Scenes from the Class War in Wisconsin, by Thomas Frank

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May 2011 Issue [Easy Chair]

Scenes from the Class War in Wisconsin


On March 1, the day Governor Scott Walker was to present his budget to the assembled lawmakers of Wisconsin, I made my way toward that state’s Capitol building to obtain my daily press credential. It was not an easy task. The main problem was getting into the building.

The governor’s earlier budget proposal had included a provision that would pretty much terminate the collective-bargaining rights of Wisconsin’s public employees. Enormous demonstrations by union members and sympathizers resulted; protesters had surrounded the Capitol every day since the proposal was first announced, while others occupied the building itself. By the time I arrived, this state of affairs had gone on for two weeks. To deter additional occupiers, the administration had now ordered the doors to be locked, and when I showed up, just about all of them were marked closed.

There was supposed to be a delegated entrance for journalists, but nobody seemed to know where it was. To make matters more confusing, the Wisconsin Capitol building is itself an almost completely symmetrical structure, with four indistinguishable wings extending in the cardinal directions. There are elaborate doors at the end of each of these wings, and additional doors at the intermediate compass points, for a grand total of eight quasi-interchangeable entrances.

My strategy, on each of my three days in Madison, was to walk up to a door and ask the police officer on duty where I should enter. On nearly every occasion, he or she would send me to the exact opposite side of the building. Once I arrived there, however, it always seemed like the designated point of ingress had been moved. That meant marching at least another counterclockwise lap around the building, along with thousands of protesters who were also seeking a way inside.

This was the state of things two and a half years after the first deadly events of the financial crisis. Ever since September 2008, Americans had been wandering around in an unaccustomed daze, dreading first economic collapse, then some imagined design on our basic freedoms. And now, with the formerly progressive state of Wisconsin in the lead, we had resolved to wreck the lives of teachers and file clerks while the financiers who had done all this to us pondered which 100,000-acre tract of Montana wilderness to turn into a third vacation home.

Old political allies were at one another’s throats. Ideological formulas that were foolproof just a few months ago were being mercilessly scrambled. What was fixed had come unglued, and what was right side up was being turned upside down.

I finally made it inside the Capitol. At desks on the floor of the legislative chamber sat the assembled grandees of Wisconsin, many of them conservative Republicans elected last fall in a prior wave of populist wrath. In the gallery, a battalion of what appeared to be well-dressed lobbyists was ready to express its approval of the governor’s plans. And outside the window, the buzz of the demonstrators was growing louder. I peered out between the Venetian blinds to see perhaps 2,000 people gathered in the snow-covered plaza two stories below. It was a small group by the standards that had prevailed so far, but sufficient to fill the plaza all the way to the street.

The noise was immense. They were drumming, chanting, blowing on plastic horns, banging serving spoons on kitchen pots. Amid the hubbub of roll call and seat-taking, the noise coming up from below could have been mistaken for some routine construction. But when the legislators settled in and the room quieted down, you noticed it very suddenly: a persistent din. And words, a sentence, a demand: “Let! Us! In!”

As a state legislator rose to give the prayer, I wondered what he would say about that very loud noise. He pretended not to hear. Several thousand people were shrieking outside the window, and his own words, addressed to God, only hinted at the presence of the protesters: “You have told us that we were to come to you with our burdens, with our petitions, with our concerns. We know that there are many people here that have those concerns. We don’t know what they are, Lord. But you do.”

This pretense grew even more baffling when the governor himself appeared. Scott Walker launched into his budget address, in which he outlined his plans for cutting funding for health care while getting tough on people who needed to be imprisoned. He acknowledged that there was “a passionate debate in our society,” but otherwise it was as if nothing out of the ordinary were going on. The governor never mentioned collective bargaining, the issue that had brought the protesters out in such overwhelming force. It was all standard issue: blue suit, burgundy tie, teleprompters, and a droning voice as unruffled as his helmet of hair. The passages that drew the most enthusiastic applause were those that sounded most like campaign ads.

This situation in Madison had generated rules of engagement as bizarre as anything in Iraq or Afghanistan. Walker did not return my requests for comment, but he had waxed wetly sycophantic when he was called by a man he believed to be a billionaire funder of right-wing causes. Democratic lawmakers were hiding out in Illinois to deny the Republicans a quorum in the state senate. The Republicans would eventually use a tricky parliamentary maneuver to pass their anti-union measure without a quorum. And all the while, to judge by what I saw that afternoon, the main rule was: Never acknowledge the protesters and their concerns when the business of the state was being conducted. King Kong himself could be on the loose in Madison, thumping the Capitol building with a telephone pole, and these guys would pretend that things like that happened all the time.

Maybe it’s because we’d been listening to TV talk about the liberal “ruling class” for so long that this revolt of ordinary people took the nation by surprise. We had forgotten that when the TV is turned off and the political circus is over for the day, collective bargaining is one of the very few ways people have to make their voices heard at work. For many, it is an essential part of American life, of democracy itself. Wisconsin’s right-wing populists, stepping forward confidently to cement their Ayn Rand republic, apparently thought no one would notice what they did. Instead, they succeeded in resurrecting their great nemesis, the working-class populism of the 1930s.

