Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Symbol of Progressive America Today

Her name is Joanne Kloppenburg. A month ago I had no idea who she was. When she emerged as the woman on whom Wisconsinites and progressives throughout this great land were pinning their hopes to stop and reverse the Scott Walker assault on unions and working families, not only in Wisconsin but across the nation, I wondered whether she was up to the task. Was she a good enough candidate or just another sacrificial lamb the Democrats hoped to contest a seat they thought they knew (and had reason to believe at the time) they could not win? 

But then some kind of wonderful happened. She was on the ballot, and she was our candidate. No ifs, ands, or buts. Joanne was up against incumbent Justice David Prosser, a conservative with statewide name recognition, former Speaker of the State House, and solid Walker man. He dismissed his opponent and proudly associated himself with Walker's toxic policies. The race was on. What started out as a comfortable 55-25 percent lead for Prosser vanished as Kloppenburg gained an amazing, jaw-dropping 30 points, pulling even with Prosser by election day, then pulling ahead, I predict, to win the final recount.

It was the  culmination of all those massive protests by tens of thousands of Wisconsinites in sub-freezing weather against Walker's war on unions and the middle class. It capped a triumphant pushback by progressives, energized and awakened from their slumber for the first time time since 2008. There's no other way to say it: It was one of the great victories in the history of the progressive movement in America. There were other great victories for progressives, but this one has an especially sweet flavor, because of the lessons learned by young people just getting involved in politics, in civics and democracy. Teachers protesting with their students were buoyed, saying it's not the kind of thing they can learn in the classroom or from a textbook. Until the protest movement was galvanized into action, this kind of thing for those students was the stuff of Hollywood and movies. They got their first taste of the real thing with Barack Obama's election, but then fell back into the routine of their lives, thinking their work was done until 2012.

Think about it. How many young people were drawn to the negative, racist, and selfish slash and burn message of the Tea Party? Not many. And then Gov. Scott Walker hands them a cause on a silver platter. I like the odds of this cause beating out the Paul Ryan and Tea Party "cause" because it's not top-down and it's not astro-turf. It's grassroots, bottom-up, spontaneous and organic.

Democracy requires constant attention, cultivation, tending to, or the seedling that was planted will shrivel and die. It's a simple lesson in concept but rarely followed through in practice. Joanne Kloppenburg's titanic struggle against the symbol of a repressive state, carried with her the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin citizens and reached beyond its borders. I have no sense, still, of Joanne  Kloppenburg as a person or a candidate for the State Supreme Court. But the people of Wisconsin — those who know her best — embraced her candidacy. And she came through for them. For all of us: Progressives, union households, ordinary middle class Americans. Her victory was truly the people's triumph.

Joanne Kloppenburg, improbable, but magnificent, dragonslayer.

Young people not yet jaded by politics learned a great lesson in civics. If you cede to the opposition the policies and ideas that you so passionately fought for, they will quickly become imperiled. But if you engage, fight for what you believe in, and VOTE — then anything and everything is possible. Yesterday, Joanne Kloppenburg, America's accidental progressive, showed the way. Yesterday was a great day for democracy.

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