Wisconsin’s movement turned political. Then got lost.

Black Agenda Report managing editor Bruce A. Dixon in his article, “Wisconsin: What Happens When Movements Turn Into Campaigns” gives us plenty of food for thought. He explains the difference between a campaign and a movement, and why we were pretty much slated to lose the battle in Wisconsin for rights once that movement’s momentum morphed from demands for social change into electioneering.

How did we get from hundreds of thousands in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin demanding union rights for everybody and fundamental economic justice for all, to a desultory set of Democratic campaigns for the candidates who, as they say, sucked the least, and ended up losing.

Sixteen months ago the eyes of the nation and the world were on Madison, Wisconsin. Crowds in the tens of thousands surrounded, occupied and refused to leave the state capitol building. Local cops ignored orders to disperse them, and when authorities finally evicted protesters from hallways, offices and legislative chambers, their numbers grew, reaching the hundreds of thousands multiple times before the crisis was over. Local schools were shut down because teachers called in sick en masse. For a short while a general strike, localized in Madison, but with wide and visible support around the state and country seemed a real possibility . . . The next move was truly in the hands of those tens and hundreds of thousands of working people in motion, the people in the streets.

. . . Political campaigns are pretty much where movements go to die, get betrayed or are stillborn because turning a movement or near movement into a campaign robs it of the very specific features we’ve already mentioned, the features which make movements potent and often unpredictable political actors. When movements become campaigns their participants lose their independence and initiative. Instead of being ready and willing to act outside the law, they become its most loyal supporters. And instead of looking to their own shared values, they look to political candidates and elected officials who must remain inside the elite-defined rules of political decorum and law to preserve their candidacies and/or careers.

. . . When we bear in mind again the unique characteristics of a movement it’s easy to see why. Political campaigns, even successful ones, don’t teach risk-taking. Political campaigns don’t prepare you to operate outside the law or how to discredit and de-legitimize unjust law. Campaigns won’t show you how to make the politicians follow you, instead of you following the politicians, the judges, the pundits and that whole elite crowd. Real change comes from movements, not from campaigns. The only thing that makes the politicians follow you is a mass movement, a movement that does everything political campaigns don’t.

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