The score in Wisconsin — 1 percent: 3, 99 percent: 1

Protesting against Scott Walker, March 2011. By Dave Hoefler, via Flickr.

Billionaire businessman Warren Buffett reminded us in his 2006 interview with The New York Times, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” This year, the Koch Brothers and others decided that Wisconsin should be one of the battleground states for escalating the class struggle. They planned to decimate the largest and most organized force for economic justice, the labor unions, especially the public employee unions.

In 2010, the 1 percenters won the first round of their planned escalation, which was to send Scott Walker to the governor’s mansion. It was a comfortable win for them because the contest was in one of their favorite arenas, the Electoral Game.

The 1 percent probably didn’t expect hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites to fight back in 2011. The people refused to cooperate and turned to a different arena, the People-Power Game. In a harbinger of the Occupy movement, they occupied the state’s Capitol and drove their legislative allies to leave the state to prevent Governor Walker from implementing his union-busting plan. The 1 percent had no reason to expect mass direct action because, after all, labor leadership seemed firmly in the pocket of the Democratic Party, the other party controlled by the 1 percent and largely hostile to direct action.

What was the result of that direct action in 2011, Wisconsin’s second round? Labor and its allies blocked the right-wing juggernaut, temporarily. The direct action bought time. But then, in the end, Walker won out and passed his plan through the legislature. Round three went to him and his cronies.

2012 brought Wisconsin’s most recent round, on June 5: back to the Electoral Game. Outspent by seven to one (with other factors playing a role as well), labor and its allies lost. It’s a heartbreaker for the many who turned their lives inside out and gave so much to save Wisconsin from the disastrous agenda of the austerity state.

The score for the escalation of class struggle in Wisconsin is 3-1, with the 1 percent winning three rounds out of four. The Wisconsin Badgers football team’s traditional song is, “On, Wisconsin, On, Wisconsin, Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight.” There’s at least one more round to go, according to the song. The question is, will future contests take place in the electoral arena or the arena of nonviolent direct action?

Last winter, Daniel Hunter and I were invited to Wisconsin’s capital of Madison to facilitate a leadership strategy workshop, which included participants from organized labor and a wide variety of allies. What we found among them was a hegemony of Electoral Game thinking. The room was dominated by the assumptions of U.S. civics textbooks, and nothing Daniel and I did could break them out of the mold.

I expect that in the post-mortem following Tuesday’s loss, most of the analysis will stay within that mold as well: “If only we had not run the mayor of the city that Wisconsinites love to hate!” “If only we had gotten more support from the national Democrats!” “Now we’ll have to show them by electing Obama this November!” “If only we could have outspent them!” (Everyone knows that the 1 percent can vastly outspend the rest of us anytime they want to.)

The 1 percent’s huge funding advantage is not the only reason that the Electoral Game is skewed against us. The Electoral Game inherently supports voter confusion, by mixing up issues with candidates. I first saw that vividly in 1984, when I helped run a Jobs With Peace referendum in four counties of Pennsylvania when President Ronald Reagan was running for reelection.

We decisively won our referenda, even while Reagan won the presidential vote in the same counties. In our exit polls we asked people how they voted on the presidency as well as on the Jobs With Peace question. The referendum question asked whether money should be taken from the Pentagon and directed to jobs, education and other human needs. Over and over we heard voters who voted “Yes” for Jobs With Peace say they’d also voted for Reagan (who was famously enthusiastic about jobs for war). The typical voter response: “Well, I like Reagan because he’s a strong leader, but you know he’s wrong about this arms race thing and taking away money from our schools and housing and things like that.”

Polls tell us that a majority of people in the United States agree with the left on a wide variety of issues even when they vote for right-of-center candidates. The razzle-dazzle of candidacies blurs rather than clarifies.

The People-Power Game, by contrast, is best done through direct action campaigns that clarify the issue at hand. Wisconsin’s second round in 2011 and Occupy Wall Street did that, as did the November 2011 Ohio referendum that beat back the attack on unions in that state. The referendum is the closest thing in the electoral arena to direct action’s ability to clarify issues, but unfortunately referenda are also vulnerable to the 1 percent’s wealth.

In addition to its clarification advantage, direct action offers a persuasion advantage. On many issues, a direct action campaign doesn’t start with a majority on its side; examples are the civil rights movement’s campaigns and the anti-nuclear power campaign of the 1970s. Direct action campaigns have often been able to swing a majority over to the side of the campaigners.

Another advantage of the People-Power Game is the ability to take the offensive. In Wisconsin the unions and their supporters, after initiating the recall, found themselves on the defensive. Taking Wisconsin back to the days of Democratic leadership is hardly an inspiring prospect — it’s frankly second-rate compared with what workers’ struggle achieved in a number of other countries.

That wily old fellow who took on the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time, Gandhi, insisted that to win campaigns we need to stay on the offensive. That couldn’t happen in Wisconsin because of the choice to play the Electoral Game.

Sometimes, though, clarification, persuasion and staying on the offensive are not enough; it’s necessary to force change. Here again, the People-Power Game is superior to the Electoral Game. The U.S. labor movement understood that in the 1930s, when it (along with farmers, the unemployed and some middle class allies) forced the 1 percent to make major concessions by disrupting society and the economy through nonviolent direct action.

Any time that labor and liberals forget the people power advantage of direct action, all they need to do is consider the many cases in which elections were worthless and authoritarian regimes — even dictatorships — were overthrown by direct action campaigns. Wisconsin and the U.S. are not dictatorships. Progressives pleading powerlessness lack credibility. In Tunisia last year, the labor movement led a campaign that overthrew a dictator; if under such circumstances Tunisians could decide to give up being victims, we can decide to give up being victims in Wisconsin.

But, whether we’re in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or any of the states where the class struggle is being deliberately escalated from above, can we step aside from the assumption that the Electoral Game is “the only game in town”?

Yes — but only if we get as serious about the craft of direct action campaigning as are the smart young organizers who are recruited by the Democratic Party to waste their talent in the Electoral Game. Direct action campaigning is a craft, and in the United States the skills for it were once more widely distributed, especially among African Americans. Now, not so much.

Will our bright young organizers learn the craft of People Power or the Electoral Game? The answer depends on all of us. It depends on how we tell our stories of social change in the past, and how we encourage one another to work for change in the future.

The political parties’ hegemony is widespread and fiercely defended; bright young people are given the impression that if they want to make a difference, the electoral arena is the only way available. Only if young people are reminded that the large response that sprang up in Wisconsin and Occupy last year is really there waiting for their talent, will they learn the craft that can actually make a difference: the nonviolent direct action campaigns driven by people power.

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