Cheese, Brats, Beer, Polka, Unions! The Homegrown Revolution in Wisconsin
The common demand, says six-time Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, is “fairness,” a phrase broad enough to include collective bargaining rights, resistance to cuts in education and public services, the steady privatizing of the university, and deep populist rage against Wall Street, corporate power and particularly the billionaire Koch brothers, who are considered the deep pockets behind the Republican strategy.
The Wisconsin demands are, on the one hand, for a restoration of well-established rights, but the fervor here contains a revolutionary spirit that should make Wall Street Republicans—and timid Democrats—shudder at the force they have awakened. When old labor and progressive songs are intertwined with the deepest of local identities, the ghosts of an earlier time are being born anew.
On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin!
For schools and public workers,
Here we make our stand.
Fight, fight, fight!
On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin!
La Follette’s home,
Beneath the dome,
We sing to thee!
As I was taking notes on the Capitol steps, a pleasant middle-aged woman standing next to me introduced herself as my cousin, Maureen, “one of the Garitys of Oconomowoc.” It wasn’t an utter shock, more a pleasant surprise, since family ties and connected networks go deep in this Wisconsin movement. My mother was indeed a Garity, one of eleven sisters and a single brother, whose distant forbears included Emmett and Owen Garity. Several of the Garitys are buried in Sullivan Township near Oconomowoc, a town of 10,000 off the interstate between Madison and Milwaukee, amidst the lakes and railroad tracks where I spent my boyhood summers. The Garity farm was an outpost on the Underground Railroad.
Maureen turned out to be a state worker who was personally insulted by Walker’s early decision to take back the rotunda with troopers, metal detectors and padlocks. For Maureen, the Capitol and its massive rotunda have never been an alienating citadel of power but a “people’s house” which has always been open. The association goes back to the days of Governor La Follette who famously threw the doors open to the people during the Progressive Era.
As we exchanged family stories, the spirited rally on the steps seemed to be coming to an end. The thousands didn’t pick up their signs and trudge away, however, but instead picked up their energy and were led by the firefighters’ marching band, straight into the domed center of the building under the relaxed eyes of the police. This was the new normal of participatory democracy, and it happened twice on this particular day. Earlier, between noon and 1 pm, I stood with 250 people who took over the rotunda space for the 141st consecutive day (some said it was the 144th). There they belted out twenty-four revised protest longs in a “solidarity sing-along.” Paul Buhle pronounced it the longest such sing-along in the history of the world, with lyrics such as these:
I never knew how much I loved Wisconsin
’Til I stood in the Capitol dome
Signs on the walls and drums in the halls…
All of us standing together
Teachers in red, cops in blue
Hundreds of thousands
Show people have power
So tell me are are we gonna do?
Scotty, we’re coming for you!
The sing-along ended promptly, followed immediately by couples breaking into polka dancing. (Readers’ guide: not to be confused with a square dance, the polka was a dance craze among immigrants to Wisconsin that “coincided with the political and social upheavals of the 1840s,” according to a PBS history. “In elite Paris salons and in humble village squares and taverns, polka dancers flaunted their defiance of the staid dance forms, the minuets and quadrilles, which had preceded this raucous and, for the times, scandalous new dance.”
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.
The Tea Party has thrown down the challenge in Wisconsin. Time will tell how well the president can polka.