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Mark Karlin: Right wing money and Democratic Party establishment created conditions for GOP victory

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker has won the recall election. He remains the governor. Millions of dollars poured into Wisconsin, something like $45 million for Scott Walker, most of which came from outside the state. He outspent his Democratic rival, who spent somewhere close to $10 million—apparently, most of that money came from within the state.

Now joining us to talk about the significance of this win is Mark Karlin. Mark is a founder of the first major progressive online news site in May 2000,, and he’s now working in, where he edits BuzzFlash at Truthout. Thanks for joining us, Mark.


JAY: Alright. So we’re going to talk a bit about the national significance of this. But before we do, if we listen to most of the arguments that are being made about why Walker won, especially if you listen to MSNBC or some of the other places of sorts, it’s all about the money: he was so heavily outspent that Walker wins. So is that really the story? Do you think it’s all about the money?

KARLIN: It’s not all about the money, but the money is a very significant factor. The Citizens United decision, of course, unleashed groups like Americans for Prosperity and many other groups to run third-party ads in Milwaukee. Walker outspent Barrett by two-to-one in terms of television advertising. So I think it is significant.

I do think there are some particulars that relate to Wisconsin. Number one, there were some voters who simply did not leave believe in recalling a governor. In fact, Bill Clinton was there over the weekend, and he said he didn’t believe in recalls but he supported Barrett. And that was sort of a weak endorsement, because it gave a lot of people who had mixed feelings a reason to vote for Walker. So I think that adds to the equation here.

I also think that—a video was disclosed about two or three weeks ago where Scott Walker told a wealthy contributor before he introduced his legislation to smash collective-bargaining [incompr.] public employees that he would use a strategy of divide and conquer. And what that means, I think—and I think the Democratic Party nationally has not been good at handling this—is unions, which really account for a small percentage of America’s workforce now, face a real challenge, because what Walker did by limiting this to public unions (excluding the firefighters and the police) was he turned workers, let’s say at Walmart, or workers who get minimum wage, against unions. Instead of unions looking to raise workers up to a standard of living and benefits that give dignity and value to labor, Walker said, hey, you’re the taxpayer, your footing the bill for the cushy lifestyle of these public unions. And I think that appealed to some of the working-class voters.

JAY: Let’s start with the first thing about the importance of the money. One thing I don’t quite get about what happened in Wisconsin is that it’s not like the Democratic Party doesn’t know a lot of billionaires. President Obama’s apparently going to raise $1 billion for his election. There’s plenty of liberal Democratic money out there, but it didn’t come to Wisconsin. Why didn’t they try to mobilize this national money?

KARLIN: As I wrote in my article on Truthout last Friday about my interviews with activists in Madison who had participated in the uprising, the Obama campaign and the Obama White House wanted to stay as far away from Wisconsin as possible. And I don’t think the president ever mentioned Wisconsin or Barrett in the last few months. I think Jay Carney the other day just gave a very sort of perfunctory support of Barrett on behalf of the president, but it was almost an aside, the reason being that in the polls, including the Marquette poll, which was somewhat controversial but widely quoted by the mainstream press—that was the last poll—they had—the Marquette poll, they had Walker ahead by about 7 points. In that same poll, they asked the same people who they would vote for, Obama/Romney, and Obama was ahead of Romney by about the same margin, and today in exit polling, Obama was ahead of Romney by several points. So I think looking at the polling before the Wisconsin recall, one can speculate that the White House didn’t want to risk any association with the recall election.

JAY: But my question was a little different. I understand Obama’s logic, right or wrong. They’ve got no other focus other than winning the presidential election. And one could critique them for giving up on some issue of principle, if in fact they have some. But let’s set Obama side. No, my question was about the money. They could’ve, without Obama directly getting so involved himself, help mobilize national money, and they didn’t seem to do that.

KARLIN: I don’t think they wanted to. This was—within the Democratic Party of Wisconsin this has been something that was very grassroots-driven. And the labor movements and the progressives were particularly [incompr.] on the state level. Many of the national unions had to be dragged into this kicking and screaming, with some exception—the Steelworkers and the International Electric Workers participated in the uprising. But the national unions as a whole were not really happy with this recall effort, one of the reasons being is it’s a very difficult challenge. The people who undertook the recall did a tremendous job. Remember, last year there was a recall of senators, and the Democrats gained two in the Senate. A Republican essentially resigned. So the Senate now is co-run by the Democrats and the Republicans of Wisconsin. And there are four senators up for recall tonight, all Republican. I predict that the Democrats will win one of those seats and take control of the Wisconsin Senate.

