Who is the face of America? Is it mean-spirited and clueless Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, with no light behind his eyes except for that shining from the torches of the Koch brothers? Is it the ranting, hate-filled, Kabuki-faced Michele Bachmann? With its over-coverage of the tea baggers lo these many months, the media have given us a portrait of America that is overwhelmingly angry, intolerant, selfish and profoundly stingy, both fiscally and emotionally. It is an America, the media tell us, echoing the distortions of Fox News and others, that wants to go back in time to an allegedly idyllic era when people were blissful because the government was “off our backs.”
This movement’s goal: The Great Rewind. The idyllic period the tea baggers and their billionaire backers long for is the Gilded Age, the 1870s to the 1890s, when there was no income tax, unionization was in its infancy, the Senate was run by and for plutocrats and government regulation of businesses was minimal. Think six-day, 12-14 hour work days, no Social Security or other retirement benefits, child labor and the repeated use of Pinkertons and other thugs to violently attack labor organizers.
So one of the most thrilling aspects of the massive protests in Madison, Wis., has been to see, visually, the repudiation of this throwback vision for America. Even more importantly, we’ve been treated to images of another face of America, one quite at odds with the gun-toting, hate-spouting “birthers” and crazies who want the government to keep its hands off “my Medicare.” Even the mainstream media, however skewed and partial their coverage has been, haven’t been able to ignore the eruption of something so consistently underrepresented on our national screens: worker solidarity, and much of it joyful.
All over the Web, the images are inspiring. Buzzfeed.com has posted its 100 favorite protest signs in Madison (including the hilarious “Mubarak for Governor”). The Teaching Assistants’ Association of the University of Wisconsin created a video compilation of the demonstrations, with signs like “I work in the private sector and I support public workers;” “Unions: The People who Brought you Weekends;” and “Can the National Guard Teach Organic Chem?” There are images of children high-fiving protesting cops and young people telling the state assembly, “We have the right to live in a state and country where we take care of each other.” A tad different from Sarah Palin’s “lock and reload” rhetoric.
The feminist historian Mari Jo Buhle, my friend and mentor, who lives in Madison, has marveled at the spirit of protest, at “seeing these hearty Midwesterners brave cold and snow to come out to the tune of 100K on Saturday, many with small children in hand.” She added, “The mayor, who is very upset at the governor’s consideration of planting provocateurs, just issued a statement praising the protesters for being not only civil but neat! There are cleaning squads that pick up both inside and outside the Capitol…One of the favorite chants is ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ delivered with passion for out-of-state unionists (something like 160 here now from Los Angeles) and for firefighters (who are excluded from the bill because they had backed Walker during his campaign). Now the firefighters appear in significant numbers (and with bagpipes) at every rally, and the crowd goes wild.”
Because the representativeness of the Tea Party has been seriously overstated, and the megaphones of the right-wing media magnify minority views, the “common sense” we’ve been treated to is that most Americans want to rewind us back to 19th-century style laissez-faire capitalism. But the demonstrations in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country, and the spirited images of worker solidarity they’ve produced, put the lie to the myth that Americans are selfish and reject a communitarian spirit.
Indeed, the latest New York Times/CBS poll shows that 60 percent of Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions. Forty percent support raising taxes, as opposed to decreasing employee benefits or funding for infrastructure or education, as the best way to deal with state deficits. This is the face of America the media have, for the most part, ignored, and one that Scott Walker, through sheer rapacity, has inadvertently ushered back into the national consciousness.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.