Tomorrow, after more than a year watching the Wisconsin saga unfold, the nation will see whether Governor Scott Walker stays or goes. Nationally, Democrats haven't been outspoken in their support of the recall effort—in May, the DNC took heat for not supporting activists and just this weekend, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell told MSNBC he though the recall was a "mistake" since Walker admitted he should have sold his anti-union policies in a more conciliatory fashion.
For the risk-averse, it's easy to see why the recall might seem scary. The election has offered the GOP a chance to try new tactics, flooding the airwaves in what is a relatively cheap state for campaigning. Walker's plight has become a rally cry for groups like the Tea Party Express and the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama. The GOP's business wing has poured money into his campaign. If Walker wins, it will send Republicans a clear message: Even if a politician loses local support by taking extreme positions, the establishment can win it back with enough money. Wisconsin may well offer a good game plan to push other states further right.
Anti-recall Democrats also point to the polarization the effort has spurred. It has certainly catapulted Walker into a national spotlight, and should he win tomorrow, he will likely be in a less compromising spot than he was before. When, at last week's debate, he refused to answer whether he would veto right-to-work legislation, Democratic opponent Tom Barrett offered a pretty good explanation of why: "One of the ten commandments of the far right is that you have to be against unions … He would have a fall from grace with the far right if he said he was going to veto it."
But none of those concerns make the recall—to use Rendell's words—"a mistake."
Recall laws came about during the populist era, when political organizing helped establish working-class citizens as a formidable political force. Along with other efforts at direct democracy like the referendum, the recall was supposed to give citizens power even if their elected officials tried to ignore them. Which is largely what happened in Wisconsin under Walker: He pushed through measures to cripple public-employee unions, even when those unions were willing to compromise. Tens of thousands flooded the state capital protesting, but instead of acknowledging these unprecedented rallies as the mark of concerned citizens, the governor instead dismissed them as special interests. It's the type of situation a recall was meant to remedy.
Wisconsin activists got one million people to sign petitions—one million. That's an astonishing number, almost double what was needed to prompt a recall. Many of the people who helped organize weren't professionals; they were angry and active people who had been taught, in their state, that organized citizens can effect change. They took advantage of laws already in existence meant for this purpose.
The recall may or may not succeed. If it does not, the consequences will be tremendous: It will be a huge blow to organized labor and a major boost for the GOP. It will also signal that recall laws are no longer relevant in a political reality where money reigns supreme and even union members aren't voting in strong numbers for their own cause.
But the race remains extremely close, despite the spending and despite the "lost cause" mentality from some on the left. That alone is almost miraculous. And if the activists do manage to pull off a victory, Wisconsin may show that when people are active, angry, and organized, they can bring down well-funded power. But to do that, sometimes they have to take big risks.