That’s an old insight in the social sciences, stated pretty clearly by E. E. Schattschneider in The Semi-Sovereign People fifty years ago.
The point: The losers in any political struggle have an interest in bringing new people into the battle, mobilizing reinforcements or appealing to superior authorities. Those who are winning have every interest in keeping the conflict from spreading. (As the oldest of three children, it was easy for me to understand this; it’s the baby of the family who’s most likely to call for mom to intervene.) Protest is one tactic for getting outside attention and turning audiences into activists.
The unfolding Wisconsin story illustrates the importance of capturing and activating audiences. Governor Walker had the votes in the state legislature to push through almost anything he wanted, and what he wanted, among other things, was to cripple the unions representing public employees. Democrats in the state senate, facing a sudden vote on largely unknown legislation, took the best shot they had in stopping Governor Walker by denying the majority the quorum needed for taking a vote. They’re still in Illinois.
Maybe Governor Walker or a few of the Republican senators will reconsider. More important, however, is that by taking off for Illinois, the senators gave their allies both attention and time to make their case.
This is outrageous, of course, and the people who are most outraged are those who want the spotlight on the issue to go away. (The National Republican party is heavily invested in the issues–and the personalities–in Wisconsin.) Republicans in the state senate, and then across the country, have attacked the absent senators. According to numerous Republican governors, the state senators are derelict in their duty, and that duty is to go back to Madison and lose. Nikki Haley, in South Carolina, calls the missing senators, “cowardly.” New Jersey’s Chris Christie announced that he trusts Governor Walker to do what’s best for Wisconsin. And Arizona Governor Jan Brewer described the Democratic senators as “despicable,” for preventing the majority from passing the bill.
But the Democrats in the state senate took their politics outdoors, where they might win, and where, even if they don’t win, others could see them and join them. And their supporters have come through, big time, with large demonstrations in the Capitol. The unions most directly affected have found allies in other unions that were exempted, protected by the police and led in marches by the firefighters. They also found allies across Wisconsin (and particularly in Madison) who had other gripes with Governor Walker and his budget plans. They’ve been demonstrating, sleeping in the state capitol building, and spreading the word.
[Here’s David Weigel’s report on the camp-out. Here’s a professor’s participant/observer report on the demonstrations in Madison.]
Supporters outside Wisconsin have rallied to support the demonstrators’ cause. Ian’s Pizza in Madison has shut down its normal operations and is only making and delivering pizzas donated (from around the world) to the protesters; restaurants up and down State Street have been donating food to the demonstrators.
Moveon.org has sponsored sympathy demonstrations across the United States, including demonstrations in every state capital, and the AFL-CIO has joined in. Organizers asked demonstrators to wear red and white, badger colors, to show their support to the protesters in Wisconsin. (Here’s the New York Times report; here’s one from CBS News.) The rallies are going to vary in size and tone; some have been met by Tea Party counterdemonstrators.
At this point, however, the most important point is that the political battle has extended far beyond the Wisconsin legislature, and whatever happens in Madison will play out far beyond the borders of Wisconsin.
Note that the senators did not leave the state until Thursday, when huge protests had already developed. They would not have gone without the backing of a protest movement.