Only in the most crudely drawn Orwellian fantasy could the assaults on collective bargaining rights, civil service protections, public education and public services initiated by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in February of 2011 be imagined as the “streamlined” model of liberty that Walker and his adherents imagined. The models in play were those of billionaire campaign donors like the Koch Brothers and their American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporation-funded “bill mill” that had drawn up anti-union, anti-consumer, and, above all, anti-democracy legislation for pliant conservative legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and states across the country to introduce and enact.
There was nothing of liberty to be found in the ALEC agenda. Nor was there anything new about it. This was the old Toryism of King George’s followers, repackaged by the Brothers Koch and the politicians they have hired to make an America fit for billionaires and Birchers.
The financiers of ALEC and a Tea Party movement that has as its purpose the figurative restoration of the British East India Company fortunes that were so affronted at Boston Harbor have adopted the language of reform and revolution. But they are not in the business of giving power to the people. And they are certainly not intent upon breaking the grip of empire, be it kingly or corporate, along the lines intended by those who attended the Tea Party of 1773. Indeed, if there are any self-evident truths in the projects of today’s Tories, they are exposed in their fear of popular democracy, open government, and free elections.
The grievances imposed upon Wisconsin over the past year by Scott Walker and his cronies represented way stations on the road map to ruin, not just for one state but for an American experiment that has always been more fragile than those Paine derided as sunshine patriots would have us imagine.
The stations would not all be reached immediately. But as they were encountered, the scope of the threat became clear: what newly-elected Republican governors and legislators were engaged in was the dismantling and diminishment of popular democracy in one state with the purpose of developing models for a similar dismantling and diminishment in every state and, ultimately, in Washington. It was well recognized, as such, by Wisconsinites, then by their allies in Ohio and other states, and eventually the young people who would gather on Wall Street in the fall of 2011 for the stated purpose of “protecting our democracy.”
The starting point in Wisconsin came where despots invariably begin: with an assault on the right of the disconnected mass of citizens to assemble themselves into the powerful political force that is a strong trade union. The signs at the February, 2011, rallies at the Wisconsin Capitol read “Labor Rights Are Human Rights,” in recognition of the greatest rule for radicals: that the only way to counter organized money, and the oligarchy it seeks to create, is with organized people. Walker’s attack on Wisconsin’s public employee and public education unions was the opening salvo in an assault on democracy that would not end until the elected despots had succeeded in gaming the electoral system so they might never face a meaningful challenge.
David Vines understood, instinctively and immediately, what was at stake.
And he knew what to do.
The University of Wisconsin political science student, who on the February night I met him would join thousands of other Wisconsinites who were sleeping overnight in the capitol to make sure the legislature did not approve Walker’s assault on labor rights without a fight, got a particular subtlety of the Constitution that the political leaders who swear oaths to defend the document’s principles frequently miss.
This was the Madisonian point, the Jeffersonian point.
The Constitution is not just a framework for government with a few defensive statements about basic rights attached. It is a charge to preserve the republic against all enemies foreign and domestic, which outlines in the First Amendment the strategies and tactics—the rules for radicals, if you will—to be employed in such endeavors.
I asked Vines why he and thousands of other students, whose energy, commitment and skills with Twitter and Facebook gave the Wisconsin movement its initial character and strength, had put aside his studies to march, rally, and even sleep in the capitol. He replied, “This is what the founders intended.”
The response was the one James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were waiting for, hoping for as the necessary antidote to the liability of power to abuse and the prospect of “the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776.”
As a defender of the radical reading of the Constitution in essays and books written over the better part of two decades, Vines’ was the response I had always believed could still be mustered, even in an America where so much punditry, so much political positioning, and so much of the money power steers our experiment further and further from its revolutionary moorings.
All the forces of punditry, politics, and the money power were conspiring to thwart a popular response to Walker’s assault on democracy itself.
But the reality of what was happening was not lost on David Vines, or the other students who organized the initial marches in Madison, marches that would ultimately draw hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites into the work of protesting, petitioning, and campaigning against the “kingly oppressions” of Scott Walker’s regime.
This time, the spin that the political and economic elites had developed to scare citizens into sacrificing not just their largesse but their rights was being rejected. When Democratic members of the Wisconsin state senate walked out of the capitol on the night I met Vines, denying the Republican majority the quorum necessary to pass the legislation on the rapid schedule established by the governor, they were attacked by Walker and his cronies. The governor called the boycott a “stunt” and claimed the Democrats were disrespecting democracy.
After all, Walker and his backers noted, the governor and the Republican majorities in the state assembly and senate were freshly arrived from the electoral victories that so many Republicans secured in 2010.
The fact of their success at the polls in the previous November was not open to debate.
