In a sermon, which would later serve as a title for Barack Obama’s bestselling book, his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, described a painting called Hope by GF Watts. It depicted a bruised and battered woman who used the single string she had on her harp to make holy music. “To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope,” preached Wright.
When organised labour mounted the challenge to recall Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, they were certainly audacious.
There have only been two recalls in the history of the country and the national Democratic Party did not want them to do it – and made clear they would provide little in the way of support for it. They knew Scott Walker would be well funded and have national backing. They did it anyway. And they lost.
There is no masking that their defeat is a bitter blow. Before the recall they could claim that Walker ran on false pretences and people did not know what they were getting. Now he has a record and the people of Wisconsin voted for it anyway. He has a clear mandate not just to run the state – he had that already – but also to step up his attacks on the unions.
One might argue whether their recall effort was a strategic error, but given the number of people they mobilised and the degree to which they had Republicans rattled right down to the wire suggests it was not reckless. If audacity implies anything it is boldness and daring. They came. They fought. And they were conquered.
To insist that the fight should not have been joined one would not only need 20-20 hindsight. (Unions in Ohio defeated anti-union measures in November and six months ago Walker looked far more vulnerable). One would also have to imagine a scenario in which labour saw its rights being comprehensively undermined and did not try every possible legitimate means to protect them.
In the words of Alexis Tsipiras, the leader of the Greek party Syrzia, which is leading the battle against austerity measures in that country: “Defeat is the battle that is not waged and when someone fights there is the big chance of winning; and we are fighting this to win. Lost battles are battles that are not fought.”
And though that does not transform defeat into victory, it does provide for useful lessons that could not have been learned in the absence of the struggle itself.
First, the Republicans have a get-out-the-vote operation that is every bit as dynamic as those of the Democrats and organised labour. Recall supporters made themselves believe that those huge turnouts in Democratic areas were all for them when it was actually Republicans coming out behind enemy lines.
Second, money matters and the Republicans have a lot of it. Walker outspent Democratic challenger Tom Barrett by seven to one, with most of it coming from outside the state. This is a very corrupting fact about American politics, particularly since Citizens United. But it is a fact nonetheless. So either unions and grassroots organisations do not participate in the electoral process but work outside it to change the debate and mobilise public opinion – like Occupy Wall Street – or they have to find money from somewhere.
Third, if progressives are looking for political support they should look down to the grassroots, not up to the Democratic Party. Rhetorically Obama was with them all the way. Not only was he all about the audacity of hope, but in his campaign he would quote the late poet and essayist June Jordan, with an empowering message about the need for political activism: “We were the ones we are waiting for.”
Wisconsin radicals could have been waiting for him until the cows in this dairy state came home. He was not coming.
True, the recall was a risk. But victory against Walker this week was no less likely than Obama’s victory four years ago. Spineless as this was, few of the activists I spoke to believed his involvement would have been decisive, or raised his absence as a problem even if most would have liked him to come.
If this was less than audacious, given the defeat, it transpired to be electorally savvy. For although it hurt labour, both locally and possibly nationally, it did not hurt Obama. Walker’s victory does not translate into a defeat for Obama in November. The same exit pollsters that gave Walker a victory also showed Obama defeating Mitt Romney by nine points.
Lastly Barrett and the Democrats ran a confused and unconvincing campaign. Everybody knew what Walker stood for even if they did not like it: small government, weak unions and low taxes.
It was never quite clear what Barrett stood for apart from that he was not Walker.
Barrett was the John Kerry of Wisconsin. In the five days I have been reporting from the state I have yet to meet a single person who voted for him as opposed to against Walker. In the end this was just not enough. His failure to give some vision for what Wisconsin under his stewardship would look like could not win over the coveted independents or sufficiently inspire his base.
When it came down to it, the people of Wisconsin wanted more than the absence of Scott Walker. They wanted the presence of an alternative. – © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited