Last Best Hope


Scott Walker crying during Paul Ryan’s speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention

by Eli S. Evans

Not long after Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan was announced as the Republican nominee for Vice President, a text message came in from a friend, a native New Yorker recently transplanted to somewhere in the rest of the world: “Wisconsin,” it read, “stop shitting all over America.” At the time I was in a bar in Western Massachusetts that I’d entered using my California driver’s license, but my pride was wounded all the same. My home state, once a bastion of the very best of progressive American values, had officially become a breeding ground, in the eyes of the casual observer, for the most insidious enemies of those values in the present age: leaders of a new brand of global conservatism dedicated above all, as Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello put it in an open letter renouncing Ryan’s apparent taste for his band, to “shifting revenue more radically to the one percent.”

Spearheading this transformation, of course, was our governor, Scott Walker, who became big news both inside and outside of Wisconsin when, in the winter of 2011 and still newly elected, he moved to effectively dismantle public employees’ unions by stripping them of their collective bargaining rights. The move ignited a firestorm of a perhaps even greater magnitude than he and his cabal of cohorts had doubtless expected – weeks of Occupy-style protests throughout the state, including three frigid weekends when over 100,000 people converged on the Capital Square in Madison, and finally, this past June 5th, a recall election in which Walker was forced to face off for a second time against Democrat and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the same candidate he had defeated handily in 2010’s regularly scheduled gubernatorial election.

That over 900,000 signatures – more than twice the required number – were collected in order to force the recall election in the first place, and over 1,100,000 votes subsequently cast against the governor, suggests that the same Wisconsin my friend accused of “shitting on America” in fact came tantalizingly close to saving it: to, rather than standing at the forefront of the new global conservatism, holding the center of the worldwide movement against that politics of meanness and systematic deprivation that began in the final weeks of 2010 with the Arab Spring and, against the tide of history, traveled west, passing through the crowds of indignados in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol on its way to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan.

But as much as the Wisconsinite in me, or the Wisconsinite I cannot, because I was born and raised there, cease to be, would like to believe otherwise, another set of numbers tell a different story: that in reality, and despite the undeniable force of some 100,000 people standing together for hours in the Wisconsin winter cold three weekends in a row that far happier possibility was hardly a possibility at all. On June 5th Walker defeated Barrett even more convincingly than he had the first time around, collecting nearly 200,000 more votes than his Democratic opponent for an indisputable 7% margin of victory.

What makes that margin – a veritable chasm in contemporary American politics – even more stunning is what it came in spite of. In the days leading up to the election my old high school social studies teacher, for over a quarter century now one of the most revered teachers at one of Milwaukee County’s highest performing public schools, posted over and over again on his Facebook page – somewhere between exhortation and plea – “If we show up, we win.” The slogan, as far as I know, was his, but the faith was widely shared by other Wisconsin progressives. Although polls, including one particularly ominous poll out of Walker’s not-quite alma mater (he is, proudly as it turns out, not a college graduate) Marquette University, showed the governor easily retaining his post, many who were hoping otherwise countered that such polls were using inaccurate models for identifying “likely” voters. Seeing their own interests reflected, if only contingently, in the anti-Walker movement, optimistic Wisconsin progressives argued, traditionally “unlikely” voters – inner city black people, college students, communists, Green Party members, and so on – would, even if only just this once, turn out to cast their vote against the governor.

Occupy Milwaukee protest, October 2011. Photograph by Jenn Turner

If such had not turned out to be the case, if the imagined “we,” brought together in opposition to Walker, to whom my old high school teacher was referring, had not showed up, the governor’s victory would have been fairly easy to process: just another case of the left failing to, as they like to say around here, ‘turn out the vote.’ The problem is that “we” did show up – for all intents and purposes every one of the more than 900,000 people who signed recall petitions, plus another roughly 200,000 or so traditionally “unlikely” voters, including many who had not voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election, cast their votes against Walker on June 5th – but despite showing up did not win. Did not even come close to winning, in fact.

Once more, the numbers tell the story. For starters, as galvanizing as the anti-Walker protest movement was for Wisconsin progressives, it was apparently no less so for the state’s conservatives. Against indications that many lacked enthusiasm for their governor’s polarizing politics, and did not share his passion for breaking the state teachers’ and nurses’ unions, just about every Republican in the state, it seems, showed up to vote for him in the recall election, turning on its head the old notion that high turnout is always good for the left. Alone, that loyalty probably would have been enough to give Walker a narrow victory. Two other numbers, meanwhile, tell the tale of how that narrow victory became a landslide. According to exit polls, 18% of voters who said that had the presidential election been held on June 5th they would have voted for Barack Obama voted in the election that was held that day for Scott Walker. More startlingly still, 38% of voters who identified themselves as members of a “union family” – meaning that either they or someone in their household belonged to a labor union at the time of the election – voted for Walker as well.

Truly understanding how so many people could have voted not only against their own interests, as inevitably determined by somebody claiming to know those interests better than they, but indeed against their own avowed political affiliations would, of course, require a good deal more analysis than I could possibly undertake here. Or then again, perhaps not so much. The anti-Walker movement’s reliance on continental and neo-Marxist theoretical discourse, the predominance in it of educators and graduate students, its references to ’60s era protest culture, and its antipathy to profit-making all spring immediately to mind as reasons Wisconsinites who by most accounts probably should have recognized themselves as belonging to the aforementioned “we” in the state’s June 5th recall election instead identified with the ultimately victorious “they.”

