Weekend Diversion: Stand Up, Wisconsin!

“If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” –Abraham Lincoln


Democracy is hard. There’s a reason I became an astrophysicist and not a politician, and it’s rare that I talk about politics here. But every once in a while, I see something happening that’s so egregious that I have to stand up and speak out for what’s right in this world. Bob Marley would likely approve; have a listen to his great song,

Get Up, Stand Up.
So, representative democracy is hard.

In principle, the people come together and elect a candidate that will best represent their interests in government. And these Representatives will then get together to make laws and policies that shape their cities, states, and the entire nation.

And people advocate for different things. Social justice, economic freedom, public welfare, small government, etc. But in all of this, we have designed our governments to make it difficult to pass these laws. In particular, we want all the people represented, we want all the voices heard, and we want everybody’s legitimate interests to be addressed. And in the end, amendments are made to bills until everyone has had their say, and then a vote takes place. If half of the governing legislature and the head of state all vote for the new bill, that’s what it takes to make a new law. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.

And then we have a state that is particularly dear to me: Wisconsin. Full of kind, generous, hard-working people who were good to me — an outsider — Wisconsin is also where I met the wonderful person I’m now married to. But something is rotten in the state of Wisconsin, and I cannot remain silent about it.

And depending on where you’re getting your news from, you might only be getting 5% of the story.

As many of you know, Wisconsin now holds a Republican majority (19-14) in the state senate, and has a new Republican governor, Scott Walker. As is being reported, Wisconsin faces a budget deficit, they are trying to pass a new budget full of spending cuts, but the democrats ran away from the state capital, stalling the vote, and 12,000 Wisconsinites stand to lose their jobs if the budget doesn’t go through.

And, as we say in New York, if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Because the new state government just cut taxes for the wealthiest Wisconsinites weeks ago, creating a large part of the budget shortfall that Wisconsin now faces.

Because the State Representative from Oshkosh, WI — a metropolitan area of over 150,000 people — isn’t being allowed to use his voice.

Is that so,” you incredulously ask? See for yourself.

How can you believe in the government when they’re going to destroy public transportation in your city, without even debating or discussing it?! My hats off to that brave Representative for remaining as composed as he did, because this is what being railroaded looks like.

And it’s why stalling the vote by running away is the only option the Democratic Senators have. It’s why good people all over Wisconsin support them. And it’s why, at last count, 80,000 people are protesting this unilateral regime.

You might not even be aware of this issue if you live in the United States, but support for Wisconsin’s workers — who are about to lose their voices too, in the form of the right for workers to bargain as a union (seriously, what is this, the 1890s?) — is worldwide.

You have to be allowed to use your voice. You have to allow the people you disagree with to use theirs, too. It’s the price we pay for freedom and democracy, and that part of it shouldn’t be negotiable.

So what would I propose as a solution to this mess? Well, some people have suggested a recall, and while eight of the State Senators could be recalled right now, Wisconsin law prevents the Governor from being recalled for a full year. But 80,000 people are a large public force to reckon with, and if I could use them to do anything I wanted, here’s what I would do.

Human barricades are one of the most effective form of civil disobedience that ordinary citizens have at their disposal. And 10,000 people is certainly a large enough force to barricade one State Senator into their place of residence. Barricade eight State Senators into their homes, have the minority party return, and vote on that bill. With 25 people there, you’ll have quorum to vote, but with 8 members of the majority party not in attendance, the minority party should be able to defeat the bill, 14-11.

This still won’t solve the larger problem: the interests of the people are not being represented by their elected government. Why not? I have a pretty good idea, and as long as large amounts of money from a few corporations and individuals is legally allowed to sway public opinion before an election, this will be a problem.

(If you’re not going to follow the links above, they demonstrate that the principal financiers of Scott Walker run a monstrously unethical multi-billion-dollar company that — under their watch — broke the law more than 24,000 times. And paid, cumulatively, only a few million in fines for it.)

So keep fighting, Wisconsin, and I couldn’t be more proud of how you’re exercising your first amendment rights!