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Other Things Out of Wisconsin

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As someone born (Milwaukee), raised (rural southwest), and residing (Madison) in Wisconsin, this is the absolute angriest that I have ever been about politics. I vacillate between despondency and unbridled rage. I am grateful that my immunocompromised (cancer) father got and returned his absentee ballot weeks ago, but worry deeply for the many Wisconsinites who are braving the polls today to try to prevent the Republican theft of another Supreme Court seat for their chosen, golden boy, beloved-by-Trump reactionary, Daniel Kelly. (I don’t know many people in the state, and I know people in all parts of it, who think the presidential primary is the most important item on the ballot. If this were just a primary election, I suspect turnout would be, if not nonexistent, historically paltry.)

I don’t have a lot to add to Scott and Paul’s posts on the travesty unfolding. I rage-wrote a brief summation of yesterday’s whiplash for a local site I occasionally write for, if you want to check it out:

Republicans in Wisconsin are a minority faction wielding majority power. And this is thanks only to extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression and other tools that gut democracy. If the state had fair, free and, in this case, safe elections, they wouldn’t hold power. And since power is functionally the only governing interest that they recognize as legitimate anymore, the GOP legislature — led by Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — will do whatever it takes to ensure that we don’t have fair, free and, in this case, safe elections.

They are aided in this by the hopelessly corrupt, conservative-controlled state Supreme Court, which wasted little time yesterday overturning Evers’s order. This is the same court that ruled last year to allow the legislature — based upon explicitly partisan arguments — to radically restrict Evers’s gubernatorial power after he beat Scott Walker. And their majority includes Kelly, who is on the ballot, and other conservative justices who campaigned on his behalf and called his opponent unfit. They were never going to be impartial and were never going to prioritize the public interest. If you ever had confidence to the contrary, ever thought that this court would do the right thing, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

The real reason for this post is to direct people toward a different story from the same state. Back in 2011, I was a couple years into graduate school at UW-Madison when Scott Walker announced Act 10, gutting the collective bargaining rights of public employees. My union at the time, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), really took the lead on igniting the protests in response at the state capitol building that erupted into what became known as the Wisconsin Uprising.

I was not a leader in the union. I was a member, but not a remarkably engaged one. I was a leftist, but had not thought all that deeply about the specifics of my political commitments yet. The Wisconsin Uprising was really transformative for a lot of us who participated in it — and I say that as someone who moved to Chicago about a year later and wasn’t much around after the failed recall attempt of Scott Walker.

I say all of this because my friend and colleague Eleni Schirmer, who would go on to become co-president of the TAA, has a striking and beautiful essay up at the Boston Review today looking back on the Wisconsin Uprising, as the state and its pandemic-voting clusterfuck are again poised to be the coal miner’s canary in terms of how the Right will attack voting in November. (EDIT: I initially forgot to include a link to the article. Apologies.)

I really recommend this piece for people who are interested in unionism, grassroots politics, prefigurative politics, and the like. It’s also a damn good piece of writing–one to savor, even if you don’t agree with all of Schirmer’s political assessments.

It’s long but I recommend the whole. Here’s the intro. (PS. If, in response to Schirmer’s reference to the “tepid liberals,” a not-veiled allusion to Biden, the comments section is just going to become a big discussion of how much Bernie and his supporters suck (for the record, I don’t know who among the progressives Schirmer preferred), please let me know now so that I can take the post down and avoid slamming my head into my office wall. We currently host multiple opportunities for you to do that daily on other posts. This is an opportunity to discuss much broader visions and ideas about politics, movement-building, political change, and the like. This is not about the 2020 election.)

In 2011 Wisconsin governor Scott Walker curtailed collective bargaining rights of state public sector unions, ostensibly to address a state budget shortfall. Some of us involved in organizing against the legislation took to introducing ourselves to labor and left organizers from other states by saying, “I’m from Wisconsin—I’m from your future.” Wisconsin’s law lacerated the rights of nurses, teachers, water workers, though not cops or firefighters; we believed Wisconsin was meant to be an example. Sure enough, soon after Wisconsin’s Act 10 passed, other states followed suit. And when, in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector employees could decline to pay union dues, what began as a Wisconsin problem finally became a national problem.

But the smoke rising from Wisconsin’s battleground did not just augur labor law’s weakening. It signaled a distressed democracy in other key areas. For example, elections. Some will recall that, following the passage of Act 10, most left organizing in Wisconsin turned to the singular goal of recalling Governor Walker. When the recall campaign failed—in the end only bolstering Walker’s support—it knocked the wind from our sails. Teachers fled the profession in droves, never to return, union membership plummeted, and centrist successes came to feel to many like the best that could be hoped for. Wisconsin’s myopic recall attempts now play on the national stage. The 2020 presidential election has morphed into a Democratic Party recall of Donald Trump, with a tepid centrist touted as the “most electable” and visions of progressive reform written off as childish and unrealistic.

Wisconsin has a dramatic way of dismantling democracy. This week, amidst a global pandemic, the state’s voters will go to the polls to weigh in on the presidential primary, a state supreme court justice race, a school funding referendum, and a prisoners’ rights bill, among other issues. Democratic governor Tony Evers lingered in his decision to postpone elections, but when he eventually ordered a last-minute delay, concerned citizens, voters’ rights advocates, and public health officials alike celebrated the decision. Their elation lasted about six hours, until the Supreme Court overruled the governor’s executive order. The elections will proceed, but dangerously. Insufficient poll workers will mean far fewer polling places. Milwaukee, a city with large number of black and brown residents that usually has 180 polling places, will open just 5 in-person polling places. Voters will have to choose between risking their health or foregoing their vote. Elections under duress erode an already-ashen democracy.

Amidst this chaos, questions Wisconsin asked but failed to answer in 2011 loom large: How do we build progressive movements within and beyond electoral campaigns? What happens when movement demands get subverted in favor of the “electability” of sleepy liberals? How do we build courageous, militant solidarity that expands beyond election cycles? How do we reimagine what is possible and—most importantly—realize the power to enact those possibilities?

Leftists in Wisconsin understood that the state’s labor evisceration a decade ago portended darkness for workers’ rights everywhere. But we didn’t realize that within the rubble of Wisconsin’s shattered democracy would be lessons useful for another future: how to keep a flame alight amidst a world-historical crisis. Maybe some of its lesson light a path forward today.

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