The first smacks of elitism, the second recalls old antagonisms, the third pot-smoking, free-loving hippies, and as for the last, suffice it to say that in the United States, at the very least, profit remains the measure of work in the popular imaginary and probably will retain that status for a very long time to come. What the fact that each of these elements played a necessary and crucial role in its formation and evolution tells us, meanwhile, is that the price Wisconsin’s anti-Walker movement was forced to pay for its very existence was, ultimately, its own minority status. Perhaps I’m just singing the Wisconsin progressive blues. But if Wisconsin’s anti-Walker movement really was, even without ever setting out to be, a part of this much larger movement of independent but interconnected struggles that has arisen over the course of the last couple of years – in his post-protest book Uprising John Nichols describes Wisconsin as the “westernmost exemplar of the Arab Spring,” and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt include it in the “cycle of struggles of 2011” to which their recently-published Declaration is something of an ode – then its results suggest that movement might find itself in something of a bind.

On the one hand, it has been largely oriented in its evolution by the desire to constitute itself as the foundation, in this age of global corporate governance and misrepresentation, of a new and more genuinely democratic society; but in so far as that latter remains contingent upon one form or another of majority rule, if it cannot constitute itself except as a minority then that larger movement to which the struggle in Wisconsin from the outset seemed to belong cannot succeed in that regard.

Not more than a few years ago, it seems, the best idea the most radically dissident minds could come up with for dealing with life in a world that everyday felt both more intolerable and more intractable was, as J.M. Coetzee put it by way of his Diary of a Bad Year’s finance-man antagonist, to simply “withdraw from the game,” to retreat into the interstices that opened and closed in the otherwise smooth surface of the present to the rhythm of who knew what metronome of memory and desire. Melville’s Bartleby was the head of their non-existent state – refusal their affirmation. Then came the global financial crisis and with it the belief, among many of the same, that a system that had for so long seemed so utterly entrenched suddenly could sustain itself no longer: that the end of the latest ancien régime, as Hardt and Negri describe it, was near, and so the future of the world over which that regime presided was no longer limited to the possibilities that could be calculated from within the conditions of the present. Thusly shaken out of their post-modern reverie, they thought they were seeing, in the westward momentum of the Arab Spring, not a series of resounding refusals but a collective and spontaneous resuscitation of the grand democratic project of modernity, which in retrospect was nothing less than the project of transforming the world that is into the world that should be – of building the Augustine City of God here and now, in this world, rather than leaving it for the next. And while a single lost election in a once proudly progressive state in the American Midwest on its own surely should not be enough to invalidate that conviction, the manner in which the Wisconsin recall election was lost – because the production of the “we” produced an even more numerous and powerful “they” – suggests that the global protest movement that began in Tahrir Square in December of 2011 has, despite finally baptizing itself as such, never really been an occupation of this world, but only another form, albeit particularly public, of withdrawal, of retreat, from the same.

For alerting us to this fact, and in so doing returning us to where we in some ways already were not so many years ago at all, when Bartleby was our president and “no” our “yes,” Wisconsin perhaps deserves not just our ire but also, to some extent, our gratitude. I am thinking, in saying this, of my old high school social studies teacher, who after exactly two months of utter silence reappeared on Facebook just the other day, posting a picture of himself at an outdoor cafe in Lisbon. In it, he looks healthy and relaxed – far more so than the last time I saw him, at a small protest outside a Republican donors’ luncheon in Milwaukee one icy grey afternoon in the spring of 2011 – half-smiling with his hands folded in his lap and his fingers interlocked, what looks like an empty beer glass on the table in front of him. Behind him, a handsome young man sits talking to a woman. Her back, draped in a delightfully delicate white summer dress, is toward the camera, but the way her hair falls over her shoulders suggests that she is possessed of the kind of easy, youthful beauty that seems as though it will never fade, an evanescence infused with eternity. A glass of wine is between them, just far enough from each that it is impossible to say to which it belongs, and behind them the narrow street, lined on either side by small balconies painted green, disappears into the white glare of sunlight. “Proof I’m alive,” the caption above the image reads and, just below it, and in parentheses: “Total number of days spent in Wisconsin since June 5th: Not all that many.”

That brief addendum – or, more to the point, the compulsion he felt to attach it, as though he could not to his own satisfaction specify where he was without at the same time specifying where he was not – reminded me of Borges who, nearly blind and traveling the world in his golden years, supposedly once said, “Every morning I wake up in Buenos Aires.” But which Buenos Aires, exactly? Wondering that, I wondered as well whether, rather than mere abandonment, we might also think of retreat as a strategy for, by taking them with us, taking out of the world that is those better worlds that might have been, of guarding them and holding them safe from the rigid unequivocalities of history until – in case – their moment at last arrives.

About the Author:

Eli S. Evans is a writer and a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He writes regularly for magazines such as N+1, in the United States, and Quimera, in Spain, and has work forthcoming from Zg Press and in a collection of essays about the late writer and social theorist Monique Wittig. His academic research focuses on the intersections of modernity and postmodernity in twentieth century Spanish literature and philosophy.