Caroline Levine, Letter from Wisconsin

Friday, March 4, 2011

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[In this post, Caroline Levine, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes about the on-going demonstrations and rallies in Madison, Wisconsin.]

Three views from the ground in Madison
Written by Caroline Levine (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

I. Personal
Born in 1970, I and my classmates missed the sixties. My schoolteachers and college professors never tired of reminding us of this. They were frustrated with what they saw as our passivity and complacency. Why weren’t we more riled up? I loathed Reagan and George H W Bush, who presided over my coming of age, as much as the next left-leaning teenager. I certainly wanted change, as did many of my friends. And yet, the radical political groups I knew seemed powerless and puny in the face of huge forces that dwarfed their efforts—trickle-down economics, global capitalism, nonvoting minority groups, reactions against sixties cultural politics. I couldn’t imagine how you sparked a movement that mattered, and I was annoyed that our elders blamed us for being born too late, for feeling helpless and hopeless.

The last few weeks in Madison have changed me. They haven’t changed my deep feelings of helplessness—I still worry that worse times are around the corner, and that we can’t do much to forestall them—but now, for the first time, I understand the feelings of the generation that taught me. I’ve been to seven rallies since Valentine’s Day, each one bigger than the one before. The first one, a small group of graduate students and faculty, marched on the State Capitol—a ten- or fifteen-minute walk from the campus. At first we felt too embarrassed to chant, most of us, and chatted about the gloomy state of the state instead, as we walked disconsolately along the sidewalk.

When we got to the Capitol itself, the graduate students led us inside, and there something felt a little different. First of all, it seemed surprising that no one had stopped us, a thousand or so people, as we crammed through the revolving doors. Then the students’ chants echoed off the walls, filling the space, and we all joined together in the center of the domed building. An electricity seemed to unite the space. The Capitol, a neoclassical building that is usually hushed and populated by a few tourists and some hurried-looking legislative aides, felt vital in a way I’d never imagined. “Whose house?” we chanted. “Our house!” I have done some writing about large modern democracies, where people who share a government never meet. Usually I experience democracy as an abstraction, mediated in troubling ways by newspapers, television and the web. But in that moment the people seemed to become a dynamic and pulsing reality—and I felt, for the first time, like a part of a living body politic.

The next days brought bigger rallies. On Wednesday, on the steps of the Capitol, we were joined by union leaders, nurses, and a lot of undergraduates. On Thursday the sixteenth, Madison schoolteachers called in sick in such large numbers that schools had to close. Teachers from around the state poured in with signs. “Milwaukee math teacher teaching civics lesson today.” “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” “100% of teachers have more education that Scott Walker.”

We sent up a huge cheer as firefighters in full regalia—exempt from the Governor’s plan to end collective bargaining—joined us in a gesture of solidarity. Over the next few days, corrections officers and electricians and teachers and graduate students called each other “brothers and sisters.” They crafted sincere and witty and rousing and absurd signs: “Enjoy your weekend? Thank a union!” “I protect your family from the criminally insane.” “We’re just trying to have a society here.” “Do YOU plan on shoveling the roads?” “Scott, this relationship really isn’t working for me.” “There’s still good in you (Sky) Walker.” One of the most moving sights I have ever seen was the inside of the Capitol building looking like a carefully crafted work of collective art, its whole interior covered with lovingly hand-made signs.

There is always something slightly comic to me, an East Coaster, about mid-Western politeness, but the thorough absence of any threat of violence or even rudeness made huge crowds of chanting, marching, outraged radicals immensely fun. People brought their kids; cops passed out food and water to the protesters. Friends saw each other and stopped for lunch at a local Himalayan restaurant, only to return for more chanting and marching.

My seven-year-old son came along with me to a couple of the big rallies. He’s a dedicated fan of Harry Potter and Star Wars, and I was surprised to realize how much these have taught him about politics. Not just about good and evil, but about democratic processes: in Star Wars, the Jedi support an elected legislature against the encroachments of a greedy empire, and in Harry Potter Dolores Umbridge suspends established procedure—including freedom of speech and assembly—for the sake of her own authoritarian rule. My son really does understand the problem of power grabs, and he was more interested in the nitty-gritty of state politics than I’d expected. But it wasn’t just a civics lesson that I wanted for him. I had a powerful desire for him to feel that passionate, electrifying, peaceful oneness with a living crowd.

For the first time, then, I think I understand what motivated my teachers’ frustration with us, the non-protesting generation. It wasn’t just reproach at our inactivity: it was that we were missing out on a precious experience of solidarity we couldn’t grasp or imagine. They weren’t just disappointed in us, that is: they were disappointed for us.

II. Statistical
Of course, throughout the past few weeks, it has been impossible to forget that we protesters do not speak for the people as a whole, that folks who strongly disagree live alongside us in significant numbers. I have a bad habit of reading the comments sections after online news stories, and I have been astonished at the venom being spewed at lazy, greedy teachers (I didn’t even know that feeling was out there), the contempt for firefighters who allegedly retire to six-figure salaries after developing carpal tunnel syndrome (wait, aren’t they heroes?), and the assumption that it’s the corrupt unions who are bleeding the tax-payers dry.

