Posted by: MC | April 8, 2011

Looking under the Hood — AKA Whiplash in Wisconsin

In American elections the principle of democracy known as majority rule is in play even if the majority doesn’t bother to vote.  This, naturally, is reflected in our elected officials.  Right?  Ask Wisconsin.

Elections are about change.  They can be about democracy.

Then there’s the notion of EX:Change.  It’s the idea I’ve been so captivated by since the 2008 presidential election and the electrifying cross-partisan enthusiasm for the word change. When change is based in rigid opposition, the kind that closes itself off from communication, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Change based in exchange, by contrast, involves speaking and listening to one another even if – perhaps especially if, we don’t agree across distinctions like red-blue, conservative-liberal, corporate interest-social interest.

It’s a challenge; the listening part in particular.  In contemporary schools, churches, communities, we seem to have little opportunity to learn and practice listening and plenty of chances to learn and practice forming and hanging with ideological cliques.  In those groups we then practice agreeing with people who think the way we do.  As a result, we tend to polarize because we think our differences are greater than they are.  In fact, we come to depend on our sense of difference from those others with whom we never talk.  If it weren’t for them, how would we know who we are?

The exaggeration of our differences is one clear sign of a problem that’s been brewing in our country over the past three decades.  Likely this problem has its source in our lack of practice with listening.  For sure it is linked with passivity (e.g., not voting and otherwise being involved as citizens of this democracy we claim to prize).  It also comes from serious imbalance – from way more emphasis on stuff than on people.  No slam to stuff, really; it’s just that spending decades, centuries, millennia emphasizing stuff over people has its costs.

Wisconsin has, of late offered circumstances to which the people – THE PEOPLE – have begun to respond.  Variously bounding, slouching and tiptoeing off couches and other vessels of passivity, the people of Wisconsin have energetically engaged civic dialogue in a way that is instructive for all of us.  Necessity has called forward collective and participatory leadership in this state to offer a model for which the rest of the country’s citizens have secretly been longing.

The metaphors are almost comically abundant, in large part because they’re so dang apt.  For example; the citizens of Wisconsin have reached out to snap open the shade even as the Great-and-Powerful Oz has continued saying, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”  And this one; the people of this state have demanded the emperor walk out in broad daylight so we can all check for the presence/absence of those clothes we keep hearing about.

Maybe this is the best analogy:  The bus we’re all on.  It’s news to no one that there’s been a troubling hiss and rattle under the hood for some time now (re. the last three decades).  We’ve been reluctant to check it out.  Maybe it will just go away.  But it doesn’t.  The public dialogue in the state of Wisconsin may be popping these days like spark plugs that have lost all sense of timing, but it is something.  It’s action.  It’s civic action and it’s showing Americans what energized and actual participation in democracy can look like.  Wisconsin is finally looking under the hood.

It’s not easy.  That’s for sure.  Here’s a brief, incomplete and un-foot-noted summary.  I’ve checked and found a simple Google search can fill in the gaps.

The people who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election for the state elected a radically conservative candidate to the post.  Scott Walker was clear that he would take decisive action to reduce taxes and public spending.  He had a track record of such decision-making already established with earlier elected positions.  In February, 2011 he acted as promised and proposed the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill.  This proposed legislation would require state employees to contribute 5.8% of their salaries to pension costs and 12.6% towards health care premiums.  It would also significantly limit collective bargaining rights for most public employee union members.

Wisconsin is the state where unions were born.  That together with the impact the proposed bill would have on social service workers (like teachers, police, and fire fighters) got the attention of thousands of citizens who spent four weeks beginning February 14, protesting at the capitol building in Madison.  The Democratic minority in the Wisconsin legislature left the state to hold off a vote on the bill.  By mid-March the Republican majority eventually found a way of passing it anyway.  A judge issued a stay based on breech of legal procedure.  The Republican majority then dove through a loophole and claimed the law active.  By the end of the month the judge essentially said, “No you don’t,” reiterating her decision with additional legal authority.

Then there was the first week of April.  On April 5 there was a statewide election that drew 33% of the state’s eligible voters.  Data from past elections indicate these kinds of elections usually draw in the low 20%.  In the voting 19 of the legislative seats were turned over from Republicans to Democrats.  That was something.  Then there was the vote on who would be elected State Supreme Court Justice – a judge who’d served part of one term and closely aligned himself with the governor or a long-shot relative unknown lower court judge who would come newly into that post.

The results in that election – the relative unknown woman judge appeared to have won with a lead of only a few more than 200 votes.  Recount was certain, but an upset linked with the furor of February seemed to have occurred.  Then, as if Wisconsin hadn’t endured enough, check out these news tidbits from the past two days.


Wisconsin state GOP executive director Mark Jefferson:  “This rare opportunity to bring common sense reform to state government will not be taken from (people) without one massive fight.”


This headline:  Wisconsin Election Surprise: David Prosser Gains 7,500 Votes After ‘Human Error’ In Waukesha County.


And nonetheless, beneath the fray or weaving through it, there’s consistent evidence of public engagement.  The extent to which listening is happening is unclear.  Mostly people are still talking at each other or amongst themselves in that insular sort of conversation – rant to the ones who can sing along.  Our bad habits notwithstanding, the opportunity is present and rich for really addressing what’s wrong with the bus.  It’s up to us.  Maybe we’re ready to step up (even to grow up).

The hood is lifted.  The blow back is substantial.  The people of Wisconsin may slam the thing shut again – even knowing that eventually the engine will explode.  But they may not.  In fact, once you’ve looked, once you’ve gained a sense of the extent and nature of the problem, two things become true:

  1. you can’t un-see what you’ve seen, and
  2. the next look just isn’t as hard.

So that’s the latest from the EX:Change jaunt – wintering in Wisconsin.  I am only awed and honored to be in this state listening to its citizens as they engage this conversation, hard as it is.  We Americans need to see what conversations like this look like.  We need to learn how to stay in them and come out individually and collectively with both solutions and our dignity.

Seems possible.  I’ll keep listening.


  1. 1 – wish social workers in FL got paid what they do in wisconsin
    2 – these are tough times
    3 – it’s ok, tho
    4 – leading is cool

  2. “In fact, we come to depend on our sense of difference from those others with whom we never talk. If it weren’t for them, how would we know who we are?”

    Surrounding ourselves with similarly-minded people also provides a sense of security that most of us crave. We are such fearful creatures. And fear drives so much of our dangerous thinking and behavior. How do we step out of our fears long enough to start listening?

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