When I first arrived in Madison on the evening of February 28, only a few hundred protesters were still inside the Capitol; the others had gradually left after police started restricting access to the building. Those who remained were mostly young, fairly sleep-deprived, and slightly giddy. People played board games; a drum circle throbbed incessantly under the rotunda; and a kid of maybe twenty stood up and made an impromptu speech about solidarity, of the kind I used to hear from grizzled manufacturing veterans in union halls in the 1990s. Sleeping bags and mats were stashed in the corners, and on the imposing granite walls was taped a fantastic assortment of photocopied posters and manifestos and homemade political cartoons.

I watched a policeman from Manitowoc take a group photo of a bunch of union members; after he had performed this operation with three or four different cameras, the unionists took a group photo of the policemen. Firefighters and law-enforcement personnel were highly visible among the crowds of demonstrators outside, and after I did an interview with the Dane County sheriff, I was surprised to see a member of his office staff heading out, placard in hand, to demonstrate on the Capitol grounds.

This is a critical detail. The protests, one hears constantly in Madison, are the largest since the days of the Vietnam War. But this time, instead of gassing and beating the demonstrators, the police have largely been sympathetic.

What’s more, the ideological backlash has yet to arrive. Back in the Seventies you could always count on union-dues-paying Americans to vent their disgust with the hippies befouling college towns—and you could count on conservative politicians to declare their own support for the hardhat majority. This time around, the hard hats were leading the troublemakers, the students were following close behind, and the conservative movement was raging against them all.

Nothing the conservatives attempted could turn the tide. They had started this fight in the full noontime of their populist righteousness: just a few months earlier, the freedom cries of the Tea Party had captivated the nation. Their movement delivered sweeping victories not just for Republicans but for the rightmost politicians available—for just about anyone who could shout something alarming about the impending socialist takeover.

But now, only a short while later, the Tea Party had gone into a sudden eclipse. When a selection of its brand ambassadors flew to Madison on February 19 to give Wisconsin workers a taste of their contempt, they found themselves hopelessly outnumbered and, for once, outshouted. Two weeks later, a Tea Party bus finished its “Stand With Walker” swing through the state with an event in Madison—and drew a scant 600 souls.

Following Governor Walker’s speech on March 1, the assistant majority leader of the state senate, Glenn Grothman, had endured his own, much-publicized problem with the lockdown. A conservative Republican from West Bend, he had somehow gotten stuck outside the building and, in the course of his frantic hunt for an open door, found himself surrounded by a crowd of protesters screaming, “Shame!”

I didn’t know about this encounter when I showed up at his office for an interview the next day. My interest in Grothman had been piqued by a lonely yellow snake flag I had come across inside the Capitol, the only evidence of the confrontational conservative spirit of 2010 that I saw in the entire building. It was taped to Grothman’s office window along with a sign: wisconsin is now open for business & jobs. Here, I thought, I would find a man willing to speak frankly.

But the incident with the protesters had Grothman’s office in a frenzy. When I arrived, an aide was explaining to a Fox News program that the senator couldn’t appear because he had already promised himself to a different Fox News program. Another staffer was taking constituents’ calls, which sounded unpleasant.

Amid all that, Senator Grothman, bespectacled and with a shock of white hair, appeared a figure of almost Spenglerian gloom, never raising his voice or losing his cool. He wore a dark red shirt, an even darker tie, and an expression of permanent skepticism. His office was cluttered with incongruously jolly political mementos, such as a Wisconsin license plate reading tax cutr, a large plush elephant, and a number of trophies acknowledging him to be a friend of the housing industry.

He started things off by sketching out the grand panorama of disaster that was the backdrop to recent events. “If you look at the huge degree to which government has grown, really, in the last fifty years,” he said, “America is changing overwhelmingly for the worse. In many ways.”

This was the first of several surprises. You or I might believe that the country made a lasting turn to the right some thirty years ago, and that a conservative would be proud of that. But Grothman’s powerful pessimism seemed to cancel it all out. “The government is almost encouraging a complete breakdown of the family,” he said. “The degree to which we have a huge national debt, which creates an expectation of government checks to a variety of people, is a scary thing, because I think it’s unsustainable. I’m not sure how much longer America can survive, when you add those things up.”

The conversation turned to protecting basic rights, one conviction I thought the protesters shared with the Tea Party movement. In the case of the current unrest, of course, the right in question was a little different: it was, as one protester’s sign had it, life, liberty, and the right to collective bargaining.

“Is that a right?” the senator asked.

“That’s what I was going to ask you.”

“’Course it’s not a right,” he said scornfully. “Why don’t we say individual bargaining is a right? That would seem to me a much more valid right.” People should not be forced to join a union and pay dues as a condition of a job, he continued. “There’s no right to collectively bargain. Somebody has put something in these kids’ heads, and they don’t understand which rights are protected in this country. That’s not a right at all. That’s an imposition, is what it is.”

