Are we a bit exhausted after all this? Yes, everyone is. It's been an emotional roller-coaster for all of us. Let's take a break and reflect on what's happened.
I know we're all disappointed that we didn't defeat Scott Walker and his completely odious attitude toward policymaking, not to mention all his odious policy goals. And we didn't toss out Scott Fitzgerald either, though we kinda all know that that was a longshot at best, especially once it got on the radar of the other side, which could and did go all in playing defense.
However, I'll be honest: as a casual observer of all these events, I didn't expect our efforts to go so far and accomplish so much.
In early 2011, I was sitting here in my room (and I don't live anywhere near Wisconsin) observing the massive protests, in Wisconsin, in other states, and elsewhere in the world--in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Sure, I was pretty stunned at how massive the protests were, with attendees numbering into the six digits. But when people started talking about recalling the governor, first, I was like, that's a great idea! Then I heard that he couldn't be recalled until a whole year and a half later. I figured, hell if anyone would still retain the sense of outrage to even put together a recall election against him a year later. Emotions would have died down by then.
Then the Wisconsin state supreme court election rather coincidentially happened. I don't think anyone to this day knows whether that bag of ballots was legit or not. But it did show that we had potential, but we also still had lots of work to do.
Recall elections proceeded against six Republican state senators and against three Democratic state senators in the summer of 2011. And while we didn't win back the chamber, we did reduce their margin to one seat. Or, for more policy relevance, to a tie plus Dale Schultz.
And perhaps it was in part the fact that we still hadn't won back the state senate, that we then kicked off the second round of recall elections. Then I heard that we didn't challenge all the juicy targets (read: Republicans in marginal districts, or Republicans first elected in 2010) in the state senate, and that Dems didn't even bother looking for a candidate against Fitz, and I figured the movement was losing steam anyway. I also heard about the primary fight between Barrett and the unions proxied through Falk's candidacy. This really made me think this wasn't getting anywhere. But then the rest of you kept it going. And then we made it happen anyway. Or, to be more accurate, those of you who actually are able to do something about this, made it happen.
Four more Republican state senators, as well as the governor and lieutenant governor themselves, would be up for recall elections. The fact that that they were even held to a recall was a testament to the strength of all of us who worked on this effort working together.
And while Walker is still governor, we did at least recapture Wanggaard's seat, and with it, control of the state senate. Yes, it's largely symbolic, though it at least deters Walker from calling a special session to try anything else. (And just like the press has far less focus on the state senate than on Walker's victory, it has far less focus on the legislative session's dates than on control of the state senate.)
Furthermore, our efforts in Wisconsin and other states, taken together, show that there is extremely strong pushback when the rights of working-class citizens are taken away. While it may not be enough to topple a governor who has the backing of ten times as much money as we do, it's enough to cost them control of a state legislature chamber and several state legislature seats, not to mention the gigantic costs associated with their campaigns to oppose ours. (Heck, if we look at these efforts as a war of attrition, we're fighting way more efficiently.) If there's one thing that right-wing talk radio got right, it's that we've quite effectively spooked other Republican governors from trying to push through these extreme policy goals.
Not to mention that it's always harder to recover something you've lost than to defend something you have. All these recall elections were always uphill battles. All of them. It was just a matter of how steep the hills were. And yet we still won three of twelve times. We also successfully played defense--from recall elections against Dem state senators as well as "fake Dems" who were run by the bad guys openly and brazenly--thirteen of thirteen times.
We have gained significant ground. It may not be all that we had hoped for, but it's no laughing matter either. And for that we should be proud of ourselves. We've defended ourselves against their assaults, and despite instances of uncoordination and cat-herding among ourselves, we've still managed to flip control of three state senate seats and a state legislature chamber. And that's just in Wisconsin.
Two more things are below the fold. One is a critique of this whole anti-Walker movement and how we work as a team. The other is about the need to communicate about progressivism and connect it to the average voter.
I'm using "we" a lot here, because we are all on the same team. We all have to help each other, and we all have to stand together and work together. I know people have been complaining that Obama didn't wade into this fight any earlier or any more than a mere tweet, but let's also not forget our other allies.
Unions could have done with less wasting time and resources on the primary election; I think they should have been in close conversation with the state Democrats and either gone all in for Barrett or convinced the state party to pick someone else (maybe they should have been knocking down Feingold's door. Though he didn't seem particularly interested anyway).