I felt nervous when I went out for breakfast in a western suburb of Madison where people move when the city schools get too “diverse” for them (even progressive little Madison turns out to have white flight). My son was flashing his “Derail Walker” button, and I warned him that someone might yell at him, or at me, because they disagreed with us. He seemed unruffled—when the Force is with you, you’re not thrown by a little shouting—but I realized that I have a desperate desire for civil, productive, and rational public dialogue, and that in my lifetime that has seemed increasingly out of reach. I worry that protests don’t always help that ideal along, since they solidify a sense of us against them.

So call me naive, but I have also spent the past few weeks wondering how we might talk to those who disagree with us. For now, we’ve lost some major battles in the rhetorical war: the right has hammered away at their message so long and so consistently that the option of raising taxes on the wealthiest quartile is off the table completely. Walker gets away with the claim that only drastic cuts to education, health care, and environmental regulation can balance the state budget in these hard times. How could we intervene in that?

Part of the problem is, of course, money. The billionaire Koch brothers who poured millions of dollars into conservative coffers in this last election know that people are swayed by advertising—even though each of us thinks that we ourselves are immune. By putting their money into elections, the wealthy reap double rewards: more power than other citizens over electoral outcomes, and easy access and influence over the government that takes power. That’s why Common Cause, which works to keep money out of politics, seems to me to be one of the most important organizations out there. (In fact, I’m going to stop writing and send them a donation right now.) Unions, for all their problems, are one of the few organized interest groups in US politics that represent middle- and working-class people. Their financial contribution is minuscule compared to corporate donations, and they have dwindled terribly in size over the past few decades. But they are among the only counterweights to corporate power over government that we have. My brother, who runs the non-profit organization CIRCLE, has some wonderfully lucid arguments on this topic.

But if we had the floor and could speak loudly and publicly, what would we say? What arguments would work best?

I have been thinking, first of all, about how we might answer the opposing side with hard numbers. The state might be “broke,” as the Governor likes to say, but taxes in Wisconsin are regressive: families in Wisconsin making less than $20,000 a year pay 9.2% of their income in combined taxes, while families making $388,000 or more pay only 6.7% of their income in those taxes. We could also argue that trickle-down economics has not actually spurred our economy in the past thirty years, but instead has allowed economic inequalities to grow. We can always point out that despite budget problems in Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved $48 million in tax breaks in January 2011 for health savings accounts, which are tax havens for the top income earners (the average annual income of HSA participants was $139,000 in 2005). We can mention that there are over 100,000 millionaires in Wisconsin, and ask whether it seems fair that the poor and the middle class should make all the sacrifices.

III. Historical
For the far right—the Tea Partiers—these arguments wouldn’t make much of an impact. For them, economic equality takes a back seat to what they call “freedom.” It seems only right to them that people who earn money in a tough, competitive marketplace should be rewarded for their efforts, not penalized with taxes. In their view, unions are corrupt special interests who protect mediocre workers and fat benefits packages at the expense of the very struggling taxpayers who keep the economy going. Any regulation of business slows growth, they feel, and it’s just a reality that some people will be altogether left behind. Either they can compete with workers in the global South at sweatshop wages, or they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The new legislation proposed in Missouri to change child labor laws suggests that a return to the economic scene of the nineteenth century—where children provide cheap labor instead of requiring expensive schooling—might not be anathema to conservatives.

Now, I’m a nineteenth-century scholar by training, so I know something about what the world looks like under a booming free market society with comparatively little government regulation. Victorian England was something of a Tea Partier’s dream. But would conservatives really want to live there?

Consider the following. Smart industrialists in the nineteenth century were keen to hire the cheapest workers, and they found that children could operate most machinery just as well as adults for a fraction of the cost. Children as young as 4 or 5 could be expected to work a day that lasted 16 hours. Since there were no laws regulating workplace safety, it was common for workers, overcome with exhaustion, to fall over into the machines, their limbs crushed, their bodies mangled. Employers were not liable for these accidents. No worker was entitled to paid or unpaid leave of any kind, and new mothers usually found themselves having to return to factory jobs 2 or 3 days after giving birth.

Since there was no government regulation of food, vendors mixed grain with chalk and alcohol with turpentine. Canny purveyors of pepper mixed the genuine spice with dust swept from warehouse floors, and quite a lot of gin, on examination, was found to contain sulphuric acid. Patent medicines containing any mixture of herbs and minerals—including arsenic and morphine—were available without restriction. It was common practice among poorer mothers to give opium to babies to make sure that they would stay quiet all day while they worked. Countless infants died from overdoses.

If you were unlucky enough to become disabled, or lucky enough to grow old, you relied on the generosity of family members. Employers had no obligation to workers as they aged, and often left them to die on the streets after years of service. Those workers shrewd enough to invest their earnings for the future quite often found that they had been swindled, since proponents of the free market objected volubly to all government efforts to intervene in financial transactions, including fraud.

