A Green Look at the Wisconsin Spring (2011)

By Jane Anne Morris

September 2011, Madison, Wisconsin. The legislative recall elections generated by the Wisconsin Spring demonstrations are over.1 Democrats failed to retake the state Senate, gaining only two seats over the fall 2010 total. Republicans now hold the Senate by a 17–16 margin, and retain control of the Assembly and governor’s mansion. In June, both the anti-collective bargaining bill and the Republican budget, little altered, became law. In other words, no revolution. It is a still point in Wisconsin history: time to take stock.

Media coverage of the “Wisconsin Revolution” has been shot through with an array of superlatives, many of them deserved. Wisconsin’s great “Outpouring” that began in February 2011 was a watershed event. The largest crowds at a political demonstration in state history (up to 150,000 in a city of about 200,000). Weeks of continuous occupation of the Capitol building, with 24/7 marchers outside: also unprecedented.

Even more than size or duration, it was the character of this Outpouring—which took place two blocks from my apartment—that most astonishes. I have never seen anything like it in the US in four decades of demonstrating. After weeks of attending demonstrations and talking to people, I realized that much of the unspoken ideological underpinning of the Wisconsin “revolution” was antithetical to most of what a green agenda would be. But disturbing as that was, I see promise as well.

Thanks, officer

The Outpouring featured a massive presence of law enforcement—both on duty “protecting” the Capitol, and as demonstrators. I’d never been to a month-long demonstration before. I’d certainly never been to a demonstration where law enforcement was so overwhelmingly on the protesters’ side. **I’d never been to a month-long demonstration before.

Case in point: By March 6, just before the nightly “sleepover” occupation of the Capitol ended, officers had been instructed to admit demonstrators only in a trickle (3 out, 3 in). As hundreds waited outside in the late-winter cold, I stood in line with five others, including two kids.

We had already marched around the Capitol Square among tens of thousands of others. The 8-year-old, maracas in hand, had just led the crowd for 20 minutes of a popular chant. “What’s disgusting?” she would yell. “Union busting!” the crowd shouted back. Law enforcement officers, from across the state and spanning local and state departments, walked among us with their signs. Others were out of uniform but wore “Cops for Labor” shirts over their jackets. (Law enforcement officers of all stripes were brought in to defend against union “thugs.” Sometimes, DNR wardens guarded the governor’s office. When their shifts ended, they joined the demonstrators.)

The line to get into the Capitol was so long, we could hardly see the doors. Eyeing the kids, an officer walking toward us asked, “How many in your group?” Generally speaking, when questioned by law enforcement at a demonstration, I exercise extreme caution, go limp, or look for the nearest lawyer or legal observer. This time, I didn’t hesitate. “Five—no, six.” Without another word, he summoned us. Smiling, he escorted us past the front of the line and into the Rotunda.

Nobody in line complained; they smiled, too. If this is the new “normal,” it’s a grand thing.

A few days earlier, the local county sheriff had offered remarks that attest to the attitude of law enforcement. After weeks of no violence in a place crawling with uniformed law officers bumping into each other with no enforcing to do, the sheriff called his deputies off Capitol duty guarding the doors to a then-closed Capitol. He noted that he saw no threat to public order, that cops were there to protect people, not marble, and that his deputies were not a “palace guard” for the governor.2

The courtesy and consideration shown by law enforcement toward demonstrators was reciprocated. During the Outpouring, there were daily rallies where tens of thousands of demonstrators saluted firefighters and law enforcement, hugged and high-fived them, and very nearly rocked the Capitol Rotunda off its foundations with chants of “Thank you! Thank you!” that didn’t flag until the marchers had worked their way through three floors of demonstrators.

At one time or another, I saw almost everybody I know in Madison at the demonstrations, across the spectrum of green or greenish persuasions. But these constituted only a tiny percentage of the people who were there.

Who are all these people? (And where have they been?)

The many tens of thousands who came to demonstrate again and again and again were the ones that made the Outpouring historic. Without them, it would have been just the usual 75 or perhaps 1200 suspects who show up at almost any demo. It was not the starving masses against the corporate masters, or the great unwashed demanding bread from the rich. This was the Great Washed.

