Last week Wednesday, notebook in hand, I traversed a narrow corridor between two opposing factions on the state Capitol grounds.
Occupying the center section were several hundred people rallying to demand "No new taxes!" Surrounding them, separated by yellow caution tape, was a much larger group of unionists and others urging legislators to "Do your job!" and pass a state budget. As slogans were shouted and insults lobbed across the divide, two things occurred to me.
The first: This is it. This is politics at street level. The second: I hate everything about this.
The speakers all spewed cheap demagoguery. "Wisconsin is a tax hell," claimed conservative blogger Owen Robinson, a smart guy playing dumb for the crowd. He accused state Democrats of "dumping out money like it's candy."
Applause from the interior. Shouts of "liar!" from the flanks.
Radio host Vicki McKenna also pitched lines to her audience like chunks of red meat. "We're the eighth highest tax state in the country and the Democrats want to make us No. 1," she shouted into the microphone. "This is a battle between people who can't afford to pay any more and people who don't care."
Those in the center cheered while those on the sides chanted "Bullshit!"
The anti-tax side pegged Gov. Jim Doyle and the Democrats as being engaged in a nefarious plot to tax people out of their homes, for no reason whatsoever except that they could. One of their signs declared, "Doyle lied, jobs died."
Oh really? What jobs? And they left solely because Doyle raised taxes? What about the tens of thousands of Wisconsin jobs that have been lost as corporations here have shifted operations to places like Mexico and China, where they can pay people pennies per hour and ravage the environment? Are taxes - not corporate greed - to blame for this too?
Several speakers urged Republican lawmakers to block a budget indefinitely. No mention was made that this would lead to higher taxes for everyone in attendance - everyone, that is, except the organizers, who live out of state. (The rally was called by Americans for Prosperity, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group funded by millionaires.)
The pass-the-budget side also behaved deplorably, trying to drown out the rally's speakers with honking car horns, megaphones and shouts. I cringed to see a sign that said "Quit sticking it in our L ASS ee," which, besides being juvenile and vulgar, misspells the name of - take your pick - state Sen. Alan Lasee or state Rep. Frank Lasee.
Worse still were the signs seeking to exploit people's fear of crime: "Help protect me from a sexual predator, pass the budget," and "Parole violators will no longer be revoked." Yeah, that will happen. And then the Republicans will pin medals on them.
Despite all the harsh rhetoric and recriminations, the two sides were not that far apart, and within a couple of days a budget deal was reached. The Republicans gave a little and Doyle and the Democrats, true to form, gave a lot.
Doyle got slightly improved health-care access, while a Democratic plan to greatly expand coverage while lowering businesses' costs died on the vine. The guv also tossed in the towel on taxing Republicans' favorite businesses, oil companies. The GOP even managed to beat back a tax hike on hospitals that was backed by the Wisconsin Hospital Association because it would boost federal funding.
After nearly four months, Wisconsin's budget impasse has ended, with less of a bang than a whimper. But the toxins it's released into the body politic will linger for some time.
As with many other issues, well-meaning people on both sides were recruited by groups with agendas that have nothing to do with good government. Worse, they have been encouraged to see those on the "other side" as not just wrong but wicked.
The unionists who attended last week's rally were attacked from the stage as "special interests" who were protesting on the public's dime. As McKenna put it, "We're paying to be here, and we're paying for them to be here, too. That's messed up."
Bob Allen, a spokesman for AFSCME Wisconsin, notes that the union workers who were present - some from as far away as Superior - used vacation time to attend. "They have no idea what they're talking about," he says of speakers who claimed otherwise. "They seem to think that just because you're a public employee you should be strapped to your desk or chained to your work station."
The milking of resentments meant to turn one group against another has become a main goal of modern political discourse. In fact, the working people on either side of that yellow tape last week had more that should unite than divide them.
Passing a fiscally responsible budget that no one is completely happy with is in everyone's interest. Making sure our schools, state agencies and local governments are funded ought to be common goals, not sources of division.
We lose sight in such controversies - as in our wretched process of picking a president - that we are, on some level, all in this together.
Surely, there are things we can agree on. For instance, that the Legislature should not be able to drag out the budget process for months, creating chaos for local governments and school districts trying to perform their own budgeting duties responsibly.
We should make sure this never happens again.
Fortunately, this is easily accomplished, by implementing an oft-proposed good-government reform that has overwhelming public support: Bar members of the Legislature from receiving campaign contributions from the time the budget is introduced until the time it is passed.
This will limit the ability of special interests - including public employees, if your definition of this term includes them - to taint the process. And, rest assured, the next state budget will pass in record time.