But Jefferson warned against placing too much faith in elections, and too little in an active citizenry. “If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves,” the future president counseled in the year of the federal Constitution’s framing.
Those who embraced the Jeffersonian and Madisonian faith in 1787 and across the decades and centuries that followed always recognized this as the essential understanding, and requirement, of citizenship.
Wisconsin’s greatest governor, Robert M. La Follette, expressed this faith when he warned in the era of the robber barons that “we have long rested comfortably in this country upon the assumption that because our form of government was democratic, it was therefore automatically producing democratic results. Now, there is nothing mysteriously potent about the forms and names of democratic institutions that should make them self-operative. Tyranny and oppression are just as possible under democratic forms as under any other. We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”
La Follette’s point, lost on Scott Walker and so many of his conservative apologists but well understood initially by idealistic students but ultimately by the great masses of citizens that filled the capitol and the streets around it to protest an assault on liberty in the winter of 2011, was that democracy does not end on election day. That’s when it begins. Citizens do not elect officials to rule them from one election to the next. Citizens elect officials to represent them, to respond to the popular will as it evolves. And when those officials err against that will, they must legitimately and justifiably suffer the consequence that Jefferson alluded to when he hailed the power of the people to serve as “a censor before which the most exalted tremble for their future.”
Conservative zealots may imagine that violence is the only effective counterbalance to what they perceive as an “elected despotism.” So it was that Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Sharon Angle famously suggested as her 2010 campaign advanced, “You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?”
But the Wisconsinites who took to the streets to protest an assault on labor rights arrived with a deeper understanding of the Constitution’s full promise, rather than a narrow reading of the document as the property of a single ideology.
There are already many assessments of what was done right and what was done wrong in Wisconsin, of which strategies worked and which did not, of genius moves and monumental missteps. But the one great accomplishment of the protests in Madison and cities across Wisconsin was that they renewed an understanding of citizens not merely as voters in elections but as active censors of an elected despotism that can never be allowed to go unchallenged.
The sign David Vines carried as he marched on that Thursday in February, 2011, demanded “First Amendment Remedies!” What did he mean? Read the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The founders, fresh from a revolution against an imperial monarch and his crown corporations, did not outline a right of the people peaceably to assemble so that folks could get together to attend a baseball game, or even to see the Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl.
The founders did not guarantee a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances so that Americans could gripe about cold winters.
The purpose of the First Amendment, the essential amendment for those who believe in a real and robust democratic experiment, was to detail the rights of citizens to object when wrongheaded and dangerous policies are proposed by their elected officials. This is what happened in Wisconsin in those remarkable weeks after Governor Walker announced that he would use a budget repair bill to dismantle labor rights.
Fourteen Democratic state senators, acting not as rulers but as the elected representatives of the people, looked out the windows of the state capitol and saw their constituents assembling peaceably to petition for the redress of grievances. “Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites were demanding to be heard,” explained state senator Mark Miller, the Democratic minority leader in the chamber. “We heard them.”
The senators made the choice to withdraw their consent from the rush to judgment by the Republican leadership of the legislature. They exited the capitol and left the state, denying Republican leaders the quorum they needed to enact Walker’s anti-labor agenda. That provided and providing the time that was needed for a series of protests to evolve into a recall movement that would eventually remove from office Republican senators who did not heed the call of the people — and threaten the tenure of the Republican governor.
Jefferson’s “spirit of resistance” was renewed. Teachers, snowplow drivers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, students, small business owners, and retirees had demanded that their representatives join in that resistance to an elected despotism. And the state senators who recognized that they were the people’s servants, not their masters, responded.
On the February night when it was announced that the fourteen senators had halted the rush to enact the legislation by the end of the week, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites celebrated by chanting what was to become the credo of their movement: “This is what democracy looks like.”
Wisconsinites were employing “First Amendment remedies.” And those remedies were working, perhaps imperfectly, perhaps incompletely, but working still, as the founders intended.
The Constitution was a living document, the Bill of Rights was a functioning force, more than two centuries after the ink dried. The spirit of resistance was afoot in the city named for the essential author of those documents, on the streets named for the founders who joined him in launching the American experiment.
This James Madison would, most certainly, have approved. Indeed, the most fretful of the founders might even have allowed himself to imagine that the experiment would survive the battering it has taken from the elected despots and the tyrannical factions he was so prescient to anticipate, so right to fear, and so wise to guard against. It was Madison who in 1789 equipped patriots with the rights they would require to challenge an elected despotism And it was in a city named for Madison that the tools were employed by the true descendants of the generation of 1776, for whom a bill of rights was written not as mere protection but as a call to maintain the spirit of resistance that has ever been America’s greatest glory and surest hope.