Furthermore, don't you remember that environmentally unsafe iron mine project Walker was trying to push? I didn't hear anything about environmental groups doing anything about painting Walker as in favor of ruining people's drinking water, or anything along those lines.
At the same time though, the National Rifle Association waded into this mess. This recall election was about budget deficits and unions, wasn't it? Gun rights were NEVER a relevant issue through this drama, yet the NRA was campaigning for Walker. Why? Because he was one of them; he was their keynote speaker at an April event and he just happens to support concealed carry laws, if I recall correctly. In short, they got his back when he needed it.
Someone on Daily Kos once wrote a diary (which I can't find for some reason even though I thought I had it rec'd) where they analyzed why the Republicans are more successful at agenda-pushing. Their conclusion was that it was because different parts of the team helped each other even during their own issues' downtime. I don't remember the examples, but I think it was about how conservative groups would wade into fights that they had no business in. Do this in a well-coordinated way, and you have a much more effective campaigning machine.
For that matter, a diary that I DO have rec'd is this one, about how Democrats failed to posture politically against SOPA/PIPA when they saw support for it crumbling, leading (as I observed elsewhere) various young voters to take a liking to such people as Marco Rubio, only and purely because they made a big fuss about switching their allegiance from pro- to anti-SOPA/PIPA. This, despite one of our own--Ron Wyden--being the one who blocked PIPA in the Senate.
I remember when I stood up at the end of the Northeast Regional Young Democrats Convention last year. It was really awkward. I personally knew no one in the room; my town has no Young Dems organization and I'd come all by myself to attend the convention. The Convention was held in southern upstate New York, nowhere near Wisconsin. But I worked up the confidence to ask everyone in the room and to tell their friends in Wisconsin to vote for Joanne Kloppenburg for state Supreme Court.
In a similar way, I stood up in my town Democrats' meeting last month and asked them to ask their Wisconsin friends to vote for Barrett, Mitchell, and the four state senate Democratic candidates. It was a bit less awkward since I am a member of the Democratic Town Committee (though they kinda made me a member because they wanted to).
I bugged people online. I messaged people I barely knew. I figured if there were a time to be awkward and slightly offend people, it was this. I posted on internet fora, where I'm well aware that people don't like to be preached to, especially when it comes to politics. I asked people in Wisconsin to vote and asking people outside of Wisconsin to ask their Wisconsin friends to vote. I posted on a Facebook page of a group I'd just joined, saying the same thing. I bugged a college Democrats leader from a school I used to attend; I didn't even recognize his name, and I had to introduce myself.
At least I got one more of the people on those forums to vote. He was having trouble with scheduling earlier, but in the end he voted. It wasn't enough to topple an entrenched Scott Walker defended by tens of millions of campaign money, but at least we put up a fight.
And I'm proud to have been part of that fight. I was only able to do very little, and I have gained nothing from this personally. If anything, being involved in this has taken up a lot of my time and distracted me from doing various other things that are high priorities in my own life, and has not returned me even a single penny of revenue. I even asked myself, on the eve of the election, whether I should or could have done more. But I'm still proud that I helped out, in what little I did.
And I want to see everyone else who's part of our team put in this kind of effort, because every little bit helps. This includes all the institutional players who have far more reach and resources than I or any of us netroots activists have.
In case you haven't noticed, this is a war. The Republican Party and its allies have been approaching politics (and by extension, policymaking) as a real-life strategy wargame. The only difference between this and any other game is that this game has very serious real-life consequences. And that's why we progressive activists should be thinking about this in a similar way, talking about strategy and doing things strategically, and getting our natural allies to work together, bringing more resources and minds to the table, and executing tactics that just aren't possible for people and groups working by themselves.
The second point I wanted to address is that I think we need to work better on communicating how we, as progressives, liberals, and Democrats, are relevant. And particularly, relevant to the typical low-information voter. We know how much the Republicans like to take advantage of low-information voters; my point here is that we need to counteract this by defining ourselves before they define us--on a broad scale, not just for a particular candidate or election.
One might ask, just how are we relevant at all? For some people, all we seem to do is to bug people before an election that it's their civic duty to vote, that they should support or oppose certain policy ideas for such-and-such reasons, or just humbly ask as a candidate or a supporter for their support. For those same people, they look at "government" among the most apparent things, and the most they see is roads and traffic signals, police pulling people over for speeding (and occasionally arresting criminals from towns they don't live in), the town firehouse, tax deductions from their paychecks, and sales taxes on the stuff they buy. Maybe the local school and local park. And then every so often there's a Memorial/Independence/Veterans'/Thanksgiving Day celebration with some fireworks or such. And then there's election day once every four years.