Without a public sanitation infrastructure in place, newly crowded cities saw repeated cholera and typhoid epidemics that swept away lives by the tens of thousands. The average urban life expectancy dropped. A boy born in Liverpool in the 1850s could look forward to seeing the ripe age of 26. Unable to rely on a public education system, Britain’s poorest families sent their children to work to cover the costs of keeping them. Half of England remained illiterate until late in the century, which meant that there was little way for the indigent to pull themselves out of poverty.

So devastating were these conditions that the public pressed Parliament to intervene. In 1833, the “Short Time Committees” succeeded in limiting the workday for children between the ages of 9 and 18 and abolishing labor altogether for those younger than 9; after mid-century the government started to regulate food quality and the sale of poisons; and by the 1870s the nation had begun to invest in compulsory public education and clean water.

These reforms were expensive. And in fact free market capitalists fought even the tiniest regulatory moves, predicting economic catastrophe. They also warned of moral decline, arguing that people would grow irresponsible as they acquired the habit of looking to the government for help.

Neither the moral nor the economic arguments have gone away. And now they’ve developed such force that the clock is turning eerily backward. Do we really want to go back to 1850? That question seems like an argument for knowing a little bit about history. And the answer would require investing in education, which apparently, for now, is off the table.


Make A Comment


Ted said...

Thanks for this movingly written essay. As someone who also (just) missed the sixties, I felt the same sort of "oh, this is what they were talking about." (Though I suspect it's better now that the cops and students are working together.)

Good bit of reportage on the genesis of the protests in today's Mother Jones, incidentally. (

I haven't been to Madison, but we can feel the energy from here. I think I'll stop writing now and donate to Common Cause.

Claire said...

Many thanks to Professor Levine for a wonderful post. I have a question that could help me understand and more effectively cite one particular statistic from her argument. Prof. Levine writes, "families in Wisconsin making less than $20,000 a year pay 9.2% of their income in combined taxes, while families making $388,000 or more pay only 6.7% of their income in those taxes." I was wondering if she could provide the source for this information and clarify what specific taxes went into the "combined taxes" category? Again, thank you for such a clearly reasoned and accessible take on this debate.

Caroline said...

This is a great question, Claire. I should have clarified. "Combined taxes" mean sales, property, and income taxes. Sales taxes are regressive (no matter how poor you are, you still have to pay the same amount); and income taxes could be much more progressive (the Republicans have pushed for lower and lower taxes for the top income brackets over the past 30 years). See:

One tax trend that I myself really would like to see shift is the estate tax: the wealthy are paying less and less to the state as they pass on their assets to their children, reinforcing income inequalities and ensuring that the top 5% hold on to the majority of the nation's wealth.

Jessie said...

Thank you for this post! I've been thinking a lot about the 60s, because my dad was a very active protestor in that era, and I think if he were around to see it, he would be tickled pink by what's happening in Madison.

Your essay also articulates so clearly the combination of hopeful solidarity amongst protestors, and confused frustration at backward policies, that has defined my experience at the Capitol for the last three weeks. And I think (hope) that that combination is powerful. This feels like a moment when we have broken through the quagmire of political impasse and cable news brainwash, and gotten both community and common sense on our side.

But if we had the floor and could speak loudly and publicly, what would we say? What arguments would work best?

I can't say it better than Rachel Maddow has been saying it, over and over for the last few weeks: Americans, when they can clearly see what conservative fiscal policies do, don't seem to like them very much. Americans don't want to line the pockets of the rich. Unfortunately for Scott Walker, he just provided a little too much clarity about Republican policies and who they benefit. Democrats have a chance to stand up and just... be Democrats. Defend the working class.

As Maddow says in this piece (, "‎Democrats are finally taking the kind of stand, and showing the kind of spine, that the Democratic base has frankly been weeping for my entire adult life."

A little clarity in American politics... could it be around the corner? Even that might be too hopeful.

Atlanta Roofing said...

Actually the unions and Democrats agreed to the budget cuts and pension reforms that Walker wanted and needed, they just didn't want to get rid of collective bargaining. Even Walker on the phone with fake Koch was saying that was the most important thing. Because what they will do without collective bargaining the state and local govt's can change anything they want in the work contract. They could make teachers come in 2 hours earlier in the morning in order to help with the school and setting up for the day and also give them time for their classes. Or lets say this time in the Parks and recreations dept in a county that is having financial difficulty, they decided to put he workers on 4 day work weeks to clear a whole in the budget. And if they don't like it then they are fired and new workers are hired and they may be just part time.

Heather DuBois Bourenane said...

Caroline, this is absolutely fantastic! I've been dragging my kids along with me to the rallies for 3 weeks, and it's been amazing for all of us to learn together what solidarity really means. Where else but Madison could I get so excited about taking a 4- and 6-year-old into an angry mob?

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and analysis! This really hits the mark.

Amy J said...

I can only echo what others have said - lucid and, especially, civil. I wish my students here in Northeast Louisiana cared about what's going in elsewhere in the country (and the world...). The problem always seems to be that those most at risk do not really understand what's at stake for themselves...and of course, those explaining it best seem only to be preaching to the choir, as one says down here.

Theresa said...


Such clarity and civility: a model of public discourse. Thank you.

Terry Kelley

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