Tens of thousands of people have filled the Capitol grounds in Madison. They have taken over the marble hall itself, banging on the doors of the Senate Chamber and making noise not normally heard in Wisconsin outside of a Harley rally. The Senate Democrats have fled the state, stopping all action for lack of a quorum. It’s hardly business as usual in a state that is generally known for hard work and quiet contemplation, at least when the Packers aren’t playing. What will happen?
The way out is the same way that the good people of Wisconsin and all over the USofA have gotten through this before. Our traditions, sometime enshrined in our Constitutions, laws, and legislative rules are all there for some very good reasons.
Demonstrations were quite common in Wisconsin back when Bob LaFollette was still around. “Free men of every generation must combat renewed efforts of organized force and greed to destroy liberty,” he told a crowd in Madison during his 1924 run for President under the Progressive Party. He carried the state. No one should be surprised to see this surface again in the same place – but shock is the common reaction in the national media. The same lack of understanding of history – or anything outside of immediate reach and the moment – has made useful analysis of turmoil incredibly rare. That’s as true of protests in Madison as it was in Tunis and Cairo.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A few steps back can show us how we got here, and a few more steps back can show us how we get out.
The US has a complicated political system that reaches far deeper than the ink on our Constitution. It is not based on rough majority rule, but on Consensus. The Founding Fathers were a diverse group who naturally agreed on nothing when they found themselves deep in a crisis. It took them months of arguing and frustration before they were able to break the ice with a clear statement of the obvious by Benjamin Franklin:
“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The only reason anyone can talk of the Founding Fathers, or their intents, as a single unit is because of their commitment to Consensus. Jefferson and Paine wanted to incite calls to action with fiery rhetoric, while John Adams wanted to stand firmly on basic principles. They brought it all together because they knew they had to. When it came time later to write a Constitution that enshrined their experience in a government that could withstand the ravages of time, they applied their lessons firmly. The argument over state representation versus popular representation was decided by having two houses, one of many compromises that were made to achieve Consensus and enable them to move forward as one.
These were men who knew that draconian action in response to a crisis was the main tool of tyrants. They spelled this out clearly and carefully, leaving no doubts for all history. Their system was one that rejected majority rule and set up mechanisms that demanded each new generation would have to find a way to Consensus, just as they did.
That is why there are rules that allow one US Senator to place a “hold” on legislation, a device used by Republicans heavily over the last two years to thwart the majority of the US Senate. That is why there is a need for a quorum larger than a majority in the Wisconsin State Senate, a clear attempt to prevent a simple majority from ramming through legislation without Consensus. These rules exist for good reasons.
This is more than theoretical. In our own time, response to an emergency was used to pass the “Patriot Act”, something that has led to actual US Citizens submitting to full body searches and scans just to board an airplane. The Founding Fathers knew that emergencies are how liberty is lost. They tried to warn us, but the lessons have to be learned by each generation.
Without a strong commitment to the strength of unity, our system does not work. When Consensus appears slow and cumbersome nothing winds up happening – by design. That is when the citizens of the nation have always marched. It may seem backwards, but when politicians abandon their commitment to deliberation that builds Consensus it has to play out in the streets.
This is our system. This is our history. This is who we are.
The bill pending in Madison is an attempt to use an emergency situation to needlessly gut public unions who have already agreed to pay and benefit cuts. The attempt to use majority rule to strip rights is a classic power move by tyrants, and it is being met by a combination of raucous action and clever use of the rules. The only way out is for everyone to commit to Consensus, the great tradition that made our nation united and free.
Meanwhile, a sleeping giant may have woken up. The need for Consensus may have slipped out of the reach of politicians who have been either too lazy or greedy to work for it. Consensus may have to come from the people through a process not enshrined in the great ink of our past but sometimes in blood. We will see if the spirit of Fightin’ Bob LaFollette is rising again from Madison. If that is the case, we are a long way from having our system work the way it was set up to. But this is still very much part of our tradition, as the Tea Party people were very quick to point out just a short time ago.
Consensus will come, but only once we all commit ourselves to it. Things have a long way to play out before that happens. But that is how it works.