Tom Paine wrote at the toughest moment of the American revolutionary struggle: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
On Saturday, in Madison, Wisconsin, there was plenty to be thankful for.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the paid spokeswoman for the tepid Tea Party movement, jetted into Madison for what was supposed to be a victory party. Unofficial returns released Friday for the state’s highly controversial Supreme Court race show the candidate of conservative Republican Governor Scott Walker leading his until-recently-unknown challenger by a 50.2 to 49.8 margin prior to an anticipated recount. And, though implementation of Walker’s anti-union agenda remains stymied by a court order, the governor is freshly returned from a star turn before a Congressional committee in Washington where every effort was made to suggest that he had effectively overwhelmed the mass opposition that his proposals have inspired in Wisconsin.
That’s not much in the way of good news for Walker, whose personal approval ratings have tanked, and whose Republican legislative allies now face recall elections that could cost the party control of the state Senate. But the spin doctors were ready to claim some kind of momentum.
All that was needed was a great big rally to seal the deal, or so Walker’s allies and funders—particularly the billionaire Koch brothers, who paid for Saturday’s event via their generous donations to the group Americans for Prosperity. And Palin was brought in to pull the crowd.
As it happened, she did pull a crowd—but most of those present were critics of the Palin-Walker agenda.
Walker may have had Palin—even if the governor chose to attend a bridge-naming event outside Madison, rather than be photographed with the Alaskan. But Walker’s critics had the numbers.
Madison’s ABC News affiliate reported that “pro-union labor supporters surrounded smaller groups of tea party members waiting for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to appear outside the Wisconsin Capitol” while the NBC affiliate reported: “A solid core of tea partiers were near the stage, but they were flanked on all sides by union protesters who have dominated protests at the Capitol for months. The tea party folks had the microphone, but the crowd had the volume, literally and figuratively.”
What happened? Wasn’t Palin supposed to be the rock star that rallied conservatives on what she called “the frontlines in the battle for our country”?
When Palin got to the frontlines, she was greeted not with a warm embrace but with a throngs of Wisconsinites holding signs that read: “Grizzlies Are Not a Native Species,” “The Mad Hatter Called… He Wants His Tea Party Back,” “I Can See Stupid From My Condo” and “Wisconsin Loves Tina Fey!”—a reference to the comic who famously parodied Palin on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
To be clear, there were Palinites present. What was surprising—in a state where the political climate is charged, and where there are genuine divisions—was that there were not more of them.
After a week of relatively mild weather, Saturday came wind-blown and bitter cold with freezing rain turning to snow by the time Palin wearing designer clothes and a grimace. Instead of the masses of Tea Partisans that had been predicted, the group the former governor addressed outside the state Capitol filled a 20-foot-by-35-foot space between a riser packed with television cameras and a stage area where organizers with money to burn had erected an entirely unnecessary big-screen TV and concert speakers.
Even if the Tea Partisans packed into the space as tightly as possible, they could not have numbered more than 600 or 700. Local concert promoter Tag Evers, who has organized hundreds of events over the years (including some of the recent rallies at the Capitol) and has an eye for crowds, put the number of Palin enthusiasts at 500. Defending Wisconsin PAC’s Jeremy Ryan announced after rallying against Palin that “there were probably about 500 of them…and 5,000 of us.… Even when they bus people in from other states, they still can’t form a majority.”
But let’s be generous. Let’s say that, with the Tea Partisans who were outside the enclosed and heavily policed area where Palin spoke, the supporters of Governor Walker’s agenda numbered 1,000.
That would mean that the Tea Partisans were outnumbered more than five-to-one by the mass of anti-Walker protesters that surrounded the Palin event, ringing cowbells and shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as the Alaskan delivered a speech that focused mainly on national issues. In her briefreferences to Wisconsin, Palin offered Orwellian rewrites of reality, such as a claim that: “[Walker’s] not trying to hurt union members. Hey, folks he’s trying to save your jobs and your pensions.”
Though it was organized in only a matter of hours, the protest against Palin and Walker easily overwhelmed the gathering of those who came to support the former Alaska governor and the recall-threatened Wisconsin governor. Police estimated that roughly 6,500 people were on the Capitol Square Saturday, and everywhere you looked there were firefighters, police officers, teachers, public employees, farmers, small business owners and their allies who had come to wave signs that read: “Scott—Pull a Palin—Quit!”
Worried that the media might miss the real story of Saturday, Madisonian Bill Bunke said, “I hope the cameras they’ve got focused on Palin turn around and tell the real story of what happened today.”
That’s a tall order, as Palin and the Tea Party continue to enjoy inflated coverage not just from conservative media outlets such as Fox News—the subject of posters carried by union activists that read “Fox Will Lie About This” and “According to Fox I’m Not Here”—but also mainstream national media outlets that present Palin, a failed vice presidential candidate who resigned her governorship, as a serious spokesperson for the right.
But the crowd that surrounded the Tea Party event knew how things played out Saturday on Palin’s “frontlines.” They were declaring victory as the Alaskan was jetting out of town. “Who would have thought that Sarah Palin would give this movement a boost?” joked Terry Fritter, a veteran United Food and Commercial Workers union activist who has attended most of the anti-Walker rallies at the Capitol.
Fritter started his day at a rally on the opposite side of the Capitol from the Palin event. Organized by the Wisconsin Wave coalition that brings together union, environmental and community groups, the rally featured all Wisconsin speakers—unlike the Tea Party event—and was addressed by newly elected Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who noted the dramatically larger turnout by union members and their allies.
Soglin was not alone in noting the distinction. The energy and volume of the thousands who came to protest Palin (and Walker) unsettled many of the speakers at the Tea Party event. A local consrvative talk-radio host shouted from the stage that union backers should “shut up.” The controversial blogger Andrew Breitbart, one of many national conservative figures flown in for the event, told the union members and their allies to “go to hell.”
But while the sunshine patriots huddled near the Palin stage may have taken some solace from the taunts, the winter soldiers were unbothered and unbowed. “They’re mad because we outnumber them,” said Fritter. “They’re mad because we’re not backing down.”
That is as Paine would have it. The Wisconsin democracy movement is young and there will be plenty of setbacks as it develops energy and focus. But, as the pamphleteer noted in The Crisis, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”