We are learning a lot about a changing America, and a changing political landscape, from watching the ongoing story in Wisconsin about legislation that would affect collective bargaining rules for public employees. The story began with public employee unions flexing their muscle. They prevailed upon their members — many of whom apparently called in “sick” — to flood the state capitol in protest. They also prevailed upon Democratic state senators to flee the state and bring the legislative process to a halt due to lack of a quorum.
But then something surprising happened. Yesterday, a counter-demonstration occurred, as thousands of “Tea Party” activists and other citizens came to the state capitol to support Wisconsin’s Republican Governor in his budget-cutting efforts. In all, police estimated that 68,000 people came to the state capitol to either support or oppose the collective bargaining bill, and they did so peacefully. Even more interesting, police report that there were heated arguments between the opposing sides, but no violence.
It is not surprising that teachers and public employees would turn out to protest; their pay and benefits will be directly affected by the outcome. What I think is extraordinary, however, is that thousands of citizens whose interests are not directly affected were motivated to spend a Saturday outside, advocating in support of the budget-cutting efforts of Wisconsin’s governor. It says a lot about the deep level of alarm about out-of-control spending that thousands of people would spend their precious weekend hours at a counter-protest. Wisconsin’s governor, and his Republican allies in the state legislature, must have been encouraged by the strong show of support — which probably is the tip of a much larger iceberg.
It also says something that thousands of people could turn out to support competing sides of a hotly debated issue without violence. The teachers, public employees, and citizens who went to the state capitol to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly look a lot more adult than the Wisconsin Democratic Senators who turned tail and ran out of state rather than participate in the political process as they were elected to do.