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John Nichols: We don’t elect kings with term limits, democracy is a struggle over public policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. On Sunday morning on ABC, here’s what George Will had to say about the battle in Wisconsin.


GEORGE WILL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Donna, what you call the “grassroots” is a tiny minority of this tiny minority of Wisconsin people who work for the government. Three hundred thousand public employees in Wisconsin went to work while the teachers were clutching their little signs that say it’s all about the kids, were abandoning their classrooms, lying to their supervisors, saying they were sick, and going off to protest in defense of perquisites, which, if the government cuts them as much as he plans to do, would still leave them better off than their private sector counterpart.

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JAY: Now joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, is the political writer for The Nation magazine, John Nichols. Thanks for joining us, John. So you are a seventh-generation Wisconsinonian.


JAY: Wisconsonite–thank you. So how do you react to George Will’s comment?

NICHOLS: Essentially what he did there was read the talking points that have been put out by Governor Walker’s office, Governor Walker being the Wisconsin governor who has proposed to take away the collective bargaining rights of trade unionists in Wisconsin who are in the public employ. Now, the important thing to understand is how fundamentally wrong those talking points are, and by extension George Will.

JAY: So first start with his first point, that the size of the crowd, which I guess at that time he’s saying 50,000–I mean, is that–first of all, is that even an accurate figure, that the crowds have not been bigger than 50,000?

NICHOLS: Well, he’s wrong. On Saturday, which was the day before he was on air, the crowd was easily 70,000 to 80,000 outside and another 8,000 to 10,000 inside the Capitol. These are figures that come from the Madison Police. And, also, we did an interesting thing. We asked one of the chief organizers of the largest rally ever held in Madison, the largest political event ever held in Madison–that was the 2004 rally with John Kerry and Bruce Springsteen. That rally attracted 80,000 people. So I stood on the stage after the closing rally on Saturday and asked this woman to take a good look around at the crowd, and she pointed out, just from basic crowd measurement, that this crowd on Saturday was substantially larger than that 80,000. So the fact is that you could easily make a claim that this was 100,000. It’s just–Will is playing games. And let me say one other thing that’s important. We’re not New York City or Washington, DC, or Los Angeles. Fifty thousand people in the state of Wisconsin is a really quite unprecedented number [inaudible] wasn’t overly organized.

JAY: Well, the whole–according to George Will, it’s–total number of public employees is 300,000. So, you know, if 75 percent of the people out there are public employees, I suppose that means you have just under a third of all public employees actually out there marching.

NICHOLS: Well, can I offer a notion on that, though? Our public employees actually work for a living. And so not all of them–unlike a lot of people in the private sector, public employees have to work on the weekend. They plough roads and do work in our hospitals, work at our prisons. And so they don’t all get to take off and come down and, you know, come to Madison to protest. And so the fact is, for Will to make a statement like that is not a assessment of something, or not an observation. It’s just simplistic propaganda.

JAY: So if I understand it correctly, the unions have not called for a general strike. Essentially, workers are protesting on their own time, I guess, although teachers are taking off work. Are there indications other public sector workers are taking off work to go to these protests?

NICHOLS: In some cases there have been folks who have. But remember, when they do that, they use a sick day or a vacation day. They take an economic hit. They do it because they believe that a day that, you know, someone else might have used for a vacation or for, you know, just cleaning up around the house, taking a day off, should be put into the democratic process. And so I’m not sure that’s a particular crime.

JAY: Firemen showed up in quite a dramatic moment. The firemen came with their drums and their bagpipes and their kilts. If I understand it correctly, the firemen were actually exempt from this bill. Is that right?

NICHOLS: That’s absolutely true. The governor played a political game, for lack of a better way to put it. He recognized that the most popular public employees in most surveys, and also just from anecdotal evidence, are firefighters and police officers. Children are trained to, you know, look up to them in all sorts of ways. And so the governor exempted our uniformed personnel, or at least some of our uniformed personnel, the fire and police, on the assumption that, at that point, those unions would choose not to participate in the protest, would choose not to object, because they were taken care of. But something very interesting happened, and it’s kind of the old-school solidarity principle. The firefighters in Madison, the state’s capital, felt very uncomfortable with this deal, because the teachers, especially, had gone out many times in support of the firefighters. And so they stepped up, came to the teachers, and said, look, we’d like to march with you. That then got firefighters in other communities–Beloit, Racine, Kenosha, and Wilwaukee–to rethink what was going on. And so by midweek you were seeing hundreds of firefighters show up at rallies and protests, and they really have become in many ways the heroes of this moment, very, very popular figures.

