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The Wisconsin Uprising

Robert W. McChesney (rwmcches [at] uiuc.edu), Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is author of The Political Economy of Media and The Problem of the Media, both published by Monthly Review Press. He thanks John Nichols for talking about all things Wisconsin, and John Bellamy Foster for reading and commenting on this Foreword.

This article is adopted from the Foreword to Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, edited by Michael D. Yates and published by Monthly Review Press.

Ed.

The essays in Wisconsin Uprising are outstanding. The accounts of the events in Madison in the winter and early spring of 2011 are the best I have seen in writing, with context, detail, and analysis I have seen nowhere else. Better yet, the connections of the Wisconsin revolt to the existential questions facing the labor movement are handled with a clarity, intelligence, perspective, and urgency that is exactly appropriate to the task. This book is a fundamental historical document in its own right and will stand the test of time. The authors include some of the most accomplished writers on the left, as well as a number of emerging young writers.

There are several related points I wish to add to the arguments and observations made in this book. First, as one who was there much of the time and who participated as one of the throng, not as a leader, there was most definitely something special happening, and everyone present knew it. For much of my adult life the actual prospects for social change seemed slender, and political work was too often distasteful, with petty bickering and mindless egotism playing an outsized role—hence the common description of left-wing politics as a “circular firing squad.” I was there in the 1970s when being political went from being in a community of friends, of comrades sharing values and experiences, to being pointless drudgery, a form of penance. No wonder so many people jumped ship.

The Wisconsin protests reaffirmed what many Americans had forgotten or never knew: that when people come together in solidarity directed toward social justice they are capable of great sacrifice and unrivaled joy. When there is a sense of solidarity, of hope, of dynamism, everything changes. The feeling this engenders, this bonding, is like breathing fresh air for the first time. I had experienced this in a handful of political campaigns in my life, but absolutely nothing came close to what was happening on the streets of Madison. It reminded me why the right to assemble is a core democratic liberty—inscribed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—and probably the one liberty those in power fear the most.1

Second, the Wisconsin revolt confirmed that the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century is not a reactionary country. The participants, by and large, were the sort of folks the corporate media tell us inhabit Tea Party events. But the Tea Party and its billionaire benefactors could barely get a thousand people to show up at one of their Wisconsin demonstrations—even though they flew in the Koch Brothers’ favorite union-hating worker, Joe the Plumber, to hype the gate. Compare this to the tens and ultimately hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who came out to the protests. The demands and signs were overwhelmingly progressive and far to the left of what most political and labor leaders would countenance. I did not see a scintilla of immigrant-bashing or racism. The signs and chants reflecting progressive positions on unions, taxation, social services, and military spending would never be found in the corporate news media. The cynical claim that the American people are a bunch of shop-till-you-drop airheads incapable of critical thought was purged from my system. It made me remember that people are far more complex and beautiful.

When the events in Madison began, they seemed the natural and proper course, both to me and to the other participants. No one felt like what we were doing was a flight of fancy, or something people in other states could never do. Yet it also seemed like we were on an island, and that once the matter receded, there was the threat that we would get sucked back into the depoliticized neoliberal hell of the past generation. It was a fear that haunted everyone there. How do we see that this is not a blip in the screen, but the beginning of something bigger, with national dimensions? Something that connected to the great uprisings across the planet, in Egypt and Tunisia and Greece and Spain?

Then Occupy Wall Street began in September and the Occupy movement spread like wildfire across the nation. That put all those concerns to rest. Wisconsin was no longer an isolated skirmish. It was the first chapter in the current phase of popular and democratic struggles that will define this nation going forward. Now we will have to work to see that it is a long book with a happy ending.

Third, the Wisconsin revolt provided yet another case study in how atrocious and anti-democratic the corporate news media system is. I include public radio and television under the umbrella of “corporate,” as they follow the same conventions. The second day of the demonstrations, when maybe five or ten thousand people surrounded the capitol on a weekday, provided a case study. Several local TV crews were huddled around a group of maybe five or six people. I wondered who on earth demanded all this attention. I soon got the answer: a few Republicans brought out pro-Walker signs for a counter-protest. They received coverage almost commensurate to the coverage of the demonstration itself. Lazy analysts and apologists write this off to professional journalism’s obsession with presenting “both sides,” but nothing is further from the truth. Take five labor activists with a sign to the next Tea Party or Republican Party event and see how many TV crews come over to get your side of the story. Do not hold your breath.

Political players who do not correspond to the range of legitimate debate (that is, the range countenanced by capital) simply disappear from the official record. Most working journalists have internalized this value so they are oblivious to it. That is why nearly any gathering of the pro-corporate Tea Party gets ample attention, yet when 15,000 progressives meet as they did in 2010 at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, the event received a near-total blackout in the mainstream news media. Had the head of the FBI ordered the news media not to cover the U.S. Social Forum under threat of death, it could not have been more effective.

