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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fair
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The Wisconsin left made a spectacle of itself in 2011
This is what democracy looks like?
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Credit:Bill Lueders

In Wisconsin, 2011 came in like a lion and left like a lion fighting for its health benefits. Newly minted Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to require greater health and pension contributions from government employees, along with virtually removing public union collective bargaining, set off a cacophony of tumult that ricocheted through every corner of the state's borders.

The year began with an appeal for more civility in politics, in the wake of the shooting of Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Yet when the Capitol explosion began in mid-February, Walker and legislators of both parties started receiving death threats. State Sen. Spencer Coggs called Walker's plan "legalized slavery," and state Sen. Lena Taylor (along with dozens of protesters) compared Walker to Adolf Hitler. A Democratic Assemblyman yelled "you're fucking dead" to a Republican colleague on the chamber floor following debate on Walker's plan. Protesters targeted Walker's children on Facebook, and Republican Rep. Robin Vos was assaulted with a flying pilsner.

So shocking was Walker's plan that President Barack Obama criticized the governor, deeming it an "assault" on unions. Yet if Walker was a first-time union assailant, Obama continues to be a serial offender - federal employees aren't allowed to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

2011 was a year when unions said "it wasn't about the money," before many of them (including Madison city workers) rushed back to the bargaining table to "Walker-proof" their benefits before the new collective bargaining law went into effect. While statewide unions said they would accept the increases in health and pension contributions, many local unions clearly weren't reading from the same playbook.

Speaking of money, during the summer, unions spent over $20 million to unseat six Republican state senators who voted for Walker's plan. This exposed exactly why it's about the money. Government employees merely serve as conduits for taxpayer funds to work their way to the unions, who then spend money electing obeisant legislators to negotiate favorable contracts. Shockingly, lefty "good government" groups appear not to have a problem with this blatant purchase of favors.

It was a year that granted the definition of the word "democracy" a previously unimaginable elasticity. While bullhorns around the Capitol blared "this is what democracy looks like," 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to prevent democracy from occurring. Later, a single Dane County judge would overturn Walker's law, which irony-deficient Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called "a huge win for democracy in Wisconsin." The law would later be reinstated by an incredulous state Supreme Court.

It was these same "democracy enthusiasts" who decided to use Wisconsin's 85-year-old recall law to cast a number of democratically elected Republicans from office. Since the law was passed in 1926, only two state elected officials had been recalled from office; in 2011, nine state senators faced that fate, demonstrating that this is what democracy has never looked like. Despite over $40 million being spent on the senate recalls, Republicans won four of the six contested seats and retained control of the state senate by a one-vote margin.

In some districts, Republicans won by more comfortable margins than they ever had before. Of the two GOP senators who lost, one was in a district Barack Obama carried by 18 percentage points. The other was embroiled in a personal scandal involving a 25-year-old mistress. Thus, after the rancorous recall process, the enduring lesson was: It's probably a bad idea to cheat on your wife.

It was a year where Madison teachers showed parents how much they valued their kids by walking out on them for a four-day sick-out. Some teachers even brought their pupils down to the Capitol to help them protest. When a group of Madison East high school students were asked why they were marching on the statehouse during a school day, one young man said he was "trying to stop whatever this dude is doing."

2011 was the year that public-sector bargaining became a fundamental human right, bestowed on the people of Wisconsin from the heavens. "We will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union," thundered Marty Beil, head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, in February.

Yet God apparently first appeared in Wisconsin in 1959, when Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson signed the nation's first public-sector collective bargaining law. It was a shrewd political move - four years earlier, unions had financed 55% of unsuccessful Democrat William Proxmire's gubernatorial campaign. The year before Nelson created the law, Democrats had a $10,000 deficit in their state account; four years later, that had turned into a $50,000 surplus. At the time, it looked a lot less like a divine right and more like a naked political favor. (God has yet to visit 24 other states, which either have limited or no public-sector collective bargaining at all.)

Assuming Walker's reforms don't mean the end of public education in Wisconsin, school kids will one day look back at 2011 as the year the state motto changed from "Forward" to "Actually, We Like Things Quite the Way They Are, Thank You." It will be remembered as the moment in state history where "progressivism" came to mean "don't touch my damn benefits."

Christian Schneider works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and blogs at

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