by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
How did we get from hundreds of thousands in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin demanding union rights for everybody and fundamental economic justice for all, to a desultory set of Democratic campaigns for the candidates who, as they say, sucked the least, and ended up losing.
Wisconsin: What Happens When Movements Turn Into Campaigns
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Sixteen months ago the eyes of the nation and the world were on Madison, Wisconsin. Crowds in the tens of thousands surrounded, occupied and refused to leave the state capitol building. Local cops ignored orders to disperse them, and when authorities finally evicted protesters from hallways, offices and legislative chambers, their numbers grew, reaching the hundreds of thousands multiple times before the crisis was over. Local schools were shut down because teachers called in sick en masse. For a short while a general strike, localized in Madison, but with wide and visible support around the state and country seemed a real possibility.
Thousands of Americans from surrounding states converged upon Wisconsin to join the throngs around the state capitol. Thousands in those crowds, and countless others watching from far and near began to realize this was a unique political moment. They were at a place well outside the prescribed steps of America's political dance. It was a moment in which the elite politicians, the media pundits, the bosses and the billionaires were not the only or even the decisive shot callers. The next move was truly in the hands of those tens and hundreds of thousands of working people in motion, the people in the streets.
What we saw coming together on Wisconsin street corners and in the wave of state and nationwide public support behind them was an authentic mass movement being born. We know that's what it was because it contained, all at the same time, what we identified back in 2005 as the five necessary characteristics of such things;
Mass movements have political demands anchored in the deeply shared values of their core constituencies.
Mass movements look to themselves and their shared values for legitimacy, not to courts, laws or elected officials. A mass movement consciously aims to lead politicians, not to be led by them.
Mass movements are civilly disobedient, and continually maintain the credible threat of civil disobedience. They inspire and embolden large numbers of ordinarily nonpolitical souls to engage in personally risky behavior in support of the movement's political demands.
Mass movements are supported by lots of vertical and horizontal communication reinforcing its core values.
Mass movements capture the energy, enthusiasm and risk taking spirit of youth. Nobody ever heard of a mass movement of old or even middle aged people.
Fox News and right wing pundits spread panicky lies. Republicans denounced Democrats and defamed protesters. Some Democrats hesitated before tepidly endorsing the protests. Some smarter Democrats tried to pretend they were among its leaders. But these were bit players, working from the outside. It fell to labor union leaders, whose political strategy for more than a generation has been to uncritically funnel their members volunteer energies and union dues into uncritical support for Democratic politicians whether they come through or not, to bring those hundreds of thousands in uncontrolled, unpredictable political motion back inside the law, back within the two-party elite consensus, back into the well-worn dance steps of the election cycle.
Thus it was union leaders who damped down the calls for, and explicitly repudiated talk of a general strike. To be fair, under present federal and state laws, a union official who even calls for, let alone is part of pulling off a general strike is probably guilty of multiple felonies and conspiracies to commit, perhaps even RICO and terrorist prosecutions if judges and district attorneys are feeling ambitious. Such an official also risks confiscation of union funds and assets, either outright in a hurry or after prolonged expensive litigation. But that's what people involved in movements do --- they take individual and collective risks and they violate laws for the cause, whatever that happens to be.
So there was no general strike. Union leaders ran as fast as they could in the other direction. They summoned their institutional resources, their organizers and media spokespeople, and their funding. They turned a nascent movement into a series of electoral campaigns, first against a handful of state senators in 2011 and then the statewide recall campaign that ended in defeat this week. They turned the movement into a campaign, and then managed to lose the campaign.
Political campaigns are pretty much where movements go to die, get betrayed or are stillborn because turning a movement or near movement into a campaign robs it of the very specific features we've already mentioned, the features which make movements potent and often unpredictable political actors. When movements become campaigns their participants lose their independence and initiative. Instead of being ready and willing to act outside the law, they become its most loyal supporters. And instead of looking to their own shared values, they look to political candidates and elected officials who must remain inside the elite-defined rules of political decorum and law to preserve their candidacies and/or careers.