JAY: It’s significant as well, because I think both the firemen’s union and the police union actually endorsed the governor in the election.

NICHOLS: Well, it’s a little subtler than that. Some of the firefighters locals and some of the police locals endorsed the governor in the election. He did have some unionized support from those, but not the entire sector. The bottom line on it is, though, that he gave them political cover, I think, less because they had endorsed him than because–for just messaging principles. You don’t want to attack the most popular figures or the figures who are generally seen as the most attractive. And so I think he really tried to divide the labor movement, with an eye toward being able to say that, well, you know, look, the firefighters and police think I’m doing a great job. That didn’t work, though. And the interesting dynamic of it is that now the firefighters have become very central players in this dispute, and there’s rarely a rally where you don’t have a firefighter speaking.

JAY: So one of the things we heard on the media all over television on Sunday was this argument: there was an election, say Tea Party supporters and other people that support the governor; he has a mandate to do this; so isn’t that what democracy looks like? Because we’re hearing a lot of people chanting in the streets [that] this is what democracy looks like.

NICHOLS: Well, it’s the great all-American debate: are we a republic or are we a democracy? And the fact of the matter is that Wisconsin, like most states, is considered a representative democracy. We do have elections, and we choose people who then form a government, and they’re supposed to represent us, they’re supposed to respond to the concerns of the people. If we have elections, and those who prevail in the elections, by however narrow a margin, are able to do whatever they want for four years, then effectively we’re no longer a representative democracy, we’re a monarchy: we have elected a king with a term limit. And Wisconsinites have never accepted that principle. This is the state of Robert M. La Follette [Sr.], the great progressive reformer. La Follette’s wonderful line was “Democracy is a life”. Now, what he meant by that was that on election day you begin a democratic process, you choose someone, but then you remain involved, day in, day out, throughout that tenure, to make sure that that person does represent you, that they serve the popular will.

JAY: So where does this go? The Republican governor and Republican members of the state assembly seem dug in. The democratic representatives have left the state to prevent a quorum from taking place. What comes next here?

NICHOLS: Well, it’s a real political stalemate, if you will, a staring contest. Governor Walker has said, no, he will not back down. And I’ve known Scott for a long time, and he is a very determined conservative. He really believes in what he’s doing. And I do think he’s going to try and hold the line on this and kind of keep from blinking. By the same token, the strength of the turnouts, these tens of thousands of people who have come to these rallies, has really stiffened the spine of the Democratic legislators. And my sense is that they’re not going to rush to return to Madison from their location, their undisclosed location in Illinois. At core, this is a battle about whether unions will exist, whether they will have collective bargaining rights. It’s come down to that very simple principle. And one side or the other’s going to win this one. There’s not really a middle ground.

JAY: Is there any discussion about a general strike of public sector workers, and perhaps even asking private sector workers to join in, unionized private sector workers?

NICHOLS: Yes, there’s been a great deal of discussion about that, and there’s been a great deal of question about when you might do that. There are–there’s disagreement. Some people believe that all the state, county, and municipal employees, as well as the teachers, should have gone out sometime this week, just showed the state what it would be like to be without those services. But remember these are public sector employees. They’re very committed to delivering services, to keeping the roads cleared in winter, to teaching kids in school, to delivering chemotherapy in the hospitals. And so it’s not something that they’re inclined to do, to deny service to their constituents, to the people of this state. But I do think that that discussion will continue. And there’s some sense in my mind that if this bill actually does pass in the form that it’s been developed, that some sort of broad strike, some sort of broad job action would actually be quite likely. There’s a deep anger out there right now and a great deal of disappointment and frustration, and I suspect that might well–.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, John.

NICHOLS: It’s been a pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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