Bernie’s Big Wisconsin Win Adds Momentum, Builds for Long Haul


Winning a smashing 56.6% of the vote in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders scored his 7th victory in the 8 most recent contests with Hillary Clinton, who got just over 43%.

Sanders declared that his victory was the product of a campaign “of, by, and for the people.”

The Wisconsin win — adding 48 delegates to his total while Clinton picked up 38 — will fuel Sanders’ momentum as he heads into the April 19 New York primary. While Clinton maintains her hold on the majority of delegates despite Sanders’ triumph April 5, Sanders enters his birthplace of New York with a head of steam, hoping to counter the broad set of linkages—on Wall Street and elsewhere— that Clinton formed as a senator from the state.

In Wisconsin, Sanders captured 71 of the state’s 72 counties in a state whose precarious economic and social conditions, exacerbated by Gov. Scott Walker’s harsh anti-labor policies, seemed tailor-made for his message against mounting inequality, a shrinking middle class, and the crumbling of democracy under the weight of corporate dollars.

Exit polls showed him winning voters under 30 by a stunning 8-1 margin. He matched Hillary Clinton among women, and won men by 25 points.

Throughout his campaign, Sanders succeeded in localizing his message, in contrast to his Feb. 11 debate performance in Milwaukee where his remarks were devoid of references to Wisconsin despite his many visits to the state. Sanders drew on Wisconsin examples for his attacks on inequality, corporate-designed “free-trade” policies that accelerate the offshoring of jobs, police violence, and mass incarceration.

At the same time, he outlined positive programs to move the state and nation forward, proposing an infrastructure-rebuilding program that would create 13 million new jobs and tuition-free college. Citing the example of the minimum-wage issue, Sanders countered the criticism of Clinton that his visionary policies simply aren’t practical and fail to actually advance a progressive agenda.

Initially, the proposal for a $15 an hour minimum wage drew scorn and ridicule as impractical, he told a crowd April 2 at an African-American community center. But the city of Seattle and the states of California and New York have recently enacted the $15-an-hour pay level. “This is what gives me optimism and hope,” he stated after recounting the desperate plight of minimum-wage workers. “People at the lower end of the economic ladder had the courage to fight for justice and dignity, and to win.”

Sanders’ blueprint for using the government to uplift the poor and middle class proved to be even more powerful in Wisconsin than in his 50%-48% Michigan primary win. Wisconsin families have endured the sharpest decline in household income since 2000, according to a Pew study last year. While families nationally suffered a 7.2 % drop in their income, the household income in Wisconsin took an average hit of more than double, at 14.7%. Wisconsin has also suffered the largest loss of middle-income jobs, the Pew study notes.

All net job growth in Wisconsin during the 2000-2013 period has been in low-wage jobs, according to University of Wisconsin Professor Marc Levine. Under the weight of Gov. Walker’s relentless anti-labor policies, Wisconsin’s union density has shriveled from 16.1% of the workforce in 2005 to just 8.1% in 2015.

Wisconsin has suffered a massive offshoring of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and China, fostered by “free-trade” policies like NAFTA and the Permanent Normalization of Trade with China and China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, Sanders argued to receptive audiences across the state. He noted that Hillary Clinton has applauded or voted for almost all of the “free trade” deals signed under her husband and President Obama. (Clinton’s vote for a “free-trade” deal with Panama, a notorious tax haven, has come just under fire with the “Panama papers” revelations.)

Sanders’ message resonated strongly with workers across the state, as he won 60% of voters who said that trade costs US jobs. The toll of “offshoring” has been a central factor in diminishing the supply of middle-income jobs and giving employers the leverage to drive down wages “Wisconsin lost 68,693 manufacturing jobs (or 13 percent) during the NAFTA-WTO period (1994-2015), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” a Public Citizen report states. The outflow of jobs continues, with firms like Thermo-Fisher and Manitowoc Corp. moving jobs to Mexico and Johnson Controls — recently spotlighted for preparing to repudiate its US corporate citizenship and switch to Ireland for massive tax savings — now has more than 60 plants operating in low-wage, highly-repressive China.

At the same time factories in Wisconsin have been emptied out by employers heading off to China, Mexico and elsewhere, Wisconsin’s jails have been filling up with young people who see no legitimate opportunities for themselves. Despite its progressive reputation, Wisocnsin now has the highest rate of black male incarceration in the US.

Trying to tap into the anti-corporate globalization of public sentiment opened up by Sanders, Donald Trump tried stressing the same theme in visits to hard-hit cities like Janesville, which witnessed its big General Motors plant closing in 2008 while it started expanding in Mexico shortly thereafter.

But Sanders’ approach to corporate globalization seemingly connected far more strongly with Janesville workers, who have seen their household incomes plummet and half of manufacturing jobs evaporate since the GM shutdown. On election day, Sanders’ brand of anti-corporate globalization was apparently more compelling, as he garnered 17,337 votes to Trump’s 10,264 in Rock County where Janesville is located.

However, mainstream media coverage of the Wisconsin primary has focused little on the unexpectedly large magnitude of Sanders’ victory than Cruz’s 14-point victory over Donald Trump and how this will affect Trump’s bid for the nomination.

At the same time, relatively little attention has been devoted to how the Sanders campaign has pulled Hillary Clinton’s message much further to the left. There has been even less discussion of how Bernie Sanders’ campaign has legitimized the sudden identification of millions of Americans with the concept of “democratic socialism” championed by Sanders.

With Sanders’ campaign, the extent of support for democratic socialism has rapidly become an undeniable force in American politics. With little coverage as this sentiment was building, 43% of Americans under thirty view socialism favorably, according to the most recent YouGov poll (Jan. 25-27, 2016).

Remarkably, fully 56% of registered Democrats view socialism favorably according to a recent NY Times/CBS News poll.

But up until now, the Sanders campaign has not fleshed out a meaningful vision of “democratic socialism” — beyond citing Denmark in an early debate. “Though perhaps tactically understandable, given his own previous efforts, it’s a little surprising that Sanders has not made ownership (and new forms of ownership) more of a theme in his campaign,” pointed out Gar Alperovitz and Joe Guinan, who work with the new and ambitious Next System project to promote democratic socialism.

The Next System leaders note that Sanders has long pushed for expanding the scope of the US Postal Service into retail banking, supported transformative ownership strategies at the local and state level including employee ownership, community land trusts, and cooperative low-income housing, as well as an active role for labor in democratically managing the workplace. But these ideas “haven’t shown up on the stump,” Alperovitz and Guinan.

But whether or not Sanders himself fully articulates during the campaign what democratic socialism could look like in America, he has courageously opened the political space for ordinary Americans to begin thinking through the possibilities of an economic system based on democracy and human needs rather than maximum profit.

Sanders has shown the potential for igniting a broad, multi-racial, multi-class movement that could end the supremacy of huge corporations and begin moving American toward the “Next System” of democratic socialism.

The culmination of his campaign—regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination—provides a unique moment and a powerful springboard for this movement.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. He edited The Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2016

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2016 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652