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Wisconsin protests: why 'week of rage' matters to rest of America

Wisconsin protests at the state Capitol pit a new wave of tea party-inspired Republicans against Democrats defending their most cherished ideals. It's a political drama that echoes across the country and could play out again across the newly 'red' Midwest.

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A state Assembly Democrat at the Capitol in Madison, Wis., pumps his fist Friday as participants in the Wisconsin protests rally against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill to severely curtail the rights of state labor unions.

Darren Hauck/Reuters

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The Wisconsin protests are providing one of the first signs that the Midwest could become the primary testing ground for November’s tea party revolution.

Plans by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the legislature to gut collective bargaining – the tool by which public unions secure pay and benefits – for most public employees could spill into other Midwest states as a wave of small-government conservatives elected last year take on some of Democrats’ most cherished ideals.

No region of the country was more comprehensively recast by the 2010 elections than the seven states of the upper Midwest that arc from Minnesota to Ohio. Where before Democrats had held the upper hand, Republicans now have a virtual stranglehold on politics, controlling both houses of the legislature and the governors’ chairs in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The full import of that switch has become apparent on the streets of Madison, Wis., this week. At least 25,000 union Wisconsin protesters amassed Friday morning in and around the Capitol to protest the governor’s plans. Earlier in the week, there had been as many as 40,000. Schools have been canceled, and one rally lasted a marathon 17 hours.

With the state's tea party activists set to counterprotest Saturday, the drama has set the scene for the streets of Madison to become a surrogate for the clash of broader forces that currently define American politics.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) has backed Governor Walker even as President Obama denounced the Wisconsin bill as an "assault on unions." The AFL-CIO, the country's largest union, vowed a national protest to support Wisconsin public employees.

One political scientist has gone so far as to compare the Wisconsin protests with what transpired in Cairo earlier this month.

Yet for the Midwest, the protests hint at a conflict that could extend well beyond this weekend and beyond Wisconsin. With state legislatures redrawing congressional and legislative district maps this year, Midwest Republicans have an opportunity to change the political landscape for years to come.

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"The elections this past November brought to the fore a lot of small-bore conservatives … under a very bad economic environment,” says Robert Bruno, a labor movement expert at the University of Illinois in Champaign. That “presented a perfect opportunity to attack institutions [like unions] that will push for more Great Society programs – that government should be taking care of the poor, regulating the economy, and helping people who are unemployed."

Midwest turns red

In all, Republicans now hold five of seven governorships in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. Last year, they held two.

The story is the same for legislatures in those seven states. Republicans now hold power in six of the seven lower chambers of the legislature (called the House in some states and the Assembly in others) – up from one last year. They also hold five of the seven state Senates. Only Illinois has bucked the trend, with Democrats controlling the General Assembly and the Senate and Democrat Pat Quinn the governor.

Walker was the first of the Midwest’s four new Republican governors to push for weakening collective bargaining. But Ohio and Michigan already have bills targeting unions in the works, too.

Wisconsin Democrats have resorted to extreme measures to hold up the vote. Fourteen Democratic state senators decamped from Madison Thursday, making the statehouse one lawmaker short of a quorum. On Friday, Walker asked two state troopers to collect missing Democratic leader Mark Miller from his home in order to force a vote.

Rising tensions in Madison and could presage the kind of labor unrest that hasn’t been seen in the US since the Great Depression, says Professor Bruno.

"If you're going to take away bargaining rights, you leave them with what?" he says. "You leave them with what they had in the '20s and '30s, you leave them with the streets."

Egypt in America?

In a time when large and tense demonstrations have become increasingly rare in America, the Wisconsin protests could provide an Egypt-like moment, says Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"If there's a big tea party demonstration in Madison, we may see a direct clash, just as we had in the streets of Cairo," he says.

One protester's sign at the capitol said, "Impeach Scott Mubarak" – a direct reference to protests that led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign last week.

As it gains momentum, the union protest movement is likely to draw in young social-justice activists, Obama supporters, and even religious groups who fight for the dispossessed, says Bruno.

On the other hand, some conservatives believe Walker's refusal to budge on the collective bargaining issue has opened the way for counterprotests to support the cuts.

Conservative internet firebrand Andrew Breitbart and Atlanta radio show host Herman Cain will headline Saturday's tea party-flavored Wisconsin Freedom Rally. On his radio show Thursday, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck called the Wisconsin union protests "the beginning of the American insurrection."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, who could face a tea party challenge to his seat in 2012, showed that mainstream Republicans, too, may be ready to weigh in.

In response to Mr. Obama's "assault" comment, Senator Hatch said: "The only assault is from a bunch of self-interested government union employees who are putting their interests ahead of the interests of the Wisconsin taxpayers, who have been funding their runaway spending. This is not the way public servants should behave."

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