And then, despair. Despair which is, I suppose, the best word I can summon with which to describe that suffocating sensation of a certain familiar combination of anger, frustration, and helplessness. Despair like a reoccurring dream in which you feel like you want to hurt somebody, like you want to hit somebody, hard, but at the same time know even before you try that all your blows will be glancing. Or—the other side of the coin—like after a punch to the gut, when all you want to do is the one thing you can’t do, which is breathe.
If you have been following the news out of Wisconsin—the state that, though I have not lived in it for over a decade, I stubbornly insist on continuing to call “home”—then you probably already know that the recent State Supreme Court election, which pitted incumbent Justice David Prosser against a former assistant state attorney general named JoAnne Kloppenburg, was more than just that. Indeed, because it was framed this way by the media, and by tens of thousands of riled activists, and by the in- and out-of-state interest groups that poured millions of dollars into run-up advertising campaigns, it was also something of a referendum on newly-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker’s ongoing efforts to sterilize the state’s public employees’ unions by stripping them of their right to bargain for anything other than base wage increases commensurate with inflation, which it to say, for anything at all. Prosser, it so happens, was not only Republican speaker of the state assembly in an earlier incarnation, but today counts himself (and is counted) as one of the governor’s political mentors. Kloppenburg, on the other hand—well, one does not declare party affiliation when running for state supreme court in Wisconsin, but suffice it to say that she began her career in public service working for the Peace Corps in Botswana.
The weeks leading up to the election witnessed a level of progressive mobilization not seen in the state since the Vietnam War era, and perhaps not even then. On three consecutive Saturdays, about 100,000 protesters converged on the state capitol building in Madison, surrounding it in a sea of red (the official color of the University of Wisconsin, and the unofficial color of the state itself, despite its beautiful blue flag). Many of the protesters were the same public employees from around the state whose lives and livelihoods would be most directly impacted by the governor’s initiative, but they were joined, in turn, by firefighters and police officers (public employees themselves, of course, but whose unions were magnanimously exempted from Walker’s bill because of the “essential” nature of their work), housewives, grandmothers, high school and college students, farmers, boilermakers. Even Jesse Jackson and Michael Moore showed up.
In the national media, the protests were not infrequently described as “angry,” but the truth is that although just about everyone attending them was indeed angry about what they rightly perceived as an effort to dismantle the last bastion of meaningful unionism in a state with a proud history of advancing workers’ rights, the mood of the protests could not have been further from angry. It was, rather, festive—at times almost joyful. Lenin, who admittedly is probably not the best reference point, once described revolution as the “carnival of the oppressed.” Whether as much could be said of the Wisconsin protests depends, of course, on how you define “oppressed.” Still, if revolution and carnival are bound by their common relation—carnival by simulating the inversion of the given and revolution by a kind of violent negation of the same—then, as the site of empathetic social encounters, for example between steelworkers and university professors, that transcended the ideologically constructed intra-class antagonisms at the beating heart of fin-de-siècle capitalism, the Wisconsin protests permit themselves to be situated within the same family of phenomena.
Whatever its explanation, the protests’ celebratory feeling appeared validated—albeit barely—on the morning after the supreme court election. A first count of the some 1.5 million votes cast showed Kloppenburg, weeks before a virtual unknown with no measurable chance of taking the seat, with 204 votes more than Prosser. A recount was all but certain in these circumstances; in fact, when the margin of victory in a state election in Wisconsin is within 0.5 percent the state is bound by law to fund a recount should either candidate request it. Nonetheless, Kloppenburg went ahead and declared victory all the same, graciously thanking Justice Prosser for his thirty years of public service and pledging to serve as a fair and impartial judge during the course of the ten year term to which she had, she said, just been elected. It seemed like a savvy enough tactic at the time, if one with a rather unsavory genealogy: as we learned in 2000, when an election falls within the tallying system’s margin of error, and thus will necessarily have to be decided in court, the one who declares himself the winner first is at an advantage. So, for just a bit more than twenty-four hours, we who had clamored for Kloppenburg’s election as an effective rebuke of the governor felt like we had actually won. Like we had banded together, raised our voices, our fists, our snarky hand-painted signs, and successfully pushed back against the relentless advance of the corporate-political machine; like we had actually won a crucial battle in what is shaping up, both inside and outside of Wisconsin, as a war to defend not just unionism but public education itself, one of the last remaining interstices in the all-encompassing web of global capitalism.
Alas, perhaps we, too, overreached, just as we have accused our new governor of overreaching his electoral mandate in showing such disdain for the genetic makeup of the state he’d been elected to lead. Perhaps, for a bit more than twenty-four satisfied hours, we didn’t just forget, but almost willfully banished from our minds the knowledge that the left never wins: that it is our fate to always be fighting from behind, precisely because it is our job to be the ones who resist the established order in view of that better future still to come, that tomorrow that exceeds our capacity for expectation today. As a result, we were not expecting it at all when Kathy Nickolaus, the Republican clerk from Waukesha County, a western suburb of Milwaukee that is also one of the state’s most trenchantly conservative regions—but also home to a large community of Spanish-speaking immigrants—called an afternoon news conference, two days after the election, to announce that in her initial report she had accidentally omitted some 15,000 votes from the ultraconservative city of Brookfield, nearly 11,000 of which, of course, had been cast in favor of Prosser. I’m not saying that we had it coming—not by a long shot. Only that we should have seen it coming, and that if we had, perhaps our pain would not have been so acute, so cutting, when an eerily expressionless Nickolaus declared, before a hastily assembled hodge-podge of cameras and microphones and television news reporters smoothing down their television reporter hairdos, that the new vote totals had already been verified and submitted, not only converting Prosser into the winner of the election but also putting his margin of victory just beyond the 0.5 percent within which the state would be obligated to fund a recount at the Kloppenburg campaign’s request.
A couple of hours after what writers for Milwaukee’s daily newspaper quickly nicknamed the “Brookfield bombshell” had dropped, one of my old high school history teachers posted a long lament on his Facebook page, which included the following: “I want to go home. But I can’t—because you’ve set up shop in my home.” Here in California, where I stayed up far too late on election night scanning Twitter feeds for news of Wisconsin’s fate, I have been feeling much the same way these past days. In the days ahead, I will try to remind myself that no matter the stakes, the results of an election do not, and cannot, defy our capacity for expectation. That for those of us whose job it is to resist the given in favor of the still to come, home—by any name—is always that place we haven’t quite gotten to yet.