Wisconsin - where? what? who? why?

Is Democracy a neutral mechanism?
Wrinkled Weasel

Scott Walker, Governer of Wisconsin
Wisconsin is a state in the US.  That much most people in Britain know. A look at the map reveals it is Northern and that in the East it is bordered by Lake Michigan and has just over five and a half million residents. Its capital is Madison and the largest city is Milwaukee.

So much for the geography lesson. The "what" is what is going on there to make me interested enough to write about it.

Ripon, Wisconsin
If you visit a place called Ripon, you will discover a little white clapboard house. Ripon boasts less than eight thousand residents but it also has the benefit of being the "birthplace" of the Republican Party. The Mayor has a blog, just like me, but he has not updated it since November 4th, 2009. I can only assume he got fed up with the blog, but he has a tagline. (We all like a good tagline)

A place to share and exchange ideas, ask questions and think out loud - Please feel free to leave your comments and ideas. Be nice, be polite.

It's a nice tagline, but unfortunately, the Mayor of Ripon has neglected to allow a comment facility, and besides, Mayor Aaron Kramer retired from office in January 2010.

Aaron Kramer is probably not someone you are going to bring up in any conversation anytime soon, but this sort of detail paints a picture. After all, we are discussing real people in a place far away, out of mind, out of sight. But tonight, Aaron Kramer will tuck his kids into bed and maybe chew on a Rye Krisp cracker and Smucker's peanut butter, because both commodities are made in or near Ripon and I imagine that former Mayor Kramer to be the kind of guy who feels it is important to support local business and not worry too much about his waistline.

You will of course have heard of Senator Joe McCarthy. His name has the kind of synonymity that Hitler would die for. Even today his name is being used as a byword for Senate hearings into the Radicalisation of American Muslims.

So perhaps, with the state being the birthplace of the Republican Party, and the McCarthy connection, it would not surprise you to find that the current governer, one Scott Walker, is a Republican, even though Wisconsin is considered a "swing" state.

Why do you need to know? Well, Scott Walker has engineered what has become a highly controversial victory over public sector workers in Milwaukie. Essentially he has removed the right to collective bargaining. He has done this by getting a majority vote in circumstances that appear somewhat baroque to even the jaded critics of our British Parliament.

Under the bill, known as the Budget Repair Bill, now passed, public sector unions will not be able to bargain for health and pension benefits, and will be limited in what they can seek in pay raises. They can also, now opt out of paying union dues which was compulsory whether you were in a union or not. A technical rule of the local law required that fiscal measures required a quorum to pass it, causing 14 Democrats to flee across the state line. The reasons are again, somewhat recondite, but essentially they tried to boycott the bill and failed. Gover Scott Walker signed it on Friday. If you want a fuller explanation of the law and what the implications are, which go far deeper than a bit of union reform, look here:


Again, this would not be particularly newsworthy were it not for the mayem and anger that the bill caused. Rival factions have been vocal and on occasion physical, in their thousands, out on the street of Milwaukee. Scott Walker publicly did not rule out calling out the National Guard.

It is seen in the States as a battle between the rule of law, by Republicans and the right of collective bargaining, by the Democrats. Republicans have even rolled out the British exemplar of the battle between democracy, as they see it, and the rule of the mob, that of the miners' strikes, led by Arthur Scargill. One right-wing commenter quotes Thatcher:

There has come into existence a fashionable view, convenient to many special interest groups, that there is no need to accept the verdict of the majority: that the minority should be quite free to bully, even coerce, to get the verdict reversed...Now that democracy has been won, it is not heroic to flout the law of the land as if we struggled in a quagmire where civilization had yet to be built.  The concept of fair play - a British way of saying 'respect for the rules' - must not be used to allow the minority to overbear the tolerant majority.  Yet these are the very dangers which we face in Britain today...

Now, that there is no doubt that had the Democrats attended they vital session, they would have lost and the mass migration was designed to sink the bill, but the Republicans tweaked it, and as policiticians do, they simply found a form of words that they could point to and tell the public that what they were doing was legal. Even the opposition admit this: "I think we're screwed," observed a union member.

This issue comes down to the kind of tension that communities are experiencing everywhere, to be specific, the tension between a public spending deficit, and the need to reduce it and the erosion of rights, jobs and bargaining abilities of public sector employees.

There have been claims, by the Democrats, that the bill does not have popular support. This may or may not be true, but the people of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker and elected a majority Republican legislature, regardless of manifesto omissions. There is no doubt that the flimsy fibre of democracy is beign stretched.

On the left, of course the liberals are coming out in force and the usual suspects, such as Rev Jesse Jackson have trotted over to Milwaukee to rally the antis, but to get to the core of the argument, perhaps it is best left to this writer from the Huffington Post:

This is the most important fight of our lives. Despots and wannabe dictators always try to destroy unions so they can assume complete control. This fight is about our democracy and it is up to us to save our democracy and our nation's future.
(Stewart Acuff, Utility Workers Union of America)

It interests me that both sides claim this is a fight about democracy. And yet, it should not be. Democracy, for what it is worth, takes place when a Governer is elected. He wins by a simple majority and has de facto carried the will of the majority.

To somehow claim that democracy is the privilege of a minority, however noisy, is preposterous. The Republicans won. No use crying about it now. In order to win they used the mechanism that the opposition signed up to. The Democrats would not be moaning now, if they had won, that the very fabric of democracy was under threat. They too signed up to a mechanism that is becoming increasingly susceptible to subversion and corruption. It would be better to ask if the concept of democracy is a neutral concept, because this to me seems to be the issue. And it is always the minority party who shouts loudest and claims "unfair", regardless of whether that minority is Republican or Democrat. You have stick with the programme if you are to give it any degree of absolute credibility, through good times and bad.

We in the UK have now seen how Democracy is a neutral mechanism, but by its very nature it is  a glib solution and only of use once every four or five years. The rest of the time, politicians do as they please. And so, citizens of Milwaukee, I suggest you forget your current line of attack, and think a little deeper about by what mechanisms the kind of rights and freedom you seek can be gotten. For, democracy does not seem to be working.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that democracy does not work and hasn't for some time. Scott Walker's decision to break down unions will over time detriment the people of Wisconsin and favor the interests of a powerful few. Main behind the scene players in this decision were the Koch brothers. Their roots run deep in the tea party and other right wing movments in the US. They have ambitious libretarian goals that will leave many in the dirt in the spirit of free markets, aka privatization of basic human needs/rights (water, electric, roads). Democracy has shifted so much in the past 200 years and if we are still around in the next 200 any glimpse of democracy won't.