Drawing from his Wisconsin roots, Tom Hayden has written a highly insightful guide to the Madison uprising and it’s relevance to the politics of 2012. Hayden’s article in The Nation, “Cheese, Brats, Beer, Polka, Unions! The Homegrown Revolution in Wisconsin,” serves as an informative companion piece to the excellent work of The Nation’s Madison-based correspondent John Nichols.
Hayden explains the damage done to Wisconsin’s public workers by Governor Scott Walker and Republicans in the state legislature, reviews the inspiring response of working people and then describes the current political moment and its opportunities:
Last week when I visited, the movement was showing no signs of abating, with several thousand demonstrating at the Capitol. The legislature will reconvene in mid-September.
The next target of voter recall is likely to be Governor Walker himself, assuming the movement sustains the energy to collect 700,000 valid signatures this winter. Already Walker is making nervous but thus-far empty gestures about sitting down for talks with his adversaries. Opinion surveys across the Rust Belt show majority opposition to repeal of collective bargaining. In Ohio, an even harsher version of the Wisconsin law is likely to lose when put to a voter referendum in November. The Wisconsin uprising has broken the momentum of the Tea Party in critical Midwest states.
That alone would be an impressive accomplishment. But there is more to be encouraged about, as Hayden reports:
This is a homegrown revolution, not one led or fed by outside forces or agitators in the grip of ideology. International unions and Democratic Party strategists based in Washington, DC, didn’t start the fight, but were drawn into it by their rank and file and thousands of independent citizens across the state (including players from the Packers). Politically active observers noticed the freshness from the beginning. Dawson Barrett, a graduate student active at the University in Wisconsin-Milwaukee, e-mailed me on the first day, saying “crazy shit going on in Wisconsin…this is escalating quickly…high school and university students are having walkouts ALL over the state to support their teachers and family members…. The governor announced the national guard is ready!” The historian Paul Buhle e-mailed from Madison on February 16 that “it seems (for a moment anyway) as if a new era has opened.”
This was a qualitative shift of forces exceeding anyone’s imagination. Only months before, the conservative elements of Wisconsin populism reared up to defeat Senator Russ Feingold, the very embodiment of the La Follette tradition. Tea Party-led Republicans were frothing against Barack Obama and the Democrats for seeming betrayals of their 2008 promises, and Feingold was among the fallen Democrats. No one predicted the governor’s overreach nor the cycle of progressive revolt that soon followed.
Hayden goes on to illuminate the unique cultural roots of Wisconsin’s protest heritage, exemplified in the title of his post:
These examples suggest an important clue to social movements: that cultural or identity factors play a critical role alongside those of class, race and gender. Wisconsin was a homeland for populist, labor and socialist politics among European immigrants a century ago. “Sewer socialism” was a description of the success of Socialist Party mayors, especially German ones, in my parents’ youth. On February 17, Buhle wrote: “As I moved along with the tight-packed crowd, late in the afternoon, coming out of the demonstrator-filled Wisconsin capitol building and passed the statue of Hans Christian Heg [[Norwegian immigrant, Union Army officer] toward the street, I touched the engraved lettering. ‘Fell at Chickamauga.’ It occurred to me that my great-great-grandfather, farmer-abolitionist Ezra Fuller, did not fall at Chickamauga, and that makes me a lucky survivor of another civil war.” (Readers’ guide: Hans Christian Heg joined a Wisconsin militia called “The Wide Awakes,” which tracked down slave-catchers before the Civil War. He joined the abolitionist Republican Party and fought in the Civil War, dying under Confederate fire in 1863. There are at least eight memorials to Heg scattered around Wisconsin towns.)
Not only was immigrant memory a unique factor, but can anyone remember the last time when the forces of law and order have sided with the trespassers in taking over government buildings for weeks at a time? The very legitimacy of Walker’s authority and legislation fell under siege after he threatened to lock the Capitol and deploy the National Guard, a unique moment in modern political history. The daily, months-long cooperation between the Madison and state police, firefighters, teachers, construction workers, students and homeless people far surpasses the momentary links between “Teamsters and Turtles” at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.
Hayden chronicles a marathon sing-along of innovative protest songs inside the state capitol and connects the continuing protest to the 2012 election, urging President Obama to play a more substantial role in encouraging the protests:
The Wisconsin drama is central to the 2012 election, as is the Tea Party Republicans’ broad assault on the base of the Democratic Party, and the state’s place in the Rust Belt electoral vote. Barack Obama won here in 2008 with a healthy 56.22 percent. But having beaten the respected Russ Feingold in 2010, Republicans hope to make it competitive in 2012. Wisconsin is also critical for maintaining Democratic control of the US Senate in 2012. Democratic representative Tammy Baldwin, a strong progressive, would become the first openly gay or lesbian member of the Senate.
Obama had been a regular visitor to Wisconsin until the fight over collective bargaining broke out in February. In a national television interview, he criticized the attack on labor rights, but he has been mostly silent while the drama unfolded. Many speculate that Obama and his advisers are concerned that too close an association with militant labor demonstrations will lose middle-class votes in several swing states. In addition, the president’s team may have believed that class war in Wisconsin was inconsistent with his negotiations to avoid default by achieving a budget deal with the likes of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. For Democrats in Wisconsin, however, the sense of abandonment by the White House has been real, and could erode Obama’s public support in 2012. Even on his Midwest listening tour in August, Obama’s bus rolled right past the Wisconsin border.
“If Obama had come here in February,” says Paul Soglin, “there would have been 150,000 people in ten-degree weather.” Among many labor leaders, John Matthews, the longtime director of the Wisconsin teachers’ union who pushed the original February walkouts, agrees with the need for Obama to step into the battle.
As long as Obama appears to be disengaged, his support is waning in Wisconsin. He must resume his frequent appearances in Wisconsin, or send Vice President Joe Biden or Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Walker’s challenge to Wisconsin Democrats is at the forefront of the Republican challenge to Obama. In addition, Wisconsin will be the center of a hotly contested US Senate race that may determine control of the upper chamber in Washington. “If Elizabeth Warren can beat Scott Brown in Massachusetts and someone like Representative Mazie Hirono wins the open Hawaii seat, Wisconsin will be the key to holding fifty-one seats,” Nichols argues.
Democrats in Wisconsin also need Obama, according to Nichols, to help mobilize the African-American vote in places like Milwaukee to supplement the white liberal forces opposed to Walker’s draconian budget cuts…
As Hayden concludes, “The Tea Party has thrown down the challenge in Wisconsin. Time will tell how well the president can polka.”