Events in Wisconsin
Every struggle in American society is a struggle over the meaning of freedom. Freedom is the keyword of American politics. It is the foundation for individual rights and our market economy. It is the guidepost for all institutions. Our many national heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, among others – used their power to protect and expand the freedoms of citizens. They spoke eloquently of freedom’s purposes in enhancing the ability of people from all backgrounds to control their lives. Freedom does not guarantee wealth and success, but it promises everyone a chance.
The vigorous protests in Madison, Wisconsin are at the center of America’s current national debate about freedom. Governor Scott Walker sincerely believes that our government is spending too much money on various programs, services, and employees. He was elected by citizens around the state who feel that excessive taxes and other contributions to government expenses are limiting their freedoms. We must take these feelings seriously. They are a powerful force in American politics today.
The critics of Governor Walker who are peacefully and passionately demonstrating at the Capitol are not insensitive to popular anger about excesses in government spending, particularly during a period of slow and uncertain economic growth. The union leaders, the teachers, the fire-fighters, and especially the students have accepted that they must make serious sacrifices in wages and benefits to support a fiscally sound society – one that lives within its means. Financial bankruptcy for the state would bankrupt every citizen’s freedom. Talking to hundreds of students in the last week, I am certain that our new generation of citizens, raised during a period of recession, understand this fact. They have shown themselves in the last week to be remarkably thoughtful, mature, and reasonable. I am proud of them.
The protesters in Madison and their sympathizers are defending their freedom to have some say in their own future. Ironically, their argument is similar to the one voiced by opponents of recent American health care legislation. Citizens object to government actions that deny ordinary men and women control over their lives. Citizens of all political stripes demand the respect to have their voices heard, their legitimate concerns addressed, and their interests represented in decision-making.
Governor Walker’s breakneck efforts to balance the state budget by denying citizens any input in the process (through public discussion, open hearings, or negotiations) are an affront to the freedoms of hardworking citizens. The protests at the Capitol are not about the fiscal measures proposed by the governor. They are protests about freedom: the rights of men and women to be included in the process, to feel represented and respected even if they must accept sacrifices they would rather avoid.
The whole world is indeed watching Madison. Our city and state have played this role many times before. In the past, we have shown leadership in efforts to expand the freedom of citizens so that they can produce more and live better lives. Our present struggles are the newest chapter in this proud history.
The solutions are not simple, and they are not without risk. The challenges we face are great, but so are the opportunities for reform and renewal. In the end, we must find new ways to protect the freedoms of hard-working citizens and innovative institutions. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan are, of course, revered for doing just that.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.