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Paul Grant


Neighbor Against Neighbor in Wisconsin

In this conflict, the state's distinctive history matters.

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No one has better articulated the political moment in Wisconsin than the student in my discussion section who raised his hand and asked if he could please join the walk-out. When I replied that rebels don't ask permission, he said: "I just want to do what's right."

This interaction embodied for me the discrepancy between the mood on the streets and the national conversation. While the media have reduced 70,000 protesters to labor activists, while the governor has cast his effort as a revival of Ronald Reagan's union-busting, and while would-be presidential candidates have been weighing in, this conflict remains at heart a local story. It is about the culture of public spaces and public works in a quirky state. It is about who we are, and who we are becoming. And it is tearing us apart, here in Wisconsin.

Families are fighting, and communities are divided unlike anything we have seen in decades. I do not presume to know how the art of the possible is best practiced. But as a Christian—as an evangelical who believes in family and love of neighbor—I see evil here. Not so much in the governor's proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, and drastically shrink the Medicaid budget, and sell off state energy assets without a bidding process, although I disagree with all of these. Governor Walker, elected in November, is proposing legislation. That's part of democracy. But our public sphere extends far beyond the political sphere, and includes everything from community choirs to self-policing snowmobile trails across private property. All of these derive from a culture of consensus: we can talk things through, because consensus is not just a tool—it's an asset, worth more than its weight in gold.

In his effort to pass a philosophically purist bill, the governor has turned neighbors against each other. By telling us that our sewer workers and schoolteachers and librarians are lazy and greedy, he has set the terms of the debate in the worst possible way. It is a wound that will outlive his tenure by a long shot.

In 21st-century America, 70,000 people do not hit the streets in sub-freezing temperatures for political strategy. Policy does not motivate like that anymore. What does motivate is emotion: anger, joy, fear, loathing, celebration, and so on. Recent years around here have seen large-scale rallies over immigration, marriage, war, and, of course, the Green Bay Packers. But nothing close to this: singing, chanting, dancing crowds, filling the downtown streets with passion, pushing their strollers and waving their flags and beating their drums. These are not union thugs, student radicals, commies, or "out of staters," although some of those types are here. No one who has watched these protests up close can fail to notice that the vast majority of the people on the streets are everyday Wisconsinites.

Wisconsin's history is unique in the United States. Admitted to the Union in 1848, the same year as the failed revolutions in Germany, the new state was immediately attractive to large numbers of German socialists. These folks combined militancy with a German penchant for community development. Among their ranks were people like Margarethe and Carl Schurz, revolutionary refugees. After settling in Wisconsin, he joined the abolition movement—eventually becoming a general in the Union army—while she founded the country's first kindergarten.

In the 1870s, waves of Scandinavians and Germans came, motivated this time by poverty. These were the builders, the people who brought their Northern European instincts for consensus-building and cooperation to bear on their projects. It is because of them that Wisconsin is stacked with credit unions, farmers markets, co-ops of every variety, native grass seed exchanges, strong public libraries, and impressive music departments in tiny rural high schools. Largely Lutheran and Catholic, the bedrock Wisconsin way of doing culture is to blur the boundaries between public and private. Play your music too loud, and you can expect to be told: "this isn't that kind of neighborhood." Not "you're intruding in my space" but "you're intruding in our space."

Why does this matter? It helps explain the anger of the moment. We are seeing a collision of distinct traditions of political conversation—one grounded in mainstream American traditions of brinkmanship, and another drawing on midwestern traditions of consensus-building. It is not insignificant that Governor Walker was born in Colorado Springs to a Baptist minister: he represents national political cultures.

In other words, the Wisconsin fight is not a ground zero. It is first and foremost a local fight reflecting local cultural change. And it is most interesting exactly for that reason. National categories such as liberal or conservative are not very helpful here. This isn't Berkeley liberalism, centered on free speech. Nor is it Ronald Reagan liberalism, dedicated to rugged individualism. A Wisconsin economist was the father of Social Security; a Wisconsin governor founded Earth Day. This is a liberalism that is quite conservative, because it is dedicated to taking care of our most precious assets.

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