’Tis the season for lists. And so it should come as no surprise that the Politico, the Washington-insider journal that covers every aspect of national politics, has offered up a Boxing Day analysis of “2012’s Top Unanswered Questions.”

What is surprising, and significant, is that the first item on the Politico list does not involve a Congressional or presidential race.

Rather, it focuses on a fight in the states, where the direction of the nation is being determined by pitched battles between right-wing Republican governors and defenders of public education and public services.

Politico’s top unanswered question for 2012 was: “Can Democrats claim a scalp in Wisconsin?”

Putting aside the clichéd and offensive “get a scalp” language, the analysis turns attention to what will indeed be one of the great political battles of the coming year.

“Few are more reviled in Democratic circles than Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who this year forced through a controversial law that significantly curtailed the power of organized labor. Democrats have responded with an aggressive push to put Walker on the ballot in a recall—a battle [t]hat would excite the party’s liberal base and lure an army of deep-pocketed outside groups from both sides of the aisle. Walker, for his part, has already spent about $4 million on TV ads in an effort to polish his image,” writes the online publication. “Walker’s ouster would mark another dramatic victory for labor in its fight against a crop of newly elected Republican governors who have sought to slash collective-bargaining rights. In November, Ohio voters approved a repeal of SB-5, an anti-labor bill championed by Governor John Kasich.”

True enough on the question of significance. There is no question that Walker’s removal would send powerful political signals. The governor himself has admitted as much in recent interviews.

But Politico errs when it sees the fight in narrowly partisan terms. What is happening in Wisconsin and, frankly, a lot of other states, goes beyond Democratic and Republican positioning. The overwhelming support for the recall drive in rural counties that backed Walker in 2010 offers a strong indication that of the more than 500,000 signatures already collected on petitions seeking to recall Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, tens of thousands have come from voters who have until recently identified themselves as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, and who still think of themselves as conservatives.

Walker did not merely pick a partisan fight when he attacked public-sector unions, public services and public education. Rather, he attacked the underpinnings of civil society. While it is true that there are hardcore Republican partisans who imagine that attacking collective-bargaining rights represents a legitimate political tactic, there are also principled Republicans and conservatives who understand that the right to organize a union and to bargain for wages and benefits is one of the basic measures of whether a nation errs toward freedom or totalitarianism.

So Politico is right to suggest that the Wisconsin fight is significant, and that the results of the recall voting will send essential signals about the direction of individual states and the nation. But those results will not merely indicate that Democrats are up or Republicans are down. They will sound a note of encouragement or caution for governors and legislators—be they Republicans or Democrats—who would pick fights with public-sector unions. And they will tell us whether the assault on public services and public education will stall or accelerate.

Wisconsin is going to hold a “Which Side Are You On?” election. And the sides are not limited to the narrow Democrat-versus-Republican choice that typifies American politics. While candidates will run on party lines, this test will go far deeper. Fundamental issues for a free society will be decided—chief among them the question of whether the 99 percent of Americans who built this nation have a right to push back against the unreasonable demands of multinational corporations and the overprivileged 1 percent.