Have the Madison Protests Made a Difference?

by Christian Schneider

When 5,000 people are crammed into the Wisconsin state capitol, the effect is numbing: The noise gathers and swirls up into the 790,000 cubic foot dome (second in height only to the U.S. Capitol), then comes crashing back down on the perpetrators of the racket.

So it has been for 14 days, and now that capitol police have capitulated to the protesters and allowed them to stay past their February 27 deadline, there’s no end in sight. Drums banging, bagpipes squealing, voices being yelled hoarse — for two weeks, people from all over the country have slept, eaten, and protested nonstop in the stately Wisconsin capitol. Yet amid the sometimes frenzied demonstrations, one question is rarely asked:

Is this making any difference?

The answer is most likely no. As one looks at the path taken by Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill, it is entirely possible that everything would have turned out the same had not a single person camped out under the dome. Undoubtedly, the protests shone a national spotlight on the state — reporters scurried to Madison to see signs comparing Walker to Adolph Hitler and to see half-naked men dressed in beads — but while the protests have enjoyed all the attention, there’s no evidence they have mattered.

One could argue it was the mob mentality of the demonstrators that prompted 14 Democratic senators to flee the state, but self-interest alone could have sent them scurrying — in fighting for retaining compulsory union dues, Democrats are fighting for the very life of their party.

More likely, it was the tens of thousands of protestors that prevented the senators from returning — if any one Democrat had broken ranks, the crowds would have likely heaped derision on the turncoat as he or she walked into the senate chamber.

Conversely, all the histrionics have strengthened the resolve of those supporting Walker’s plan to scale back public-sector collective bargaining. Even with the capitol dome effectively serving as a carnival tent for the past twelve days, the bill passed the assembly, and Republican senators naturally inclined to seek compromise have grown titanium spines and stand at the ready to pass the bill without amendment.

When all the squatters have left the capitol, it will still stand there, quiet and dignified, forgiving of the way it was treated for weeks on end. On the other hand, government employees will likely not be as willing to forget.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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