"You will live in the history books!” Michael Moore shouted from the rotunda of the state Capitol to the thousands of Wisconsin workers, teachers and their allies who had come Saturday to protest against Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public sector unions and public services. Speaking without a microphone, in a voice that was worn but enthusiastic after addressing tens of thousands of protesters outside the Capitol, Moore told the crowd inside: “You have inspired so many people. You have inspired the whole country. I just had to come and thank you.”
In response came the now familiar chants of “Thank you! Thank you!” that greet every speaker who gets what this uprising in Wisconsin is all about.
And Moore does get it. He gets it in a fundamental sense, the sense of having waited a very long time for some mass of citizens, somewhere in America, to say: “We have had it!"
A dream deferred long enough can give way, even in the most optimistic and hopeful of Americans, to cynicism and despair.
Three weeks ago, the smart bet was that the economic powers that be would score another victory, perhaps their greatest victory of recent years, in the progressive heartland of Wisconsin. Walker had proposed to strip state, county and municipal workers, as well as teachers, of their collective bargaining rights. Union leaders and members were in shock. This was the most aggressive assault on the free speech and freedom of association rights of working people Wisconsin has ever seen. And it was the beginning of a national push to undermine the political power of unions to such an extent that the balance would permanently tip toward corporations, which were freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling to spend whatever they like on the buying of election results.
It wasn’t just the naïve and disconnected punditocracy that imagined Walker was certain to win the day. Many of the governor’s most ardent critics doubted that his move would stir much more than a moan of mixed indignation and resignation. Instead, the governor’s overreach was met with something unprecedented in recent American history: a push back from working Americans that developed into a movement that has stalled Walker’s initiative and, as Moore says, “aroused a sleeping giant—the working people of the United States of America.”
This is what matters about the uprising in Wisconsin. Working families were battered before Walker announced his plan. Working families will be battered no matter what happens in Wisconsin. Much is needed—the renewal of manufacturing towns, the restoration of rural communities, the re-establishment of progressive taxation and accountability for banks and speculators to balance budgets and usher in an era when government works for the people rather than billionaire campaign contributors. All of what must be accomplished is at the other end of the arc of history that is being bent in Wisconsin.
But the arc has begun to bend toward justice. Something fundamental has shifted. And Moore came to Wisconsin because he recognizes how precious this moment is, not just in a political sense, not just in an economic sense, but in an emotional and idealistic sense. It is possible to believe again.
What Wisconsin has provided is a response to the closing scene of Moore’s remarkable 2009 documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. After Moore has gone to Wall Street to try to get America’s money back, after he has marked off a “crime scene” where hundreds of billions of tax dollars were diverted to bail out the very banks and corporations that caused the financial meltdown of 2008, he speaks to the American people about how frustrating it is that such wrongdoing has not inspired an uprising on the part of working Americans.