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How the Wisconsin Uprising Changed America and Why Its Renegade Politics Are Here to Stay

John Nichols talks about his new book, "Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Occupy Wall Street," and what happens next.

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It was made clear to him that that Bill of Rights had to not be a defense, but also have an offensive component to it. And the offensive component is in the First Amendment. You have a right to freedom of speech, which is great, but a little bit limited by your ability to get a microphone. You have a right to the freedom of the press, which is great, and expanding because of what’s happened digitally. But still, a little bit limited when you’re up against a Rupert Murdoch.

But the great power is that right to assemble. If you can get your friends into a square, then you can petition for the redress of grievances, you can make a demand on power that’s overwhelming. What happened in Madison was this incredibly powerful reminder of that impulse, that grassroots citizens get that if you’re affronted by government, what you’re supposed to do is go and rally and march on the capitol. They came and came and came, in ever-increasing numbers, because they believed, not that they were committing a symbolic act, but that they were challenging government.

They were trying to force government not to do something they found dramatically awful, which is take away collective bargaining rights, take away the civil service, take away local democracy. Here’s the key part. It's suggested that they got beat.

Of course, the governor did implement parts of his agenda, but two days after he signed the bill, 180,000 people came to the square in Madison. What they understood, that our media and our political class has yet to catch up with, is that once you’ve begun to assemble to petition for the redress of grievances, you don’t stop just because they don’t say yes the first time. That is so powerful.

And I would argue that that is a renewal of an American protest tradition that I think really faded after the ‘60s. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t stop with one march. The anti-war movement didn’t. And the women’s movement, in its early days, really had continual action. You have to keep coming back and you have to combine the street, the assembly, with the electoral. The electoral can never exist anymore in isolation. If all that progressive politics is about is electing “the right person,” it’s doomed.

But if you combine the street with the electoral, fascinating things happen. When hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites assembled, Democratic state senators looked out the window and said, we can either be cogs in the machine or we can respond to this demand. The assembly and petition for the redress of grievances worked. You got one of the major political parties to become what it’s supposed to be, a pro-labor party. There’s still a lot of work to do there, but boy, that’s dramatic.

SJ: I love the line you have about citizens don’t elect officials to rule over them, they elect them to be responsive to them.

JN: Of course, elections matter. We respect those who are elected. But we also demand that they respect the people who elect them. It’s an ongoing process.

Jefferson had that great line. “We didn’t fight a revolution to elect a king for four years.” And so I think Wisconsin, and to an even greater extent Ohio, where you had that veto referendum, you saw the realization of the founding promise seen through the progressive promise. This is a really great linkage which we on the left ought not forget.

To the extent that we hearken back to that, we start to create a frame in which we can actually realize democracy. That’s what I think you saw some of in Wisconsin, you saw a lot of in Ohio. And, frankly, I think we’ve seen a lot of it with Occupy, that Occupy has begun to force local elected officials, police officials, others, to really respond to popular demands.