Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Quasi-Review of John Nichols' Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street


I intended to have a long post looking at some of the commentary out there about the recall, but I haven’t had the time/drive/non-laziness/freedom from actual paying work -- plus this piece took some time. Too bad, because there is a lot of unhinged commentary out there on the recall, including one notable piece claiming that a vote for the recall will establish public union members as the new aristocracy. My status as an ex-Wall Street corporate lawyer allows me a good laugh at that one.

But I’m not going to get into that article. I will instead review/discuss the one book that was sent to me for review, John Nichols’ “Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.” (Pays to send me free books!). Nichols, a Wisconsin native, is a political reporter for the Nation and an Associate Editor for the Capital Times.

I’ve done a number of traditional book reviews, and this will not be one of those (Trade secret -- any reviews that focuses on grammatical mistakes is an insult to the reader). Instead, I’m going to look at a few subjects from the book.

As you can guess from the title, Nichols is very pro-recall. You know what the book is and you know what your getting – a full throated argument against Walker’s tenure and in favor of the protests of the unions. Personally, in a review, I like to take a book for what it is, not what I want it to be. Uprising is not designed to be a dispassionate look at the Wisconsin situation. It is an advocacy book, and does not pretend to be otherwise. It is certainly more high-minded than most of the genre (also, unlike what I suspect is true in most of the genre, Nichols actually wrote his book). There is no calling the other sides’ traitors or idiots, and there doesn’t seem to be a willful disregard for the facts.

As such, it certainly succeeds in painting the picture, giving you a good understanding the opinions of the protestors, and making a cogent (though very debatable) argument that the state’s budget crisis was not as serious as the Walker administration claimed, and that Walker’s tax cuts might have exacerbated the situation. I’m not saying he’s right, but he definitely makes a case.

On the downside, Nichols is way too upbeat about the possibility of the Wisconsin protests sparking a union resurgence, something that would be going against a long-term trend in America. He comes up with his reasons, but they just don’t add up.

However, there are a couple of problems that I would say go beyond the general problems of the genre.

The first one seemed to be a bigger problem when I first read the book, but upon looking at a second time is not as large a focus. It is the theme of the book – Uprising. Nichols tries to connect the book to the Arab Spring that took place last year (the quotes on the first page of Chapter 1 make a direct connection and he calls it the “westernmost exemplar of the Arab Spring” but he drops the connection until his chapter on the media). Now, outside of the post-facto Arab world reality (one that many predicted at the time) that such a comparison is not doing the protestors any favors, it seems quite a stretch to say protestors facing torture and death are the equivalent to protestors facing a little ridicule. It’s a bridge way too far.

Nichols tantalizes us with some fact points, but leaves us hanging. He claims to have been friendly with Scott Walker (he calls him an old friend), and shocked at his current regime. But he doesn’t properly explain Walker’s evolution -- this should be the focal point of the book, not an aside. How was Walker different, why did he change? How did he behave in the past and is this unusual behavioral modification for an official who moves from being an obscure state Senator to Governor? It’s a real missed opportunity.

Nichols also mentions that some Democratic Governors have taken similar executive actions in dealing with unions, but Walker’s legislation was more extreme. How and why? Will those Democratic Governors get a free pass from the unions? If so, why?  Nichols neglects this debate, but instead includes an elongated discussion of Michael Moore’s trip to Wisconsin (without mentioning that Moore faced a recall as well). Here Nichols is trying for too much color and not enough commentary. Moore could have been reduced to a paragraph at best. What we need to understand is if the actions in Wisconsin are really different than NY or California or the Republican dominated states.

A last problem is his use of James Madison, and here we will talk about the recall. I can’t blame Nichols for seeing Madison, Wisconsin and shoehorning a discussion on Madison’s ideology into this story. I would have done the same thing if I was smart enough to recognize it. But I don’t like it. In one sense, I don’t like bringing in historical figures to validate current actions in that manner. There’s so much of difference between their worlds and concerns and ours that it always feels forced. But, more specifically, Nichols does not ask a basic question: what were Madison’s views on the recall? You can say we don’t know, which is true. But you have to at least mention the trail he left in the Constitution.

Madison came to the Constitution Convention loaded to bear. The Randolph/Virginia Plan, which Madison had a major role in drafting, specifically mentions a recall for the lower house (what became the House of Representatives). Yet the recall disappeared. In his extensive notes of the deliberations that serve as the main basis for our knowledge of what went on in Philadelphia that summer, Madison doesn’t discuss why the recall went away. But it was apparently an important issue. The constitutional debates had a serious focus on the lack of a recall for Senators, with Maryland Luther Martin and New York’s Gilbert Livingston using the lack of a recall as a weapon to beat up the pro-Constitution forces. Characteristically, Alexander Hamilton took the charge and laid down what to this day are the prime arguments against the recall. Of course, Hamilton and the pro-recall forces won the day.

But that doesn’t end it. Using the anti-Federalist criticisms, Madison wrote the amendments to the constitution. Yet, he conspicuously left out the recall. Why? We don’t know. But it may suggest that he was no great fan of the device. This may seem an unimportant point, but what do you expect -- this is the Recall Elections Blog.

If you want a book focused from the left on the Wisconsin protests that brought in the recall, Uprising is certainly for you. It has some glaring omissions, but it certainly serves its purpose of explaining the root causes of the protests and recall from the perspective of the unions in Wisconsin.

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