That's how it happens in my town, as far as I can see it. I bet you very few people even KNOW that, say, a Wetlands Commission exists in the town government, let alone what it does. Heck, not even I knew such a thing, until I started attending my town Democrats' meetings, where members of the commission would report on what they did. (As far as I can tell, it evaluates how building proposals will affect existing wetlands in town.) To everyone else who's never even heard of this before, I bet you you can tell them it exists, give them a twisted anecdote highlighting an unrepresentative and silly example of their work, and convince them on the spot that it's a waste of taxpayer money--and not just a waste, another waste, implying that it's a pernicious trend. (And note that you don't even have to mention how much it costs--it might cost little more than lighting a room a few times a month, but that doesn't matter one bit.)
It's these people we have to reach out to, to show them that there's a whole world of things happening behind the scenes. Schools don't erect themselves; children don't educate themselves; teachers don't pay themselves; textbooks and lab equipment and school lunches don't buy themselves. Meat doesn't inspect itself before coming to the supermarket. When developers create communities, the surrounding areas and their roles in the local ecosystem don't disappear into thin air. When a fellow citizen is desperate for work, companies with legal obligations and competitive expectations to maximize profit aren't going to magically feel bad and pay that citizen a living wage and health insurance. Hospitalizations, doctor's visits, and medications don't pay for themselves. Speculative derivatives in financial markets aren't going to police their own misbehavior.
This is where we progressives come in. From the abolition of slavery, to laws against child labor, to environmental protections against pollution and protecting ecosystem services necessary for our economy, to the expansion of education to all children, to food safety inspections, to minimum wage laws, to workplace safety regulations, to civil rights legislation, to voting rights for minorities and women and young adults, to consumer rights, to rules of the road for the almost entirely abstracted world of finance that nevertheless has huge impacts on the real world, progressive policy goals have been making the world a better place, one little step at a time. The steps we take may be dramatic and huge, or they may be small and inconspicuous (such as expanding full-day kindergarten in a small state), but they're still important aspects of how our society works.
And we are needed now more than ever before. From the greatest environmental issue that we yet face (climate change, and how to adapt to it and minimize its effects), to modern communication media and keeping them free from censorship and chilling effects, to reforming our healthcare system to be effective and efficient, to equal pay for equal work, to developing new energy technologies to improve our security as well as our local and global environments.
Let's remember this: progressivism is not about pushing an agenda. (That's what the conservatives do.) It's about making things better. It's about improving the way things work, making things more effective and more efficient. It's about giving people the rights they deserve, and also giving them the opportunity to enjoy them responsibly. It's about coming up with fair and reasonable rules of the road that we can turn to when problems arise. It's about preventing, and minimizing the impact of, bad things like crime, natural disasters, and terrorism. It's about bringing justice and fairness to those who have difficulty seeking it themselves. It's about improving the integrity and transparency of our government. It's about tweaking the market when a free-for-all market isn't a perfect free market. In short, it's about identifying and solving problems--all sorts of big and small problems, often with no easy answers. We might have different ideas for solving problems, but we all agree that these are problems that need to be solved.
Policy goals and policy victories for us are important. They are the core of our accomplishments. But in today's complex world, it's easy for people to forget their significance. We need to communicate this significance to people, lest they take it for granted--as they rather clearly have.
How do we communicate this relevance to people? I'm not sure yet. But it's a good first step to know this is something we need to work on. Post your ideas.
We need to tell people who we are, and do it first. We're not unrealistic idealists; we're actually pragmatists who are aware of how the world works. We're not against money; we're against the particular uses of money that harm the integrity of our government and our democracy. We don't like "welfare queens"; we believe that welfare should only be received by those who need it, and we're totally against people gaming the system, at any income level. But for us to have to say what we're not, we're already behind the curve. We should be moving first to say and say clearly who we are.
And make it relevant outside of just politics. Voting, canvassing, phonebanking, petition-signing, bugging our elected officials--these are all part of what we do, but they shouldn't be the only focus. If our relevance to people is merely political, then they will justifiably conclude that we're just about politics. But if our relevance goes far beyond that, people will realize that what we do isn't about politics, it's about solving problems, and policy and politics are just ways to help get problems solved.