The Magic that was this Journey

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

13 – 4/19/11: E pluribus unum

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Preamble, United States Constitution)

You’re a little man in a little town who has to go hat in hand before your alderman to beg for the bullets in your gun and the paper in your copier. You have no idea of the power money can bring to bear, Chief Van Alstyne. None at all. (Julia Spencer-Fleming, One was a Soldier, 2011, p. 365)

I had to come to Wisconsin to find people talking about the unprecedented level of inequality in the U.S. And, I had to come to Wisconsin to find people talking about the power of money.

I finished a blog two posting ago with this statement:

I am outraged that those in power, in some powerful states like the one I am currently visiting, are not willing to interrogate the excesses of early 21st century capitalism to generate revenues by closing loopholes contributing to the historically unprecedented inequality in our country. And, I’m outraged that so few people are outraged by this.
As it turns out, nearly everybody I talked to in Wisconsin, in Madison and Ashland, are outraged by this. As most readers know, Madison, Wisconsin has been a hot-bed of democratic action for the past few months.  In January, their new governor, Scott Walker, proposed a “budget repair” bill that required public employees to pay more for pensions and benefits, severely restricted collective bargaining and cut many safety nets. The “Fab 14” or the “Wisconsin 14” Democratic senators left Wisconsin for Illinois in an attempt to delay voting for lack of a quorum.  These senators returned to the legislature the week I was in Wisconsin, after six weeks away.

The governor was practicing his interpretation of representative democracy; he claimed voters elected him to office to enact the kinds of reform he was proposing. The Fab 14 were practicing democratic action by inhibiting quorum with their absence. And, perhaps the most newsworthy practices of democracy came from public employees and union members including teachers, firefighters, police, and all flavors of city, county and state employees.  The Capitol was mobbed with protesters for weeks on end.  The legislature and Governor did pass/sign the budget repair bill without the absent Democratic senators but the day before I was in Madison, the Democrats returned and action was taken on a revised, somewhat softer, bill.  The important point here is that all of these actions were part of the democratic process, flawed as it may be, not just the protests. Remember Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

When in Madison, the girls and I walked downtown to see what was going on at the Capitol and to interview a few folks.  The first person we approached was one of the few people still protesting outside the Capitol building – he calls himself “Dennis the Menace.” Dennis’ response to the question, “What comes to mind when you think of government” was to recite the preamble to the United States Constitution. He also quoted the often misquoted Bible passage: “the love of money is the root of all evil.” In popular culture, we’ve shortened the passage to “money is the root of all evil” but, as one can see, the actual passage means something very different.  When asked if he separates politics and administration, Dennis said that money separates the two and that the love of money is the powerful’ driving addiction in politics. While he wants little from government (he has embraced a simplicity lifestyle), his mission is to be as much of a menace as possible, fighting against the “fight against people who make less than a million dollars a year.”

I also talked with a graphics designer who was taking her daily lunch-time walk around the Capitol grounds. She was an observer of the protests, not a participant. She said government is not “we the people,” that it is becoming an oligarchy and that is very dangerous.  She was hopeful and excited after the last presidential election and is deeply disappointed at what appears to be folks “not willing to play with others.” She used school yard metaphors for the way politics is played nowadays, talking about not sharing and bullying. What she wants from government is some balance and, like Dennis, wants government to be looking out for those who don’t make millions as much as we look out for those that do. She called on another metaphor for balance: a floating boat.  If one side is overloaded, the boat tips and everyone falls in the water.  She thinks we are all falling into cold, un-swimmable waters.

My most remarkable conversation was with Carole, a woman taking a break from her job as a housekeeper at the nearby YMCA. What comes to mind for her is shame: Madison has always been a town divided, but the divisions now are caustic.  In the past, the divisions were moderated by doing the right thing for the people of Wisconsin. And she feels shame that this is not happening anymore, especially in her beloved, chosen home of Wisconsin.

She felt that if Walker would have just proposed cutting “Badgercare,” without including the assault on public employees’ collective bargaining rights, then the bill would have passed with little protest.  Irrespective of our political and social leanings, Carole said, working for the rights of the impoverished does not tend to bring many folks together. And here’s the bright spot in what happened in Wisconsin; she found the response to Walker’s plans encouraging, en-heartening and enlivening.  Everyone was standing together. The protest was a form of what sociologist Elijah Anderson calls a “Cosmopolitan Canopy,” a space where diverse peoples, who are otherwise segregated culturally and socially, come together and get along.

When asked what she wanted from government, she asked for fairness and equity.  She doesn’t want the budget balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer and she wondered when this was going to stop.  She said, ironically, the poor already know how to cope with loss because they’ve lived it their entire lives.  She is worried about the middle class – those that “have.” – that we won’t be able to cope with the kind of loss coming down the pike.

She thinks Governor Walker could have avoided much of the political upheaval if he had just had a public forum and talked and listened to folks.  She pointed to both the deep disconnections between government and the people and the deep disconnections between people, disconnections that were bridged, at least for a moment, in the protests. Like many others interviewed for this project, Carole is very sad about the way things seem to be going.

As I drove from Madison to Ashland (home of ex-Greener Sharon Anthony, her partner Pat and daughters Sarah and Hailey), the nation was a flutter about a possible shut down of the federal government and NPR had several stories about the implications of such an event.  In one interview, the (female) federal worker said: “this is not real life; this is politics. It’s them flexing their muscles. This has nothing to do with my government service.”

