Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Opinion Writer

Wisconsin gives progressives something to build on

On Tuesday, all eyes will be watching to see whether Wisconsin voters will keep labor-bashing right-winger Scott Walker (R) in the governor’s mansion. But win or lose, the real story is the 15 months of people power leading up to this day. The real lesson lies in more than a year of progressive organizing, petitioning, canvassing and campaigning for the cause. The real result is a progressive movement that is deeper and broader than before.

When Walker’s opponents needed 540,208 signatures to trigger the recall election, Wisconsin’s progressives responded by collecting more than a million. They filled 152,000 pages — weighty evidence of the power of a group of people determined to right a wrong.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.

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And the effects have rippled outward. The sight of 70,000 protesters — teachers, firefighters, nurses, students, parents with children – occupying the Wisconsin State Capitol in February 2011 ignited activists around the country. Just as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt motivated people around the world, including in Wisconsin, the occupation of the Madison statehouse helped inspire the occupation of Wall Street a few months later.

Let me state the obvious: I want the recall to succeed. A victory for Democrat Tom Barrett would not only create an opportunity to roll back Walker’s worst anti-labor, budget-slashing measures, but would also send a clear message to those who are masquerading as deficit hawks around the country: We’ve had it with starve-the-beast politics. We’re done with leaders whose idea of austerity is to cut education, health care and vital public services in order to give more tax breaks to their millionaire friends.

Walker’s GOP legislature, like so many Republican statehouses around the country, has pursued a “divide and conquer” strategy, as Walker himself admitted to a billionaire donor. His legislative efforts, backed up by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the extremist, corporate-funded group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are meant to cripple labor unions and disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

Make no mistake — Walker knows his recall has the potential to be a resounding progressive victory. That’s why he’s raised $31 million to stay in office, compared with $4 million raised by his opponent. Two-thirds of Walker’s money has come from outside Wisconsin, and his donor list reads like a list of Who’s Who of America’s Billionaires. Sheldon Adelson — Gingrich’s Daddy Warbucks — and Amway founder Richard DeVos have each given Walker $250,000. And remember the “Swift boat” ads against Kerry? Houston home builder Bob Perry, who backed that smear campaign, wrote Walker checks totaling $500,000. As the recall fight comes to an end, this record amount of money from ultraconservative outsiders has kept Walker alive.

Money in politics is nothing new. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson lamented that corporations that “challenge our government to a trial of strength” were undermining the will of the people. But the battle lines have radically shifted. Ever since the Citizens United ruling welcomed unrestricted corporate money into our elections, the interests of the 99 percent have been badly outmatched by anonymously sourced dollars.

Indeed, we are witnessing the first major battle between astronomical numbers of people and astronomical amounts of money.

As I write this, Walker leads in the polls, and if progressive turnout is merely ordinary, he will likely win. On the other hand, if we see the same groundswell today as on the days that led to this one, Walker can be defeated. Yet, big as this election is, it is only the first test of the progressive response to an electoral landscape overrun with money from corporations and wealthy individuals.

By attacking labor unions, flooding Wisconsin with outside cash and trying to cleanse the electorate of people who don’t look, earn or think like him, Walker has taken aim at more than a single campaign cycle or a series of policies; his real targets are the pillars of American progressivism itself. With the Romney campaign gearing up, and super PACs taking to the national airwaves, we face an unprecedented, well-funded assault on our basic values.

But progressives aren’t backing down. They’re just getting started.

So when the results come in, reflect on the vast organizing effort that brought Wisconsin to this moment — and imagine where it still has the potential to go. Elections are over in a matter of hours, but movements are made of weeks, months and years. The Declaration of Sentiments was issued at Seneca Falls in 1848, yet women did not gain the right to vote until seven decades later. The Civil War ended with a Union victory in 1865, yet the Voting Rights Act was not passed until a century later. Auto workers held the historic Flint sit-down strike in 1936-37, yet the fight for a fair, unionized workforce persists 75 years later.

And in the last 15 months, Wisconsin’s progressives have shown us that the battle against bankrolled austerity can be bravely waged by an army of dedicated people committed to protecting working families. They’ve reminded us that good organizing is our only chance to withstand the blitzkrieg of corporate funded advertising — and better yet, leave a lasting mark. Their movement, with thousands of new Wisconsin activists mobilized, energized and educated, can be permanent — and it can keep growing.

 
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