“You will live in the history books!” Michael Moore shouted from the rotunda of the state Capitol to the thousands of Wisconsin workers, teachers and their allies who had come Saturday to protest against Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on public sector unions and public services. Speaking without a microphone, in a voice that was worn but enthusiastic after addressing tens of thousands of protesters outside the Capitol, Moore told the crowd inside: “You have inspired so many people. You have inspired the whole country. I just had to come and thank you.”
In response came the now familiar chants of “Thank you! Thank you!” that greet every speaker who gets what this uprising in Wisconsin is all about.
And Moore does get it. He gets it in a fundamental sense, the sense of having waited a very long time for some mass of citizens, somewhere in America, to say: “We have had it!”
A dream deferred long enough can give way, even in the most optimistic and hopeful of Americans, to cynicism and despair.
Three weeks ago, the smart bet was that the economic powers that be would score another victory, perhaps their greatest victory of recent years, in the progressive heartland of Wisconsin. Walker had proposed to strip state, county and municipal workers, as well as teachers, of their collective bargaining rights. Union leaders and members were in shock. This was the most aggressive assault on the free speech and freedom of association rights of working people Wisconsin has ever seen. And it was the beginning of a national push to undermine the political power of unions to such an extent that the balance would permanently tip toward corporations, which were freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling to spend whatever they like on the buying of election results.
It wasn’t just the naive and disconnected punditocracy that imagined Walker was certain to win the day. Many of the governor’s most ardent critics doubted that his move would stir much more than a moan of mixed indignation and resignation. Instead, the governor’s overreach was met with something unprecedented in recent American history: a push back from working Americans that developed into a movement that has stalled Walker’s initiative and, as Moore says, “aroused a sleeping giant — the working people of the United States of America.”
This is what matters about the uprising in Wisconsin. Working families were battered before Walker announced his plan. Working families will be battered no matter what happens in Wisconsin. Much is needed — the renewal of manufacturing towns, the restoration of rural communities, the re-establishment of progressive taxation and accountability for banks and speculators to balance budgets and usher in an era when government works for the people rather than billionaire campaign contributors. All of what must be accomplished is at the other end of the arc of history that is being bent in Wisconsin.
But the arc has begun to bend toward justice. Something fundamental has shifted. And Moore came to Wisconsin because he recognizes how precious this moment is, not just in a political sense, not just in an economic sense, but in an emotional and idealistic sense. It is possible to believe again.
What Wisconsin has provided is a response to the closing scene of Moore’s remarkable 2009 documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” After Moore has gone to Wall Street to try to get America’s money back, after he has marked off a “crime scene” where hundreds of billions of tax dollars were diverted to bail out the very banks and corporations that caused the financial meltdown of 2008, he speaks to the American people about how frustrating it is that such wrongdoing has not inspired an uprising on the part of working Americans.
After recounting Franklin Roosevelt’s “Economic Bill of Rights,” and detailing the nation’s drift from FDR’s faith that America could be a just and democratic land, Moore details how the hedge-fund managers and CEOs got bailed out while working Americans got layoffs and foreclosure notices. “I refuse to live in a country like this and I’m not leaving,” he says. “We live in the richest country in the world. We all deserve a decent job, health care, a good education, a home to call our own. We all deserve FDR’s dream. It’s a crime that we don’t have it. And we never will as long as we have a system that enriches the few at the expense of the many. Capitalism is an evil and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something good for all people … and that something is called democracy.”
That’s the political point of Moore’s film, but he finishes on what is actually a more profound note. Worn and worried, he says: “You know, I can’t really do this anymore unless those of you who are watching in the theater want to join me. I hope you will. And speed it up!”
It took the better part of two years. But on the first cold Saturday of March 2011, Michael Moore stood before tens of thousands of public workers, teachers, farmers, students and their allies who had come to hear him attack the lie that “America is broke” with the truth: “The country is awash in wealth and cash. It’s just that it’s not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich.”
Speaking of the bankers, the speculators and the corporate CEOs, Moore said: “They have created a poison pill that they know you will never want to take. It is their version of mutually assured destruction. And when they threatened to release this weapon of mass economic annihilation in September of 2008, we blinked. As the economy and the stock market went into a tailspin, and the banks were caught conducting a worldwide Ponzi scheme, Wall Street issued this threat: Either hand over trillions of dollars from the American taxpayers or we will crash this economy straight into the ground. Fork it over or it’s goodbye savings accounts. Goodbye pensions. Goodbye United States Treasury. Goodbye jobs and homes and future …
“The executives in the board rooms and hedge funds could not contain their laughter, their glee, and within three months they were writing each other huge bonus checks and marveling at how perfectly they had played a nation full of suckers. Millions lost their jobs anyway, and millions lost their homes. But there was no revolt. … Until now!”
The look of delight on Moore’s face when he uttered those words, and the knowing roar of approval from the crowd, was the most powerful moment Saturday.
It was followed not by the poignant plea for engagement that closed “Capitalism: A Love Story,” but rather by a celebration of the answer to that plea.
“On, Wisconsin!” Moore shouted. “Never has a Michigander been more happy to share a big, great lake with you! You have aroused the sleeping giant known as the working people of the United States of America. Right now the earth is shaking and the ground is shifting under the feet of those who are in charge. Your message has inspired people in all 50 states and that message is: WE HAVE HAD IT! We reject anyone who tells us America is broke and broken. It’s just the opposite! We are rich with talent and ideas and hard work and, yes, love. Love and compassion toward those who have, through no fault of their own, ended up as the least among us. But they still crave what we all crave: Our country back! Our democracy back! Our good name back! The United States of America. NOT the Corporate States of America. The United States of America!”
The crowd took up the chant: “The United States of America,” “The United States of America,” “The United States of America!”
It was clear that the American story of submission and surrender was done. Now, finally, the American story — not just the Wisconsin story but the American story — of the fight for a republic that might yet realize FDR’s dream of economic liberty has begun.
Michael Moore is not alone anymore when he says that he refuses to live in an America defined and deranged by banksters and crooked CEOs. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of Americans are coming, as their ancestors did, to the village green, to the city hall, to the Capitol Square and declaring: “We refuse to live in a country like this and we’re not leaving.”
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times, Wisconsin’s progressive newspaper.