Nothing scruffy or shabby about this lot: they were well-dressed and well-coifed. Nor were their vehicles beaters; substantial late-model cars and hulking SUVs suddenly packed the downtown parking garages. This was the middle class, still somewhat amazed that they were doing this. Several told me unasked that they had never been to a demonstration before. Not a few admitted that they either hadn’t voted, or had voted for (Republican Governor) Walker. A lone demonstrator’s sign remonstrated, “This would not be necessary if you voted.”

When another sign asserted, “This is Class Warfare,” it meant the Middle Class. In a comment on the budget Walker finally signed, the (Democratic) Assembly Minority Leader said, “The middle class pays more and gets less with this budget,”3 and the Republican agenda was “at the expense of working, middle-class families.”4 Many of the signs reflected this: “End the War on the Middle Class,” “Stop the Attack on Wisconsin Families,” and “Save Middle Class Working Families” were common. News media references to the middle class uprising were routine. The talk show host who popularized “Governor Tool”5 repeatedly railed against the war on the middle class. In the latter days of the Outpouring, a few signs like “Heal Wisconsin, Tax Corporations,” and “Blame Wall Street—No Concessions,” became more common. But “General Strike” or “Tax the Rich” signs remained outliers.

In the Wisconsin Outpouring, the middle class came out in force. For hundreds of demonstrations and issues before Spring 2011, it did not turn out. What made the Outpouring historic was the enraged middle class, among the only ones not already under the bus.

“When they came for Wisconsin, we said no”

The last generation or so of Wisconsin history resembles that of much of the US.

When they came for low-income Wisconsin, we let them “pioneer” the W-2 (“Wisconsin Works”) welfare “reform” that became a model for the national version. Low-income sorts: under the bus.

When they came for family farmers, we watched the daily hemorrhaging of small farms: Under the bus. When they harassed organic raw milk producers, we looked the other way.

When they came to quash efforts at single payer health care, there was no Outpouring, because, hey, many of us (or a spouse) have “Cadillac” health insurance.

When they came for low-income students, raised tuition and fees, and continued corporatizing the state university system, we didn’t show up.

When they came to build more coal plants, extend the lives of creaky nukes, and store radioactive waste in makeshift quonset huts, we shrugged. Safe and sustainable energy policy: under the bus.

When they came for the LGBT community, no Outpouring, and the civil union constitutional amendment went under the bus.

When they came for undocumented workers (some of whom weren’t even getting paid), and denied immigrants’ rights: no Outpouring.

Business as usual before the Outpouring saw rural and urban public transit wither, while the statewide system of countertop-smooth highways expanded. Big box everything stores proliferated (and are wildly popular in this state) as those familiar Mom-and-Pop businesses went out of business one by one.

The state granted corporate cranberry farmers special dispensation, and looked the other way when water quality suffered. We watched as corporate farms and CAFOs6 not only came, and expanded, but continued to reap subsidies, tax breaks and “regulation lite” from environmental agencies. Both permitted pesticide and fertilizer use and manure-spreading “accidents” continue to pollute state waters. In less than a generation, amber waves of GMO crops (including most of the corn and soybeans) spread over the state.

We watched factory after factory leave Wisconsin seeking cheaper labor and greater subsidies, as laid off workers took jobs at single-digit wages and without job security or benefits. We have turned construction sites, factories, hospitals and schools into similarly tiered systems: A few at the top get decent income and benefits, a few in the middle cling to hope of same, and the rest at the bottom are non-union and non-permanent. We cut social services for food pantries, the homeless, halfway houses, drug treatment programs and affordable housing.

And for all this, steady as she goes over decades, no Outpouring.

We let big water-bottling corporations into the state, putting their profits over the soundness of our aquifers. The legislature privatized the power line grid system so that utilities could dirty our air while profiting from out-of-state electricity sales. We saw the continued weakening of tort laws and similar protections for Jane and John Does. Oops, under the bus. And, right here in Madison, we watched a blatant, brutal, protracted and very public union-busting campaign at a popular store in a known liberal bastion. But no Outpouring. During the union-crushing operation and afterwards, people kept going to the Whole Foods Store in droves.

During the Outpouring, someone carried the placard, “When They Came For Wisconsin, We Said NO.” History records what Wisconsin did when they came. Generally, we said no neither as a state, nor as the middle class. Results were not notably different under Republican or Democratic governors.

