In an election year that stirred hopes with the idealistic and nearly successful Bernie Sanders campaign, then headed downhill into the sordid Trump/Clinton general election, filmmaker Katherine Acosta takes a hard look at the way the progressive movement influences (and fails to influence) electoral politics in her new film Divided We Fall.
The movie documents the 2011 Wisconsin uprising against Governor Scott Walker, and takes a critical look at the trajectory from inspiring street protests to activists’ failure to stop Walker’s union-busting Act 10, and subsequent failure to oust him in a recall election in June 2012 (not to mention the subsequent regular election in 2014).
It’s familiar terrain for Wisconsinites who were there.
The pivotal moment in the film comes when Madison teachers’ union president John Matthews tells how statewide union leaders “pulled the rug out from under us.” He describes his shock when he was speaking to a group of teachers who had come to the Capitol building after calling in sick. To his astonishment, he was handed a note explaining that statewide union leaders had declared an end to the walk-out he’d helped organize. The leaders were negotiating with Walker and had announced they would accept cuts for members to health insurance and retirement benefits in the doomed hope that they could stave off the destruction of their unions.
As Matthews puts it, the cuts, negotiated without consulting with the membership, amounted to “theft.” Union leaders had essentially told state Republicans, “If you will leave us alone so we can continue to exist as a union, to hell with the members.”
“That destroys the union movement,” Matthews adds.
Acosta segues from that betrayal to the push by union leaders and state Democrats—most prominently Assemblyman Brett Hulsey—to get protesters to stop occupying the state Capitol building.
“We were just afraid this would get out of control,” AFSCME president Marty Beil explains.
But it’s not clear that continuing the occupation, or heeding the briefly popular calls for a general strike, would have changed the final outcome of the losing battle against Walker.
With union membership at historic lows and Walker’s successful exploitation of hostility to public employees among strapped, nonunion private sector workers—not to mention Republican majorities in all three branches of government and the recent redistricting of the state—the protesters might not have been able to achieve their ends even if they had not been abandoned by timorous leadership.
The transition from the excitement of the protests to the long slog toward the recall elections, featuring professional politicians who were disconnected from the energy in the street, looks like the deliberate and tragic quashing of a movement in the hindsight of the film. But things did not unfold quite so smoothly, and it’s not clear the rest of the state was ready to join the Capitol occupiers. How do activists best relate to mainstream electoral politics? How do you create a mass movement and a winning electoral strategy in short order? Would a different candidate, who was more connected to the protests, have been able to win? The answers to these questions are important for the future of progressivism and for our democracy. Divided We Fall deserves credit for raising them. But it does not provide a definitive answer.
The best and worst part of the whole Wisconsin uprising was its spontaneity. Thousands of people came out to stand up for workers and the middle class. No one was really in charge. Sociology student Matthew Kearny, who helped organize the initial protests along with other members of the UW graduate student union reflects the awe and confusion of the time, describing how everyone seemed to be waiting for experienced, adult leaders to tell them what to do. “There must be a strategy, and we are desperate to find out what it is,” he says in the film, summarizing what many were thinking in the midst of those heady protests.
“It was a terrible, crushing defeat for progressives in Wisconsin and progressivism nationwide,” Matt Rothschild, my predecessor as editor of this magazine declares in the film, not mincing words.
Still, reliving the whole incredible, uplifting experience of that rebellion is a reminder that the progressive movement is alive, and has the potential to become a mass, majoritarian movement. Divided We Fall does not spend enough time, in my view, showing the large number of regular citizens (as opposed to grad students, union organizers, and other lefty usual suspects) who took part in the protests. The cops and prison guards and snowplow drivers and regular folks from all over the state who happily joined in, made clever handmade signs, and became part of a true popular movement, created the once-in-a-lifetime hopeful feeling of a large, active citizenry taking charge of its own fate.
The Wisconsin uprising gave tens of thousands of people a glimpse of what it is like when citizens join forces and defend their common interests. It was a powerful, transformative experience for the many people who took part.
And surely, sooner or later, the majority is bound to get organized and win. People just won’t go on forever allowing a minority of wealthy people and their political allies destroy the public sector, suppress wages, run over workers’ right to organize, and make life worse for most of us.
A scene in the film that showed citizens sneaking through windows into the locked Capitol building as the Assembly rammed through Act 10 reminded me what it felt like to be there that night. I ran into my kids’ gym teacher, who had just climbed through a first-floor bathroom window.
She was elated, as was another neighbor I bumped into, who once described himself as “apolitical.”
Just as Occupy was inspired by the Wisconsin uprising, so, too, the Bernie Sanders campaign captured the light and heat of a re-emerging popular, progressive movement in this country.
There is hope for us yet.
The film, Divided We Fall, has its theatrical premiere in Madison on October 20. Those unable to attend, can see a 10-minute sneak preview here.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.