In this report for Dissent, Paul and Mary Jo Buhle capture the essence of a genuine social movement in Wisconsin, which, so far, is surging from a well of popular discontent far wider than the bounds of the organized progressive and labor movements. It is this striking combination of a determined popular uprising, combined with the institutional resources of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and labor unions, which might turn Wisconsin around and stop the Tea Party in their tracks. Though receiving far less coverage than the Occupy movement, Wisconsin’s occupation of its “people’s capitol” and subsequent occupation of the state’s precincts is what makes the events historic, unique, and deserving of support from all across America.
One Million Signatures (and More) To Turn America Around
The scene on January 17 in Monona Terrace—a community center realized on Frank Lloyd Wright’s blueprint—was not quite pandemonium. Actually, the several thousand Wisconsonites representing all seventy-two counties in the state, coming to Madison on a snowy day to deliver their boxes of petitions, were orderly, considering the occasion. They were celebrating the impressively successful outcome of a campaign to recall the state’s GOP governor, Scott Walker, which resulted in more than one million signatures. The crowd occasionally booed the governor, who was in New York City raising money at an event hosted by the former CEO of AIG for the campaign now forced on him. Mostly, they cheered one another and the speakers on stage.
The head of the state Democratic Party, Mike Tate, celebrated the grassroots character of the recall campaign. He insisted that this was not a “Democratic Party” project but a people’s movement. Of course, he was right. The Democrats cooperated by setting up field offices or using their own storefronts to coordinate the collection of recall petitions. But it was the volunteers who filled the ranks, keeping Twitter and Facebook alive with calls to join in. In the end, 30,000 volunteers hit the streets to gather the signatures.
If a single hero could be found it was Lori Compas, who chaired the uphill campaign to recall one of Governor Walker’s chief operatives, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had served so long in the legislature and with so much support from his district in southeastern Wisconsin that the Democratic Party thought it futile to try to unseat him. Compas would not be deterred. She managed to rally enough circulators in a “FitzBlitz” to collect, in her words, an “overwhelming” and “decisive” number of signatures. The celebrants at Monona Terrace cheered her wildly. Compas waved quickly and moved off stage, while ardent admirers called on her to run for Fitzgerald’s seat.
At the end of the program, Nation contributing editor John Nichols won repeated, almost continual, ovations. He claimed seven generations of Wisconsinites in his family, and promised yet more. His winsome daughter, Whitman, danced around the stage as he talked, snapping photos of the crowd.
Nichols spoke with passion of Wisconsin’s progressive legacy in the life of Robert M. LaFollette. Governor and then senator in the first decades of the twentieth century, LaFollette had paved the way for the recall movement. He described the initiative as a fundamental measure of democracy. The citizens must enjoy the right and possess the means to recall officials when they had betrayed the public trust. It was, LaFollette insisted, the duty of citizens to recall them.
Nichols reminded the celebrants of LaFollette’s legacy. If Wisconsinites are to meet the enemies of democracy and overwhelm them, it will not be by money (as the GOP chose for its course), but by the will of the people. At that moment, the tally of one million signatures put that goal in reach.
Perhaps the most impressive element, as in the many demonstrations that began mid-February 2011, was the gemutlichkeit of the crowd. The happiness was nearly palpable. Midwesterners who likely had quaffed more than their share of Wisconsin beer on one occasion or another, ingested too many brats and cheese curds—they were the over-salted salt of the north country earth. They knew each other by sight (pale) and heavy winter clothing. They waved, they hugged. They knew that gathering a million signatures was not a last but a first step following the occupation of the Capitol and the massive demonstrations of the spring. They were ready to take Wisconsin back and deliver a message to the nation at large.
Who would actually run against Walker? At a guess, and unless former Senator Russ Feingold can be persuaded, the likely candidates are Tim Cullen, Democratic state senator, David Obey, former congressman, or Kathleen Falk, a former Dane County executive. In this political moment, and despite the anticipated heavy Republican spending on media, any one of them could win.
The celebration closed with the Learning Curve, a ragtag group of musicians taking over the stage. Many in the crowd recognized the band from its regular appearance at the Solidarity Sing-Along, which has taken place at the Capitol every weekday since the demonstrations began last February. As if on cue, they all joined in to belt out “Solidarity Forever,” raising their fists at every chorus. Then they made a quick exit to begin what was for many a very long drive home in the winter night ahead.
Paul and Mari Jo Buhle are retired from Brown University, and coeditors of It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest (Verso).