Ashland sits on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. It’s a small, funky, rural town.  Home of Northland College, a small, private liberal arts environmental college and many really big pickup trucks. A friend of my friends gave me a bottle of his homemade maple syrup. He tapped the trees and filled the bottles; his 85 year-old father did everything else, including cutting the firewood to boil the sap.

Pat took me and his girls to the Black Cat Café on Saturday morning so I could talk with the locals that regularly gather there. We rode our bikes – the snow melt was cause for acting like it was spring (the temperature didn’t verify it til late in the day). Over a breakfast of herbed biscuits in wild mushroom gravy (one of the many excellent meals I had on this trip – I really should do an entry in praise of excellent food!), I talked with a number of people over several hours. While I talked with conservatives (in particular, a self-described “outdoors man” whose hobbies involve firearms and small combustion engines) and liberals, all were progressive in one form or the other, living up to Wisconsin’s historically progressive reputation. As with other folks across the country, most said government is not what it is supposed to be.  It is not the collective will of the people, it is not competent (and privatization is not the answer), honest and just.  It is too controlling and too much shaped by corporate greed and moneyed interests (which is one of the reasons why privatization is not the answer).  Folks did not differentiate the political and the administrative.  One person said she may do so under other circumstances but under current conditions, the entire system is failing and failing us.

One man discussed a theory he heard about in college which goes something like this (I modified it using a three-legged stool metaphor – apologies): government sits on a three legged stool – each of the legs represents the three major interest groups which are always vying for power and control of government: the people (citizenry), businesses (the market) and professionals (the bureaucracy). Ostensibly, politics falls on the citizen leg.  I’d argue this stool (or whatever metaphor we are using) needs another leg for politics although one may argue that politics is what you get when you combine the three legs.  If any leg is longer or shorter than the others, the stool is either unsteady or it falls. And, our stool is falling.

One other thing occurred while I was in Wisconsin: an election. The Supreme Court justice race, in particular, was the race to watch.  The sitting justice campaigned as a “yes man” for Governor Walker.  His opponent campaigned as a reasoned judge, one who will not be ruled by politics.  While she didn’t state it outright, she represents interests opposite of Walker’s. Supreme Court seats are nonpartisan, but the battle lines were clearly drawn in this election. 

This election was to be a test of the recent political times – would Wisconsin citizens rubber-stamp Governor Walker and re-elect Prosser or would they “throw the bum out” and elect Kloppenburg? A Kloppenburg win would be seen as a win for grassroots politics. The razor thin margin between the two widened when uncounted ballots were added to the mix a few days after the election.  Prosser, the incumbent, is now winning by a several thousand votes.  While the major cities saw turnouts of a bit greater than 50%, turnout in the state was about 33%, which is high for a mid-term election.  If we look at the percent of eligible voters who are registered, then the participation rate drops even lower. 

Oh, and by the way, Madisonians voted out “Mayor Bob” and replaced him with “Mayor Paul” (who has served two previous, and long, terms as mayor).The two men appear virtually identical in terms of politics and positions. For some reason, Madison voters wanted to “throw one bum out” to replace him with an identical bum.  As my host in Madison, Michael Mucha, had to say: “we all seem to be looking for a hero, for someone to get us out of the messes we are in. Projecting that out to another, instead of taking responsibility ourselves, seems the easy route.”

What’s my point?  Wisconsin seems an apt microcosm of the U.S. and a good description of the results of my talks with folks across the country: we are pretty clearly split on issues, almost 50/50.  EVEN WHEN THERE IS SIGNIFICANT POLITICAL FOMENT.  There are no clear mandates. And, only a small percentage of the eligible population is actually registered and voting which means this dramatic, almost 50/50 split is not, necessarily representative of the majority of all people in the U.S. So, really, forget about these “mandates.”  And, what are the other 50 or so percent of the country doing, if they are not participating in elections and contributing to the political life of their communities?

We do seem to be looking for heroes – for super-action figures who can get us out of our messes by flying faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive…

Which brings us back to the epigraphs of this posting: the Preamble and the quote from Julia Spencer-Fleming’s new novel.  Clearly, we all need to be more aware of the power money can bring to bear and, perhaps, to speak and act against this kind of power (if we all aren’t already doing so). And, we need to remember that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself. Finally, perhaps everything we are looking for with regard to designing a government by, for and of the people is encapsulated in the prescient Preamble, to note:

·         We the people
·         Establish justice
·         Ensure tranquility
·         Provide for the common defense
·         Promote the general welfare
·         Secure the blessings of liberty

I’ve mentioned in other postings that there is a group of young academics in the field proposing some very interesting ways to think about government and public administration.  It seems to me that these preamble elements are encapsulated in their work. More on this in my next, and final, posting.

p.s. I’ve safely returned to Olympia.  The road home from Wisconsin was a blur because all the members of this expedition were road weary and home sick. Except for some time in Bismarck, North Dakota (and what a contrast with Madison, more in my next posting!), we stopped driving only to eat and sleep. It was a grueling homecoming but it sure is good to be home.)

p.s.s. I know long blog postings are the kiss of death but I’ve been sitting on too much information for too many days…a successful blogger I probably will never be.  I am, however, deeply appreciative of those of you who have followed this blog, taken an interest and even posted a few comments!

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