Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher - better known as "Joe the Plumber" - asks a simple question of the crowd of a few thousand [UPDATE: the event sponsor later placed the turnout at 600] crammed into a room at the Alliant Energy Center supporting Gov. Scott Walker Sunday afternoon: "Do you guys love your children?"
The crowd responds with a loud "yes."
"Would you take a bullet for your children?" Again, a hearty, resounding yes.
I can't help but wonder how the crowd would respond if he'd asked whether they'd take a tax increase for their children. In some circles, a bullet to the head seems preferable. There's no shortage of anger and frustration with American politics these days, whatever side you're on. But I think what most defines the country is the increasing polarization. While there may still be common ground - we all love our kids, freedom and democracy are good - there are stark differences in the way people see the world.
I've been interviewing people from all parts of Wisconsin over the past few weeks as they rise up against Gov. Scott Walker's agenda. I was excited by the chance to see what the other side had to say. But what's mostly clear to me is that, although we might share some values, they don't see the world as I do.
Outside the Alliant Center Sunday, there are about as many demonstrators holding anti-Scott Walker signs as there are holding pro-Walker signs inside. It's a bit intimidating braving this crowd, so kudos to those who did so. (And a quick comment about symbolism of place: What does it mean that the pro-Walker demonstrators chose a public building that sold its naming rights to an energy company? Of course, under Walker's budget repair bill, publicly owned power plants could be sold without bid to private companies like Alliant.)
Inside, most people meet my questions with suspicion or contempt. Walking in, a woman asks me to sign a petition to recall one of the "Wisconsin 14," the senators who have left the state to stall passage of Walker's agenda. I tell her I'm a reporter and she immediately demands credentials. I show her a business card and she rolls her eyes.
Inside, many refuse to speak with me. Several who do won't give their names. One man talks to me for a bit, but when I ask what he thinks of Walker's budget, he says, "That'll be the end of this interview, thanks." I hope it wasn't something I said.
Those who do talk to me say the debate is about trying to curtail the greed of unions. Barb Peterson says she once was forced to belong to a union and didn't like how her dues were funneled to the Democratic Party, which seems a fair criticism. She was fed up with what was happening at the Capitol. "I'm disgusted by how it has been defaced." Also fair.
Pam Grundman of Verona complains about the union arbitration process: arbitrators always side with unions, she says, because governments can always pay by raising taxes. "That's why [unions] always get what they want."
There is a lot of talk about securing our childrens' future. I ask Grundman how cutting $800 million from the state's education budget helps children. She says, "I think there are ways schools can make cuts."
The speakers at the event both mock the anti-Walker crowd and patronize them. Wurzelbacher talks about what he sees as an attitude of entitlement among union workers: "'I deserve this, I deserve that. I deserve the money in your pocket, sir.' Whatever happened to the word 'earn'?"
Nancy Mistele, former candidate for county executive, says the unions "stand for union power. They will fight to the death to control these people."
There is lots of derision from the speakers toward the protesters. Brian Schimming, talk show host at WIBA-AM 1310, says, "You get outside the Madison bubble and people say, 'What the hell is going on down there?'"
I'm afraid that's one thing we'll never agree on.