Clarence Darrow, American Iconoclasts, and Modern Politics

Wisconsin Recall Elections and Silver Linings


Wisconsinites on the left today are feeling mixed emotions. These were historic recall elections, and Democrats won two of the six. In both cases, citizens sent very smart, very capable women (Jessica King and Jennifer Shilling) to Madison to help fix the political and economic mess that we are in. However, in the four other races, Democrats failed to unseat their opponents. The short of it is that Democrats failed to take the state senate back from the Republicans. In my district, Robert Cowles, an erstwhile moderate turned Tea Partier, was re-elected, despite his refusals to debate the issues and despite published articles about his suspect and salacious investments. All that said, Democrats should feel good about themselves and their prospects. There are some silver linings in all of this.

First, the elections were very close. Despite being outspent by the Republicans and outside groups, Democrats ran competitively in every recall election. Most of these districts are so-called safe districts whose boundaries are drawn to help incumbents. In two districts that the Republicans won in 2008, voters ousted the conservatives and elected progressive liberals. Thus, the erosion of the Republican base in Wisconsin that was so evident in the state supreme court election last spring has continued, even in safe districts. The Republicans should be more worried. The results of the recall elections were no mandate for them.

Second, the political agenda is now entirely the Republicans’. They will take the credit and the blame for what comes. And, it is clear that we in Wisconsin will feel more pain. Governor Walker’s austerity measures and anti-progressive reforms will likely serve to increase unemployment and reduce consumer power and demand. Unfortunately, history has shown us that doling out tax breaks for those at the top while at the same time smashing unions, reducing investment into the public sphere, and making workers pay more for health insurance or outright eliminating them for others does not create prosperity. The Republicans own the near future for Wisconsin. In 2012, we get another opportunity to make this case.

Third, even if all Democrats would have won yesterday, they would not be in a powerful enough position to reverse all the conservative trends in state government. Furthermore, if they had that majority in the state senate, the Democrats would still lack the ability to deliver many if any results as the governor’s office, the assembly, and the state supreme court remain in the hands of their opponents. Assuming people had expectations that the Democrats would revive a progressive government, their difficulty in doing so might seriously wound their ability to win elections in 2012. Given how unlikely the Republicans are to compromise, our new senators will be voices of reason rallying citizens to return to our progressive roots in 2012. In other words, last night produced a set of limited victories for Democrats and bad victories for Republicans.

Things remain bleak in Wisconsin. Progressivism and liberalism did not get us to this point. Quite the contrary. But Republican leaders in the state believe that the future belongs to radical conservatism. Yesterday’s elections have shown tens of thousands of voters disapprove Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on progressivism. The tide has not turned. The political storm still rages. But there may yet be some silver linings in these dark clouds.


Author: andrewkersten

Andrew E. Kersten is Frankenthal professor of history in the Department of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He received his PhD in American history at the University of Cincinnati in 1997. Clarence Darrow, American Iconoclast is his latest book. He has published others—Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest; Politics and Progress: The American State and Society since the Civil War; A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard; and Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during the Second World War—as well as several articles. He is also interested in and has written about Wisconsin history and the history of the city of Green Bay.

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