But this time, when they came for the middle class, whittled down to the small proportion of public employees whose jobs were not yet privatized, farmed out to subcontractors, turned into temp jobs or downsized, all hell broke loose.

Getting lucid about the American dream

For most participants, the point of the Outpouring was to preserve and expand the current middle class iteration of a lifestyle known as the American Dream.7

The American Dream may have had roots in notions of self-fulfillment, achievement and self-development, but its 20th and 21st century flowering took on the rot of planned obsolescence and invented needs. The pathologically obsessive consumption of stuff—from rare earth elements to plastic bling—undergirds a system where the same propaganda machine manufactures both needs and consent. For the relative few who enjoy it, the American Dream has always been “sustained” only at the cost of casting its consequences over national borders and state boundaries, across class, ethnic and species lines, and onto future generations.

While I support without reservation the rights of everyone to collectively bargain—and further, to live comfortable lives, get health care, enjoy good food and community, and not worry about job security—the American Dream, the happy daze of two-car families in the ‘burbs: the American Dream is the planet’s nightmare. It is the fossil-fueled engine of the most prodigal resource consumption machine in history. It is difficult to imagine anything more un-green than the American Dream.

At one point, the pro-union talk show host I’ve mentioned suggested that cops drive their patrol cars to the Capitol, turn on the sirens, lock the doors and then toss the keys. But this radio personality who so vociferously urged on the demonstrators, who mercilessly berated “Governor Tool,” has another side. He collects gunboat-styled American-made cars, never met a road or highway he didn’t like, and on his darker days ridicules gardeners and bicycle commuters. When he spoke for a general strike, it was to protect the middle class, the right to cruise around for the sheer hell of it in an American-made gas-guzzler.

It was the right to have a good union job stapling together a mcmansion in a new urbanism faux village, or pouring concrete for another nuclear power plant. It was the chance to be a well-paid nurse with benefits and job security at a corporate hospital dispensing overpriced, and perhaps unnecessary and dangerous but profitable, drugs.

In Wisconsin, we think nothing of driving dozens or even scores of miles to commute to work, go to a sports bar, shop at a transnational discount store, or, my favorite, gas up at a favorite station to save a few cents. We eat high on the food chain, with cheese, brats8 and ice cream comprising the most important food groups (after beer, that is). And we are seeing to the next generation: the whole state is a fertile New North American Consumer incubator, raising multiple broods of new humans to take for granted the profligate consumption rates that many view as their birthright.

In this context of perceived plenty, it is ironic that at the Outpouring there was no large-scale questioning of the Republicans’ underlying scarcity claim: that our society lacks the resources to meet everyone’s basic needs, and so must cut jobs and reduce public services.9 Our immense war expenditures were hardly mentioned.

Enormous (and growing) subsidies to corporations engaged in the most egregious industries and practices were seized on as something to complain about, but not as a reason to reject the scarcity ruse (and the Democrats’ failure to effectively question it). The “Tax the rich” theme was as a mosquito buzzing around the “Stop the War on the Middle Class” juggernaut. People live as though there is a scarcity of money, but an abundance of fossil fuels, electricity, and clean water—when the reverse is closer to the truth.

The middle class American dream has become exponentially more resource-intensive even since “Leave it to Beaver” days. But at the Outpouring, the goal of protecting the remaining middle class drowned out any concern for those already thrown under the bus, or for a broader program aimed at establishing a truly just and sustainable society. Suffice it to say that the Outpouring was not a context where there was much talk about the ludicrous idea of basing an economic system on the prospect of constant growth.10

Nor was it a place to suggest moving beyond individual efforts and toward downsizing our entire economy in a big way, much less de-industrializing.11 Or that Zero Waste, rather than feeding the corporate waste-recycling-industrial complex, should be our goal.12 Or how we can’t shop our way to paradise with green shopping, greenwashing and the like, living in happyland.13

Any green future must include a re-imagining of the American Dream so that it is not the planet’s nightmare. This was not the concern that unleashed the Outpouring, but those who came may be closer to understanding it than before.

Can the middle class transcend itself?

Prior to the Outpouring, the Wisconsin middle class overwhelmingly stood by while conservative-corporate forces hacked away at rights, social services, and our natural infrastructure. They also unabashedly lived a lifestyle scripted by a cultural infrastructure that is oblivious to the ecological and social costs of resource use.

