Wisconsin Recall: We Are What Democracy Looks Like

With less than a week to go in Wisconsin’s effort to collect signatures for the Walker recall, many of us are understandably turning our thoughts to who will run against him in the upcoming election.

Honestly, the first thought that has come to mind every time I’ve considered the question is Russ Feingold. But Feingold has said repeatedly that he will not run for public office in 2012. And although I know that many politicians say one thing and mean another, I think Russ’s resolve is quite firm in this respect. In a mid-December interview with Charles Benson of TMJ4 in Milwaukee, Feingold said he feels more a part of real change now than he did as a senator.

Here’s exactly what he said: “I feel more a part of real change now than I did even as a senator.” Think about that for a minute. What Feingold is saying is that real change comes not so much from elected officials as from the people. You know–€”us.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter who runs against Walker. It does. And we do need to talk about that. But before we get going full tilt on that, we need to remind ourselves of something even more important: where real transformation comes from.

Think about who you were, who we were, before Walker unleashed his draconian agenda on the people of Wisconsin last February.

I didn’t know the names of any state legislators but my own. I hardly ever spared a thought for state politics. Whenever there was an election, I did my best to catch up with the candidates and the issues. But it’s not really possible to do that in just a few days. I was woefully out of touch.

When I first learned about Walker’s devastating “budget repair” bill, I firmly expected that people would be angry and would complain for a while and then continue going about their business as though nothing had happened.

But then a miracle happened.

From seemingly out of nowhere, thousands of us—hundreds of thousands of us–€”gathered on the Capitol Square. Day. After. Day. We brought with us our signs, our outrage, our indignation, our sense of fairness, our determination, our sense of humor, our hats and mittens, and our friends, neighbors, kids, and grandparents. The people of Wisconsin woke up and rose up, and anyone who was there will never be the same again.

We have sloughed off our complacency and have our sights firmly set on transforming our state into the beacon of progressive values it has long been and will be again. No politician, no candidate for governor, can do for Wisconsin what we can. It won’t be enough to elect a progressive governor. It won’t be enough to flip the state senate and the assembly. No matter how hard we have worked collecting signatures, no matter how hard we work on the recall election, it won’t be enough if we don’t continue doing the work of democracy.

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I have confidence in the transformation that has taken place in Wisconsin. Our sleeves are rolled up, and they will stay rolled up. We will remain vigilant on behalf of our neighbors and our children, our parents and grandparents. We will not stop insisting that the progressive values we prize most are not compromised. All this because we have learned a lesson we will never forget:

We are what democracy looks like.

The Transformative Power of Protest

This weekend HuffPost ran a piece by Steven van Zandt called “There Is Only One Issue in America,” that one issue being the financing of public elections. I can think of many important issues other than that one, and I am naturally skeptical of solutions that seem to come with “it’s so simple” stamped on them. Still, this one issue is unquestionably a biggie.

But here is what really raised my hackles:

Yes, we can demonstrate. We can march. We can write and sign petitions to our Representatives. We can occupy.

And we should because it’s healthy to vent, and we don’t feel so all alone. But the truth is, other than the value of venting, we’re wasting our time. It is naïve to expect political results from any of these activities.

The results of political demonstrations and marches are seldom immediately apparent. But they are legion. They are not merely “venting.” They are not just an opportunity to not “feel so all alone.” They are an opportunity to be not “so all alone.” What did the demonstrations in Madison last February and March accomplish? What has the Occupy movement accomplished?

They have galvanized people. They have forged connections and built a community of resistance. They have transformed us into a formidable force to be reckoned with that won’t back down and won’t settle for the status quo.

Of course, demonstrations and protests on their own aren’t enough. But they do indeed lead to some very desirable outcomes. They build awareness and stir us from our complacency. They change the direction and tone of public discourse. They cause us to identify and align ourselves with our communities in a new way. They provide us with the opportunity to teach our children what democracy looks like, to teach them who we are, while at the same time affirming that for ourselves. For some of us, representing in actions like these has been an all-out life-changing experience. We are new people, with new connections and new vision, new knowledge and understanding, new determination, and a new appreciation for the power that We The People actually do wield but far too often relinquish.

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In Wisconsin, the recall efforts of this summer and the current Walker recall efforts would not have happened without the demonstrations of February and March. Those who are working so hard right now to collect signatures wouldn’t have as much energy or focus had they not participated in last winter’s demonstrations. The visceral experience of not being alone in our outrage convinced many of us of how much we could accomplish together and how truly excellent our compadres are. The protests were a breath of fresh air to those who are being disenfranchised, ignored, and abandoned by the ruling elite. They were like a giant hug for every public school teacher in the state. They were an acknowledgment to the world that we are here, we are strong, and we are fighting back—together.

I’m sorry you missed out on all the fun, Steven. The demonstrations here in Madison and in Zucotti Park have been far from a waste of time. They haven’t had the direct effect on those in power that we envision—yet. But they most definitely have had a powerful effect on everyone who participated in them. We will never be the same again. The power brokers won’t let go of their stranglehold quickly or easily. But they are worried. About us. About what we’re going to do next. Because they know they cannot withstand the tsunami that is the unrelenting power of the people.