The campaigns that come out of movements still retain and utilize lots of horizontal communication. But instead of that chatter reinforcing the independence and dynamic energy and the risk-taking spirit of youth, it becomes all about the political processes and compromises needed to win the next election. And when a movement's core values are no longer the gold standard, there are lots of compromises to be made. It can be a pretty quick slide from hard hitting demands like full employment with a living wage, Medicare for all, free quality education as a human right, stopping the bailouts, guaranteeing union rights for everyone and ending the imperial wars to electing the candidate that sucks the least, even only a little less.
When would-be movements sideline the youthful risk-taking initiative and egalitarian core values that might have sustained them to become political campaigns, they generally don't even run good campaigns. The crowds on the sidewalks and parking lots in Madison were conducting anti-racism seminars and study groups. But the electoral campaign the whole thing was turned into, even though they had a whole year to plan, neglected to do the labor-intensive ground game of massive voter registration in poor and minority communities. They spent their relatively scarce dollars on media instead, and pursued the easy consultant-class strategy of pursuing the “frequent voters” alone. They didn't talk about the poor and renters, of which there are many in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city. They only talked about the middle class. They didn't talk much about mass incarceration either, even though Wisconsin and Milwaukee consistently have the highest rates of black imprisonment in the US, higher than Louisiana, Georgia or Mississippi.
They came up with a black candidate for lieutenant governor. But mostly they went from hundreds of thousands of people shivering in the cold, standing outside the people-proof, democracy-proof cages of elite consensus and two-party politics and beginning to feel their own power to decide what to do next to folks campaigning for the candidate and the slate that sucked less.
If the leaders of organized labor were teachable there would be lots of lessons here. But these are folks who've learned nothing and forgotten nothing, and whose job is making sure most of us don't learn much new either. For them, the lesson is that turning aside a general strike situation and making it into a political campaign can drag their careers out a few more years. For the rest of us, the 99%, there are other lessons. What we've seen in Wisconsin is what happens when you stifle a mass movement at birth and turn it into a political campaign.
You always lose the movement. You usually lose the campaign. And you always lose the initiative. Labor leaders handed the ball to elected Democrats, to campaign consultants and media hacks. They took the struggle from the street, where they had the advantage, to the TV and radio airwaves and in social media, where the unlimited spending allowed recent court decisions and corporate control over mass media made all the difference.
In theory, it might be possible to get some other result from turning movements into campaigns. But in the real world, this is the way it's worked out so far.
If turning movements into campaigns is bad business, what about building movements out of campaigns?
Using campaigns to spark movements hasn't worked well either, though it gets talked about a lot. You can sometimes get young people excited for a while in a political campaign too. Millions of youth gave freely of their time to help elect Obama in 2008. But the day after election day they were sent home. No movement there. A generation earlier folks who walked the precincts for Jesse in 84 and 88 promised to build a lasting movement out of their networks. It didn't happen then either, and almost never does.
When we bear in mind again the unique characteristics of a movement it's easy to see why. Political campaigns, even successful ones, don't teach risk-taking. Political campaigns don't prepare you to operate outside the law or how to discredit and de-legitimize unjust law.. Campaigns won't show you how to make the politicians follow you, instead of you following the politicians, the judges, the pundits and that whole elite crowd. Real change comes from movements, not from campaigns. The only thing that makes the politicians follow you is a mass movement, a movement that does everything political campaigns don't.
The only worthwhile political campaigns are ones that utilize public receptivity to discussions around issues to present and make popular accurate analyses of the world the way it is, and compelling visions of the world the way we want it to be. Not the candidate that sucks least. Win or lose, these are the only campaigns that empower people, the only ones worth pouring your energy into, the only ones that build, rather than strangle and discourage mass movements.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor of Black Agenda Report, and serves on the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com