Which Wisconsin?

Jeffrey Phelps/AP Images
Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, right, and his Democratic challenger in the recall election, Tom Barrett, before a television debate, Milwaukee, May 31, 2012. Walker won the election on June 5 with 53 percent of the vote to Barrett’s 46 percent.

The campaign to recall Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker (and several state legislators), which has now been decisively lost (except for one state senate seat), began two emotionally bitter winters ago. A piece of Walker-sponsored legislation known as Act 10 was put forward without much public warning: it was a proposal that, among other things, increased state employees’ contributions to their health insurance (causing a substantial cut in their take-home pay) and eliminated public workers’ collective bargaining rights (an exception being made for police and firemen, who had supported Walker’s campaign). This move, something Walker had not initially proposed when he ran for governor, seemed part of a larger right-wing agenda being tried out for national spectators.

Shoved forward during a February thaw, Act 10 was thought to be shrewdly if mischievously timed—a Friday!—but it backfired. The weather was sunny and warm for winter and the organization of rallies began that weekend: Madisonians, a huge portion of whom work in some way for the public sector, and many of whom feel the union is the only thing that has their backs—not only teachers but sanitation workers, prison guards, and hospital workers—took to the streets and marched on the capitol, occupying it for months. They were quickly joined by people from all over the state, as well as by Susan Sarandon and Jesse Jackson.

At that time, the protests were full of surprising unity, even between protesters and police, who would high-five one another in a friendly manner despite the cops being on duty. All was nonviolent. Farmers drove their tractors around the Capitol Square; parents brought their children to show them what civil disobedience looked like, taking photos of the kids holding “Recall” signs. Such teachable moments as family outings were everywhere. Microphones were set up, speeches were given, music was played, chants were chanted, pizza was delivered, drums were drummed. For weeks, people clapped, shouted, and danced.

By St. Patrick’s Day the feeling of angry camp-out and festival was still in the air, though there were more leprechaun costumes and some of the chants had been hijacked by teenaged interlopers: Hear it loud, hear it clear, we want union rights and beer. Nonetheless, it became a source of local civic pride that the protests seemed a direct prompt to the subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement. Some Madisonians would claim the Arab Spring as well. Scott Walker took to wearing a bulletproof vest.

Despite the assertion by journalist David Brooks (and others drawing from the ideas of Cass Sunstein or Bill Bishop) that Americans live in more like-minded communities than ever before and are therefore cut…

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