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The Wisconsin Uprising

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The following is an excerpt from John Nichols' new book The Uprising published by Nation Books/Perseus

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.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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