Madisonian Democracy

Madisonian Democracy

The spirit of democratic protest, so vibrant across the Middle East, has been kindled here in Middle America.


In the previous issue of this magazine, we asked “Where is the outrage?”—at Wall Street’s staggering greed and the political class that feeds it; at the suffering of Americans who have lost their jobs and homes; at the cruelty of the Republican Party, whose latest proposals would slash what remains of the social safety net while protecting the fortunes of its corporate benefactors. Well, ask and ye shall receive. In the span of just two weeks, the spirit of democratic protest—so vibrant across the Middle East—has been kindled here, in middle America. Nowhere is this uprising more electrifying than in Madison, Wisconsin, where as of press, for the sixteenth day in a row, thousands of students, teachers, firefighters, nurses, police and other workers are occupying the city square and the Capitol to cry out against Governor Walker’s plan to end the right of government employees to bargain collectively (see John Nichols, “The Spirit of Wisconsin”).

And the workers of Wisconsin are not alone. They’ve been joined by their peers in Ohio and Indiana, where unionbusting proposals are also being considered, and in solidarity demonstrations from Trenton to Los Angeles. Then there were the fifty-plus actions on February 26 against corporate tax dodger Bank of America, organized by the spunky new outfit US Uncut. Inspired by Johann Hari’s February 21 Nation article “The UK’s Left-Wing Tea Party,” US Uncut hopes to replicate (and exceed!) the success of its sister UK Uncut, which exposed British tax evaders like Topshop and Vodafone. US Uncut’s first target couldn’t have been more fitting: Bank of America, the beneficiary of a $45 billion taxpayer-financed rescue in 2008, paid—ready for this?—$0.00 in taxes the next year. Up next: other giants like Citigroup, Boeing, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo and General Electric, which benefit from government largesse but contribute not a cent to the public coffers.

It’s too early to say where this ferment will go. But there is more hope and fire from below than there has been in years. So why now? Without overplaying the parallels, we note that the demonstrators in Wisconsin and elsewhere undeniably drew courage from Egypt’s January Revolution. A sense of possibility opened; the public square was redrawn as a space for the people. And Egyptians have reciprocated this global kinship by sending pizzas to Madison’s Capitol and by simple declarations of solidarity—“Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers: One World, One Pain.”

Then there’s the utter nakedness of the GOP’s cronyism. Breaking unions or shredding Head Start isn’t about reducing the deficit; it’s about rewarding corporate allies and consolidating power. This transparent overreach has created easy targets: Walker’s bill also contains a blatant gift to one of his chief supporters, Koch Industries, a quid pro quo highlighted by the stomach-turning chumminess of a phone call with a prankster posing as billionaire David Koch. Unlike previous attempts to rally the people, today’s actions have clear villains—corporate bosses and their political lackeys—and clear demands: make big business pay its fair share instead of squeezing the working and middle class.

Finally, there’s sheer desperation. After thirty years of seeing their wealth redistributed upward, Americans are at a tipping point. Without destroying the government services like education and healthcare that most Americans say they want, there’s simply no more money to be extracted from below. The lines are being drawn, and Americans across the country are gearing up to fight for their very futures.

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