But Wisconsin’s Republican-led new anti-collective bargaining and budget laws have already led unions to rethink their roles, membership, certifications, staffing, focus, priorities and strategies. Perhaps middle class union members will bring a similar re-envisioning to the nature of their needs. They are getting less money, they are less secure, and health care and other basic needs are becoming more problematic.

They got a glimpse of why minorities, peaceniks, women, immigrants, Native Americans, environmentalists and others have been demonstrating all these years. Maybe they noticed the strong support of UTI (Union de Trabajadores Immigrantes) protesters. Maybe they saw the LGBT contingent marching.

Seeing themselves, and their children, slipping toward the world of the have-nots, the middle class may be ready to take up common cause with others who have already been thrown under the bus. Maybe they are ready to consider a shift from sharing more stuff with fewer people to sharing less stuff with more people. They might consider joining with those who drive less, walk more; eat less fast food, and keep more gardens; poke at fewer gadgets, and dance more polka.

If serious Greens engage this newly roused middle class, they may be able to make some headway. If they don’t, the jobs-at-any-price bait will be taken and we’ll be even further from solutions, despite the Outpouring.


  1. In July, an incumbent Democratic senator withstood a recall challenge by a Republican. On August 9, only two Democrats prevailed against six Republican senators up for recall. On August 16, two incumbent Democrats withstood challenges from Republicans in the last two recalls of the summer.
  2. Dave Mahoney, Sheriff of Dane County (containing Madison, the capital), made the remarks on or about March 2. The demonstrations started in earnest February 15, after a few smaller rallies.
  3. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. Clay Barbour and Mary Spicuzza, Governor signs $66 billion plan, Wisconsin State Journal, June 27, 2011.
  4. Peter Barca, A historic victory won by Wisconsin’s middle-class, in Daily Kos, Aug. 16, 2011.
  5. “Sly in the Morning,” (John “Sly” Sylvester) AM 1670 thus dubbed Republican Governor Scott Walker, because Walker claimed that by eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public workers, we was giving local governments the “tools” to balance their budgets.
  6. CAFO means Confined Animal Feeding Operation.
  7. I didn’t personally see any “American Dream” signs in Wisconsin, but the UAW publication Solidarity printed a picture of a demonstration in Lansing, Michigan (where similar issues are being played out), from April 2011, with a sign that proclaimed, “Fight the Attack on the American Dream” (Honoring our retirees, honoring solidarity, Solidarity, July–August 2011.)
  8. Means bratwurst.
  9. The Sept.–Oct. 2011 issue of U.A.W.’s magazine Solidarity belies this trend, with a cover story titled, “America’s Not Broke: The problem with the U.S. economy isn’t out-of-control spending—it’s an unfair tax system.”
  10. See, for example, Stan Cox, Thinking about shrinking: A Green Path through Hard times, in Synthesis/Regeneration 49, Spring 2009; and Nick Buxton (interview of Edgardo Lander), How the Myth of Unlimited Growth is Destroying the Planet, in Synthesis/Regeneration 54, Winter 2011.
  11. See Don Fitz, Production-Side Environmentalism, in Synthesis/Regeneration 47, Fall 2008; Jane Anne Morris, The Case for Un-Building America: Watch Where You Put Your Stimulus Package, Synthesis/Regeneration 49, Spring 2009; and Don Fitz, Energy, Environment and Exhortationism, (book review) in Synthesis/Regeneration 49, Spring 2009.
  12. See Paul Palmer, The Death of Recycling, Rachel’s Democracy & Health News #900 (March 29, 2007); and the Zero Waste Institute.
  13. See Ted Trainer, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, in Synthesis/Regeneration 48, Winter 2009; Stan Cox, The Political Economics of Greenwashing, in Synthesis/Regeneration 48, Winter 2009; Alexis Passadakis, 20 Theses Against Green Capitalism, in Synthesis/Regeneration 50, Fall 2009; Ted Brilliant, No Combination of Alternative Energy Systems Can Replace Fossil Fuels, in Synthesis/Regeneration 52, Spring 2010; and Jeff Dardozzi, The Church of LEED, Passive House and the Dangers of Going Green, in Synthesis/Regeneration 53, Fall 2010.
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