It’s not clear who first introduced the chant “this is what democracy looks like” to the epic early-2011 showdown in Wisconsin between angry public-sector union workers and newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The protesters shouting the phrase surely meant to insist that they were the true voice of the people. But despite the sheer size and raucous noise of the crowds that packed the Wisconsin State Capitol for weeks protesting Walker’s proposed legislation to roll back union benefits and prerogatives, the demonstrators ultimately lost every fight that mattered. They lost because the voting public in Wisconsin approved of Walker’s plan, albeit narrowly.
The people had already spoken when they elected a Republican governor and legislative majority in 2010. Democracy then re-affirmed Walker’s controversial decisions even under the glare of a nationwide spotlight and a hostile press. Nevertheless, the sloganeers were correct, just not in the way they intended.
As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley note in their book More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin, “The citizens of Wisconsin and indeed the country as a whole, sometimes derided as apathetic and out of touch, showed that they were eager to engage on both sides, to defend the rights of workers and to safeguard the state’s financial future.” The engaged activists “marched, they sent hundreds of thousands of emails and tweets, and they overwhelmingly held themselves to a peaceful, democratic purpose, which asserted itself even in the face of the many exceptions to that general rule. Likewise, the police and authorities also managed to handle the protests without serious injury or loss of life on either side. When it came time to vote, citizens set turnout records.”