So it was in Wisconsin. MSNBC did the best coverage on the corporate front, but it was the exception that proved the rule. Most devastating was a hack piece on the front page of the New York Times purporting to demonstrate how private-sector union workers supported the Republican attack on public-sector unions. The piece was played up by Scott Walker and the Republican Party as clear evidence that their campaign had broad support from workers and even the liberal media. The story was a fraud, however. The alleged union worker the story was based upon had never been in a union. Indeed, the true story, unknown in mainstream news, was the spectacular, almost unimaginable, solidarity of all Wisconsin workers with the protests.

Crappy media coverage matters. It did incalculable damage. People around the nation, even those sympathetic to the protests, were confused by the coverage. And as soon as possible the coverage stopped and Wisconsin fell down the memory hole. Political journalism effectively forgot the protests ever took place and returned to its conventional wisdom.

The lesson of the Wisconsin revolt for media is clear: good coverage matters, which is why the work of independent media like Democracy Now!, The Real News Network, The Nation, The Progressive, Workers Independent News (WIN), the Center for Media and Democracy, and Madison’s WORT-FM radio made an enormous difference. Locally, it helped activists compensate for the predictably lame coverage of the anti-labor morning newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal. It points to why structural media reform must be a mandatory part of any democratic reform platform going forward.

Fourth, the political crisis in the United States today is not merely that corporations and billionaires own the government and have turned elections into a sick joke, or that the news media accept this state of affairs as a given, and woe be it for a journalist to question the status quo without appearing ideological and “unprofessional.” The crisis is that public opinion is no further to the right on major issues than it was in the 1970s, and in some cases is moving to the left.2 But the political system has moved sharply to the far right over the past thirty-five years, such that the range of legitimate debate in Washington and in state capitals is the range countenanced by capital, and the system has very little to say to the majority of the people in the nation. The gap between the concerns of the masses and the solutions countenanced by the corporate-run political system are wider than at any point in generations. It is the defining political story of our times.

This is why the Republicans are presently obsessed with limiting the franchise as much as possible; they need to maintain the astonishing (and never discussed) class bias in U.S. voting, whereby the top income groups vote at around a 75 percent rate of the adult population and the lowest income groups vote at around a 25 percent rate, and there is a straight line from rich to poor that connects all income groups. Republicans know full well that they cannot possibly win a fair election where the turnout rate is the same for all classes; or even win an election with a turnout of 60 percent or more of Americans over the age of eighteen. At 65 or 70 percent, the United States moves decidedly to the left. If nothing else, this should provide a tremendous measure of optimism for progressives. We have the numbers on our side! Now we need a party to represent our interests.

Fifth, the Wisconsin revolt brought home the political dilemma that labor and progressives have faced for decades: whether to work through the Democratic Party and attempt to get some support for progressive policies by making it possible for Democrats to win elections or throw support to a third party that is explicitly on the left and avoid the pitfalls of the two-party system. Both routes have well-known pitfalls. The Democratic Party has delivered next to nothing to labor for decades, except the knowledge that Democrats are not Republicans. Labor and progressives have been triangulated, because the Democrats know they can serve the corporate community and Wall Street and keep labor support because labor has nowhere else to go. The Democrats are now more closely attached to Wall Street and corporations than ever, or at least since before the New Deal. The third-party option seems a clunker, at least in the near-term where everyone lives, because its immediate effect would be to give Republicans even more power. This is due to the way the two parties have written electoral laws to effectively give themselves a duopoly.

Both options, it is now obvious, are dead-end streets, and the Wisconsin revolt only crystallized the point. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, on the heels of the Madison protests, stated that labor would scale back its support for Democrats in 2012. “For too long, we’ve been left after Election Day holding a canceled check, waving it about—‘Remember us? Remember us? Remember us?’—asking someone to pay a little attention to us,” he recalled in an interview, sharing, among other things, his frustration with the failure of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and other needed labor law reforms. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a snootful of that shit!”3

But what to do? An emerging consensus connecting activists across labor and the entire progressive community is that labor and progressives need to develop an independent body, unattached to the Democrats, which will only support candidates who are on board with a progressive platform. It will run primary challenges, work with people not associated with the Democrats, and make electoral reform a mandatory part of its work, such that the two-party duopoly bankrolled by billionaires will be quashed. Every bit as important, the emphasis will be on year-round organizing—education, outreach, and general hell-raising—with electoral work getting a smaller percentage of the resources. Little or no money will go to idiotic TV political ads. The discussions are amorphous at this point, but the logic is pointing in this direction, and not a moment too soon. There is considerable risk, but what other option is there?