So people did a tremendous effort. They had to get hundreds of thousands of signatures for the second round of recall, which included the governor and the lieutenant governor. But I must say that when you ask why wasn’t [incompr.] I’m saying that the White House and the Democratic National Committee did not want to call in money for this state recall election. One, they wanted to preserve it for the fall election, including Obama’s, of course, and two, they felt that Walker in a way was too hot to touch and that there was not going to be a high likelihood that this was going to succeed. So I think they simply didn’t put the money in.

On the other hand, on the Republican side, from the beginning Scott Walker has been a stalking horse for the Koch brothers and for Crossroads and so forth. And I think that—FreedomWorks is another. And I think that they know the media’s going to cover this as a big victory for the antiunion forces, but particularly for the 1 percent forces, for the Citizens United, right-wing money funds. And so they were on the line, and they’re going to get that headline that Walker beat back the 99 percent movement, that he beat back the unions. And that’s what they’re paying for.

JAY: Now, in terms of the on-the-ground game over the last months, there seems to have been an inability of the unionized workers to speak to non-unionized workers and persuade them that these policies are not in their interest. And I understand the power of the TV advertising, but there was a fairly big ground game going on there. But was there some lack of enthusiasm amongst people who had been involved in the protest movement? I’ve heard some of the people in the protest movement say that they kind of lost the wind from their sails because everything went into the recall effort, and they were less than enthusiastic in participating in it.

KARLIN: Absolutely, Paul. In fact, the key part and message from the Truthout article I wrote last week, after talking to many activists, including Ed Garvey, who carries within him—he’s sort of the keeper of the flame of the patron saint of progressives in Wisconsin, Robert La Follette, Bob La Follette, Fighting Bob. And Ed Garvey, who’s an attorney, who ran for the governor and Senate in Wisconsin, has a Fighting Bob Fest every year that draws thousands of people. He is editor of And he and the other activists I talked to, to a person, were concerned. While they said to recall may have been an option that had to be used, nonetheless it dragged the energy from energizing, mobilizing, and as Ed Garvey said, converting those type of workers who are underpaid and exploited, convert them to the side of being in support of unions instead of resenting unions.

And when a movement—this becomes a very key question, I think, for all movements, is when a movement becomes involved in the electoral process, it becomes a very different type of energy force. It becomes something that’s caught up with political figures. Barrett was in a primary. He beat the progressive candidate from Madison [incompr.] Dane County. And so there wasn’t a real enthusiasm for Barrett among the progressives.

But right then, in just the language I’m using, which is we’re entering the world of electoral politics, this campaign wasn’t even run on collective bargaining to the extent one would think. A lot of ancillary issues were brought up. Walker attacked Barrett for a, perhaps, scandal that crime statistics were underreported by the police in Milwaukee. This became an issue. And then, of course, there’s the dark cloud over Scott Walker’s head, which is that he may be indicted by both the Milwaukee County district attorney and the feds.

JAY: Yeah, I don’t understand. We did a story about this yesterday. Why didn’t this, you would think, pretty serious scandal have more consequences in the election results?

KARLIN: We saw this in Illinois with Rob Blagojevich, who’s now in jail. He was under investigation by the U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who many people people are familiar with in his work in the Valerie Plame case, and he, Blagojevich, was reelected anyway. I think people figure until there’s an indictment or if there is an indictment, the benefit of the doubt goes to the individual who’s being investigated.

JAY: Right. Yeah. Let’s go back to what you were raising before. This—terms of this issue of electoral politics, is part of what happened in Wisconsin is that the candidate that ran wasn’t a candidate of the movement, he was a candidate in the Democratic Party establishment?

KARLIN: That certainly would be the argument of a lot of activists. But the other argument is that, again, when you get into electoral politics, you’re getting into something different than movements. And one of the things that Fred [incompr.] who does national labor network news on the radio, he mentioned something very interesting. He said, look at President Obama. People who supported President Obama, many people saw him as a movement, as a politician who embodied a movement—hope and change, toss the lobbyists out of Washington, get rid of torture, get rid of the executive power that allows surveillance, and on and on—and were deeply disappointed, because when he became the president he suddenly assumed a governmental role which was very different than how people saw him, as leader of a movement who happened to be running for president.