The completeness of this inversion startled me. The right to form labor unions, which exist to bargain collectively, is affirmed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Still, I admired Grothman’s way with words: to transform freedom into bondage is not an easy feat.

Others, I told him, saw collective bargaining as an element of Wisconsin’s progressive tradition. I mentioned Robert La Follette, the progressive reformer of a century ago, whom the protesters revered. “People don’t know what La Follette was about,” Grothman replied. “There was a racist element in the early progressives that I don’t think Wisconsin should be proud of. There’s a big-government element as well, which I think is embarrassing.”

I had understood La Follette to be a champion of tolerance (later I learned that when he ran for president in 1924, he won the enthusiastic endorsement of W.E.B. Du Bois and other black leaders). But Grothman brought me up to date with the latest scholarship: “You’ve got to read Jonah Goldberg’s book about the early progressives, what was going on in the Teens.” I knew about Woodrow Wilson’s sorry record on civil rights, I told him. “La Follette was kind of in with that crowd,” he said.

I was eager to get to the dynamics of present-day protest movements. The Tea Party had been concerned with “elites” and “elitism,” I told the senator, and the labor activists ringing the Capitol liked to use these terms as well. They feared the growing power of the very rich—the ones whose phone calls Governor Walker so willingly took. But again, it seemed I had everything upside down. Elitism was really a matter of attitude and moral presumption. “When I think of elitists,” Grothman said, “I think of people trying to impose their views on other people’s children, university professors who think they’re better than people who are not university professors. That’s what I think of when I think of an elite.”

One of the strangest turns of events, I suggested, was how the Republicans had triumphed at the polls in November—and now their opponents were filling the streets, just as the Tea Party had done in early 2009. Grothman would have none of this comparison. “I think Barack Obama is the most radical president in this country’s history. You can see it by the way he’s governed since then. You can see it by who his friends are. . . . I’m not sure he’s comfortable with the America our founders wanted.”

I asked what Republicans would have to do to take back the government. “On a national level, we can’t have George Bush bragging about No Child Left Behind. And on a state level, we can’t have people like Tommy Thompson, whose crowning achievement was BadgerCare [a subsidized health-care program].” Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, I remembered, had been lavishly praised by Governor Walker in his speech the day before. Wasn’t he a Republican?

“A very big-government Republican. Just like George Bush was a big-government Republican.” Grothman added: “It would have been clearer for the voters if both Bushes had run as Democrats in the first place, ’cause then people could see a difference between the parties.”

I expressed astonishment. Wasn’t George W. Bush the epitome of Republican-ness just a short while ago?

“He’s not a Republican,” Grothman growled. The senator then recalled the various expensive undertakings of that administration, noted the hated bank bailouts, and concluded: “I don’t know by what standards you’d consider him a Republican.”

The ripples from Governor Walker’s big legislative splash were felt in unlikely locales all across the state. It was not just college kids and Madison radicals who, as we’ve been told, will show up to protest anything. It was private-sector workers who think they’re next on the chopping block. It was farmers whose co-ops use collective bargaining. It was thousands of Wisconsinites who showed up on March 12 to protest a Walker fund-raiser in the remote hamlet of Washburn. People everywhere were infuriated.

In ordinary times, Union Grove, a town of some 4,500 situated near the larger lakeside cities of Racine and Kenosha, is the sort of place that generates votes for Republican politicians. But despite the town’s historically rightward leanings, Scott Walker’s war on labor had proved sufficient to move some of its people—and the people of hundreds of towns like it—into a mind-set much closer to that of the Roosevelt years than that of the decade just ended.

In Union Grove, the shift can be tied to the fact that the town is home to several state institutions, including a facility for mentally handicapped adults and a correctional center for girls. Workers at both are members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

On the afternoon of March 2, I found the main room of the town’s American Legion Hall packed and the bar open. Sitting under photographs of men who had been killed in the world wars, people listened anxiously to a few short speeches from their local AFSCME leaders. “This isn’t about money,” one declared. “This is about taking basic rights away.”

John Nichols, a Union Grove native, an editor at The Nation, and the author of a recent history of socialism in America, got up to speak. In passionate tones he recalled the state’s tradition of fighting for justice, and described how people in towns like theirs were reacting to the present “dark times.” The stereotype of our day, of course, is that people with politics like Nichols’s are automatic aliens in the red-blooded, deer-hunting hinterland, but I can report that at this particular Legion Hall, this audience of somewhat angry, somewhat frightened, and extremely average Americans gave that progressive scribbler a standing ovation.

Then the crowd put on its hats, coats, and scarves, grabbed its placards, and rolled out to mount what is almost certainly the only labor protest this burg has ever seen. They marched up and down Main Street, past the R&R Club, the Coal Miner’s Bar, the empty storefronts, and the tidy shops where people came to the windows with eyes wide at the curious spectacle.

Truck horns honked in solidarity. A group of teenagers stared down from the roof of a building. And the marchers, in their work boots, their Packers jackets, and their ragged orange hoodies, walked up and down the streets of their town, shouting in that flat, glorious Wisconsin accent, “This is what democracy looks like!”

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