Along these lines, a fairly coherent platform of progressive policies is emerging, including issues like universal single-payer health care, sharp cuts in the military, guaranteed employment at a living wage, green jobs and conversion to a green economy, massive infrastructure spending, trade unions for all workers who wish them, expansion of public education, free higher education, and expansion of Social Security. We are very close to the point where there will have to be a demand for the nationalization of the big banks. It is, effectively, a left-Keynesian, social democratic platform that unites liberals, progressives, and socialists. The plan would be to cut down corporate power while working in a capitalist system. For some in the coalition, the reforms will stand to make capitalism work more efficiently and productively and in a more humane manner, a super-charged New Deal, if you will. For some, the social democracies of Scandinavia provide a model of what can be squeezed out of a capitalist system with sufficient political organizing.

This leads to my final point: although left-liberals and socialists will join forces to battle effectively for a progressive platform, we have to understand that the political crisis of our times is at its core an economic crisis. Political activists, like generals, routinely fight the last war, and the notion of battling for progressive reforms within capitalism has become de rigueur on the left. There is little doubt that progressives have exacted significant reforms within a capitalist system, and it has seemed throughout the neoliberal era that capitalism, for better or for worse, is here to stay.

But we need to be prepared for the possibility that this is not your grandfather’s capitalism, and the sorts of reforms that high-growth rates made possible are unlikely going forward. Even the rosiest forecasts for U.S. capitalism for the next decade or two see the growth rate as little better than the first decade of the twenty-first century and that was the worst decade since the 1930s. Most forecasts are more pessimistic and that puts United States and global capitalism in the most precarious position it has been in for a very long time, or perhaps ever. And that is before we factor in the escalating costs of the environmental crisis. The downward pressure on wages is staggering. The attacks on necessary social services are unprecedented. To keep itself alive, capitalism is eating our future. We are moving in leaps and bounds back to the age of Dickens, except that was a time when the world had a future and now capitalism only allows us a past. While we work with reformers of all stripes in the here and now, we have to acknowledge that capitalism itself may prove to be a barrier to any meaningful reform. We may be at or approaching that point in history, with all that this suggests.

It should not surprise us. Marx, of course, zeroed in on capitalism’s contradictions and understood that at some point in time—the sooner the better in his view—capitalism’s disadvantages would far outnumber its advantages, and the system would be replaced. But it was not only Marx or socialists who understood that capitalism as a system had a necessary historical expiration date attached to it. John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes—classical liberals of the first order, and staunch proponents of capitalism in their times—both anticipated that eventually capitalism would run its course and need to be replaced by a different economic system, one better suited to the needs of humanity. In such a world it would be necessary, as Keynes said, to break with the alienated moral code, in which “fair is foul and foul is fair,” that governs the present society of greed and exploitation, dedicated above all to the accumulation of capital.4 If that moment is at last before us, it is imperative we put our minds to work on what comes next as we organize to get there.

There was a scene in the classic American television sitcom Cheers, where the bar’s resident intellectual, Frasier Crane, grew frustrated with the dismal intellectual timbre of the bar’s conversations and he leapt atop the bar to rectify the situation. Crane began reading aloud from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” Unimpressed with Crane’s offering of high culture, Cliff Clavin barked, “That guy sure knows how to cover his butt.”

One feels like Dickens when assessing these times, and that makes one susceptible to criticism like that of Clavin. Across the progressive community there has been an understandable sense of dismay. “In forty years I’ve not seen a gloomier political landscape,” wrote Alexander Cockburn.5 Mike Davis noted that “the United States is showing incipient symptoms of being a failed state.”6 On its own this can feed a demoralization that engenders a self-fulfilling pessimism about the prospects for social change.

But these commentators wrote those words in the brief interregnum between Wisconsin and the Occupy movement, when the future still had mostly dark hues. We can see now, for the first time in decades, a truly radical potential to U.S. society today. If this country does have a future, it began on those frozen snowy days on the streets of Madison in February 2011, and it spread across Wisconsin, and across the nation, to the point where hundreds of thousands, and then millions, of previously quiet Americans rose up and said, “We are the state.”

Notes

  1. On this see Al Sandine, The Taming of the American Crowd (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
  2. This point is developed in Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  3. John Nichols, “AFL’s Trumka on Pols Selling Out Workers: ‘I’ve Had a Snootful of This S**t!’,” The Nation Blogs, June 8, 2011, http://thenation.com.
  4. See John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932), 372; John Bellamy Foster, “The End of Rational Capitalism,” Monthly Review 56, no. 10 (March 2005): 1–13.
  5. Alexander Cockburn, “The Waste Land,” CounterPunch, September 10–11, 2011, http://counterpunch.org.
  6. Mike Davis, “How Obama Became the Curator of the Bush Legacy,” TomDispatch.com, September 13, 2011, http://tomdispatch.com.
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