JAY: But that’s sort of a different issue, in the sense that President Obama didn’t become a different person; just the movement that supported Obama, a lot of people didn’t want to listen to what he was saying; ’cause he really hasn’t done that much differently than what he said he was going to do. People—everyone projected into him. But if you take a look at Wisconsin and this whole issue, if the movement in the final analysis doesn’t have some kind of electoral strategy that leads to candidates that represent the movement, then the movement never has any power. It winds up being—you know, people can march around, but they’re not going to be able to actually execute on what they want.

KARLIN: Some of the activists would disagree with you, Paul. Their point is that issue of when you have a movement and you’re in the opposition, you have, one, moral authority, and also you can better control your values and principles, rather than have a politician running on an electoral platform where the values and principles become totally attuned to whatever the campaign advisers say they should be.

JAY: Yeah, but at some point there has to be some real political power. We have not seen a lot of examples of where a movement has really had that much influence with those in power in the United States. The politicians pass what they want to pass.

KARLIN: I don’t agree with that historically. In fact, in the United States, most advancements that we would call progressive or social change began first with movements that were uncompromising. Look at the civil rights movement. It really went up against the government establishment from the beginning. And particularly, I should point out, if you look at the Freedom Riders, who were a very key portion of the civil rights movement in terms of moving the movement along, they kind of broke the back of the Kennedys, because the Kennedys didn’t want the Freedom Riders. And their goal was to desegregate interstate busing in the South. They didn’t want them to try to do this. The reason was: at that point much of the South was still Democratic segregation as Democratic governors. And the Kennedys, Robert and JFK, did about everything possible to stop the Freedom Riders from trying to ride interstate buses.

JAY: Yeah, Mark, I’m not arguing that a movement isn’t critical. I don’t think there’s any electoral strategy that will be of any use without a powerful movement. But at some point, if that movement doesn’t have an electoral strategy, then all it is is a lobby force.

KARLIN: I think there’s a force for social change. And I think at some point, then, the politicians catch up with the movement, which happened when LBJ signed the civil rights law in 1964. But that was only after about 12 or 13 years of a riotous civil rights movement.

JAY: Yeah, it was a compromise to stop the social unrest, and it succeeded, more or less. I mean, once the civil rights legislation was passed, it took the wind out of the movement. And where is the movement now? Where is that civil rights movement now? It’s not like conditions for African-Americans are so wonderful in the United States. In many ways a lot hasn’t changed. But where is the movement?

KARLIN: You know, that’s a good question, and I would say that’s open to some argument about what it did for African Americans. It opened up, the Voting Rights Act followed, and you have a black president now. I think it changed circumstances incredibly.

JAY: Yeah, I’m not saying the gains were negligible. They were real gains. But they were, you know, modest in the sense that the movement was at such a level. Like, if you look at Greece now, if Greece—if the Greek left didn’t have some kind of political party capable of actually running in an election and maybe winning, the same interests wind up in power over and over again. If you don’t change that dynamic, then it’s—you know, maybe you can influence some specific piece of legislation here or there, but you can’t change the situation.

KARLIN: I think this is a complicated issue, probably way beyond the confines of this discussion. I would say that Greece has a parliamentary system like Britain, and therefore a third party can rise quickly (as it has in Greece) that is a populist anti-austerity party. And that’s what’s happening Greece in terms of shifting political power. It’s very hard to do in the United States when you have two parties that basically are both beholden to corporate and wealthy donations.

JAY: But just finally—I know we’ve gone all over the place in this interview, but just finally and quickly, does this, what happened in Wisconsin, going to have any national impact on the presidential election?

KARLIN: I think it will for the moment, because I think that the people like the Koch brothers, who really are the, you know, Scott Walker backers, are going to use this as a triumphant moment. That triumphant moment, however, may be extremely [incompr.] should indeed the governor, Walker, be indicted, which seems like a very strong possibility.

JAY: Alright. We’ll see. We’ll come back to you when and if that happens. Thanks very much for joining us, Mark.

KARLIN: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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