Posted by: Jeff | February 17, 2011

On Wisconsin!

The protests wracking the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, this week are kind of amazing to watch.  Responding to Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed bill to freeze benefits and reduce agency of state employees in negotiating health care and pension benefits, thousands have taken to the streets to protest.  There are a number of reasons this is a fascinating phenomenon.

The first is the shadow of Egypt.  When protestors chased authoritarian regimes out of Tunisia and Cairo over the past month, there was no doubt that it would send a message rippling all across the world.  Who knew that those ripples would land on the shores of Lakes Mendota and Monona?  Gov. Walker himself may have had some idea, as he indicated that he would be alerting the National Guard to the potential for unrest when he sent his budget bill to the Wisconsin state legislature.  Protestors, too, have been quick to liken the authoritarian Mubarak regime to the new Governor in Madison.

Clearly this analogy is wracked with problems – primary among them that the voters of Wisconsin actually put Walker in power as recently as four months ago.  But now even prominent members of the Wisconsin GOP are embracing the analogy:

Host Mika Brzezinski asked [Rep. Paul] Ryan [R-WI] what he made of the protests and Walker’s “stand.”

“He is basically saying, state workers, which have extremely generous benefit packages relative to their private sector counterparts, they contribute next to nothing to their pensions, very, very little in their health care packages,” Ryan responded “He’s asking that they contribute about 12% for their health care premiums, which is about half of the private sector average, and about 5.6% to their pensions. It’s not asking a lot, it’s still about half of what private sector pensions do and health care packages do. So he’s basically saying, I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts are, and he’s getting, you know, riots. It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison these days. It’s just, all of this demonstration.”

Comparing Walker to Mubarak strays from GOP talking points just a little bit, but all the same these Wisconsin protests are still relevant to the way that democracy is practiced in the United States.  They have come to embody a clash between how we interpret electoral results.  Having won election by a slim margin in November, Gov. Walker and his Republican allies claimed a mandate for smaller government, lower taxes, and fewer labor rights.  They’ve now acted on this perceived mandate, and face a backlash among state employees.  How this conflict plays out over the next few weeks will likely impact how ambitious the Republican agenda for scaling back state and local governments is in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election.

What makes these protests especially effective are the demographics of the protestors themselves.  The absence of state employees, including police and firemen (whom the bill will exempt from many changes, but have decided to stand with fellow state employees anyway) as well as teachers, have a far-reaching impact on Wisconsinite society.  Many schools throughout the state are cancelling, forcing parents to scramble for daycare options in order to avoid taking their own time off work to watch the kids.  With this far-reaching economic impact, the longer the protests last, the harder it gets for Walker to maintain any support.

It will definitely be interesting to watch.

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