the recalls. This strategy has been discredited by the feeble results of the recall and the avalanche of effects coming down from Walker’s legislative victories.
Pinning everything on the recalls also fostered complacency about what was actually needed to maintain union structures under the far more difficult conditions stipulated by Walker’s anti-union bill. Other than lobbying Democrats, no credible plans have been put forward on how unions will fight to keep every previous contract standard from being eviscerated.
Another problem with the recall elections was that they were limited to a few select districts. None of these were in Madison, the epicenter of the protests, so the largest contingent of demonstrators was barred from participating in the recall process. Some activists in Madison were able to participate in canvassing or other campaigning activities. The AFL-CIO, through their We Are Wisconsin coalition, got over 12,000 activists to knock on 200,000 doors and make 300,000 phone calls. But most of the activists from February and March were left with nothing to do but go about their lives. This caused the movement to dissipate and allowed big business to regroup.
The initiative was taken away from the grassroots direct action of workers and young people and siphoned off toward the Democratic Party, a party over whom corporate interests have far more influence than ordinary working-class people.
Across the country, Democrats are not only carrying out budget cuts, they are also attacking collective bargaining rights. In Massachusetts, with its one-party, Democrat-controlled state government, health care can no longer be bargained for by unions. In Illinois, where Democrats also control state government, they restricted teachers’ right to strike and weakened seniority rules, making it easier to fire teachers over standardized test scores. In many other states, Democrats are either introducing or going along with deep budget cuts to vital social programs. In Minnesota, the longest state government shutdown in state history ended with a rotten compromise, with Democratic Governor Dayton agreeing to close the budget shortfall with nothing but steep cuts in social programs (“Minnesota State Shutdown Set to End in Rotten Compromise,” SocialistAlternative.org, 7/17/2011).
On the federal level, the momentous hopes placed in Obama have been frustrated, as he continued bailouts for Wall Street with little help for workers and the unemployed, continued and expanded the war in Afghanistan, started a new war in Libya, extended the Bush tax cuts, and agreed to a historic debt ceiling deal made up of spending cuts and no tax increases on the rich while opening the road to serious cuts in New Deal programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. On the local level, Democratic politicians in Madison have been to the fore in pushing through the creation of Madison Prep, siphoning off public education funding for a small, elite, privately-owned, non-unionized charter school.
Frustration with the Democratic Party is growing around the country. A signal case is the former Salt Lake City mayor who declared in an angry letter:
I’m done with the Democratic Party. As I said on Amy Goodman’s show a couple years ago, I’ve put my “Proud Democrat” coffee mug in storage. I think now I’ll just throw it in the garbage and have done with it … I think the answer is a new political party that actually will advocate for and promote the interests of the public rather than the narrow interests of the wealthy who bought and paid for not only Congress but the White House.
He referred to the Democratic Party as a “gutless, unprincipled party, bought and paid for by the same interests that buy and pay for the Republican Party.” (“Former S.L. Mayor Rocky Anderson divorces himself from ‘gutless’ Democratic Party,” Desert News, Dennis Romboy, 8/12/2011)
Need for a Party for Workers and Young People
Some may argue that, despite it all, Democrats are the lesser of two evils and that we just have to fight to keep them accountable. However, there are no democratic structures of any relevance inside the Democratic Party with which to hold them accountable.
Moreover, you can’t keep them accountable as long as they know you have nowhere else to go. In fact, every movement that has attempted to reform the Democratic Party has instead itself been reformed by the Democratic Party to accommodate corporate interests. Dave Poklinkoski, President of the Madison Electrical Workers, IBEW Local 2304, has drawn the right conclusion:
“American history has demonstrated that once a movement is channeled into the Democratic Party, it dies. The previous labor uprising in the 1930s, the antiwar movement, and the civil rights movements all saw their energy and organizational efforts moved off the streets and away from the shop floor and into the electoral politics of the Democratic Party. The movements stopped there.” (“Let’s Learn the Right Lessons from Wisconsin,” Labor Notes, 8/21/2011)
This is why the Democratic Party is sometimes referred to as “the graveyard of social movements.” Unless working people, the labor movement, and young people build an independent political alternative that truly defends their interests, the Democrats are free to survive on little more than lip service.
In the recall elections, Socialist Alternative argued for running independent, working-class candidates. A working-class political alternative could have meant support for independent left candidates who stood on a clear program of repealing the “Budget Repair Bill” and the Walker budget and standing firm on a “No Cuts! No Concessions!” and “Tax the Rich!” platform. In addition to its clear proworker program, such a campaign would be distinguished from the typical electoral strategy in that it would be accountable to members building the movement in the streets.
What we need is a new political party that refuses to take corporate money, is democratically controlled by its members, and fights determinedly for the interests of the working-class majority on the issues of jobs, wages, benefits, health care, social programs, housing, war, discrimination, and the environment. In the past, such a party has been created by workers in different countries worldwide. There are now two corporate parties in the U.S. Why shouldn’t working people have one of our own?
As we build our movements, we need to have no confidence in either major party. As we do this, we need to run independent anticorporate, pro-worker candidates to popularize our demands and our struggles as a step toward building a new political party that can represent working people, the vast majority in society. Armed with clear socialist policies, it could explain all the waste and inequity of the present capitalist system and give workers a socialist alternative to strive for.
As we approach the 2012 elections, we have to reject the demands of Democrats and their liberal co-thinkers that we vote Democrat. We need to remember the cuts in programs passed by Democrats in the last decade and their funding and domination by Wall Street. We need to reject their calls to restrain the militancy of our movements so as not to embarrass Democratic candidates. We need to reject the scare tactics of them claiming we need to prevent the Republicans from getting back into power.
In our union locals, at our union conventions, and in progressive social movements, we need to initiate a debate about why our movement is throwing its valuable resources into electing candidates for a corporate party. We need to demand that unions cut off their funds from Democratic Party candidates. This money should be used to build our grassroots movements and fund candidates independent of the two parties as an important step to building momentum for a new party that represents workers, not Wall Street and the 1% who dominate our society.
Once such a party is created and has won a sizeable level of support among working people and progressive social movements, it will be able to speak for the millions of dissatisfied workers and youth on the myriad of issues confronting them. It would change the face of U.S. politics.