Suddenly, all of the nation’s eyes are on Madison, Wisconsin, as a national battle long in the brewing was set off by the sudden reversal of political fortune last fall in the historical home of the “progressive” movement, when Republicans took over the statehouse and governorship. Public employee unions have been the last redoubt of the union movement, with unionized workers less than ten percent of the private work force. They have served to create an unvirtuous cycle of political graft and contribution that has long played a key element in Democrat electoral strategy, one that was crucial to Barack Obama’s winning the White House in 2008 and will be so again next year. And if they lose in this previously most “progressive” of states, others will surely follow, not just in the upper Midwest, but potentially across the country even to leftist bastions like California, whose shores managed to avoid November’s political tsunami.
So the Democrats, including the president, have correctly assessed that if their public-employee union allies lose this battle and are no longer able to demand ever-increasing wages and benefits, and funnel much of them from their (many of them unwilling) members to Democrat campaign coffers, their political fortunes will fall even further from their well-deserved “shellacking” in November. Like the coming loss of seats due to redistricting, this will be an even greater consequence of this election than mere loss of seats, due to its long-term strategic implications. And so concerned are they that they’ve even been willing to let slip the mask of “moderate” and “centrist” from the president to help their minions.
Several historical analogies to this event have been made over the past few days. Some have called it “Greece with snow,” as those receiving state largess have been rioting and protesting over even a slight diminution of it. Others have compared it to recent events in Egypt, which now threaten or promise (depending on one’s point of view of the desirability of the projected outcome) to cause the rest of the region to fall like so many dominoes, releasing a long-pent-up potential energy. It has even been analogized to the Spanish Civil War, a decidedly uncomfortable fit, given that it was a battle that both sides should have lost, from the standpoint of those who favor individual liberty and not various flavors of collectivism.
Pajamas’ own Richard Fernandez, in also noting the Egypt analogy, has pointed out similarities with the Battle of Jutland, an “accidental” naval battle in the First World War, accidental in the sense that its location was contingent on an external event and that, while such a clash was inevitable at some point, the location had not been planned by either side. The problem with this analogy is that, while it was the greatest naval engagement of the war, with huge casualties on both sides, it wasn’t really strategically decisive, and ultimately had little influence on the outcome (unless perhaps one wants to counterfactual that the Lusitania somehow wouldn’t have been sunk in its absence, and America not been drawn in to the war).
From that standpoint, I think that a more interesting analogy is Gettysburg.
Like the situation with the public-employee unions and the taxpayers, and the British and German navies, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac were sure to clash in the north once Lee crossed his own Rubicon, the Potomac, but no one could have predicted exactly where or under what circumstances. Lee didn’t know exactly where the Union army was because General Stuart, the head of his cavalry, had gotten too far from headquarters and wasn’t in a position to report, but they were moving up from Maryland into southern Pennsylvania to prevent a Confederate thrust back south toward Washington. According to the diary of Confederate General Pettigrew, his troops had gone to the small town of Gettysburg because they had heard that there was a warehouse of shoes there, which the war-deprived southern troops badly needed. When Union pickets learned of the Confederate movement toward the town, General Meade started to reinforce it, and the place of the three-day battle, now one of history’s most famous, had been ordained.
At its end, Lee’s troops had been thrown back, never again to invade the north, and on the next day in the west (on July 4th, 1863), Vicksburg had fallen to Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi and cutting the Confederacy in half. The war would go on for almost two more years, but Pickett’s failed charge at Gettysburg is now viewed by all historians as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. As William Faulkner wrote:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet…Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago…
Gettysburg was a battle in a war over federalism and states’ rights — in this case the dubious and odious “right” to treat human beings as chattel — a cause that has given the phrase a notorious name for over a century and a half. Madison (ironically, named after a Founder and drafter of the Constitution) is also a battle over states’ rights — in this case the right of a state to rein in the new slaveholders — public employee unions who extort taxpayers to give them better wages and benefits than those who provide their funding by threatening to shut down vital services if their demands aren’t met. And this time, the new slavemasters are being supported by Washington. Let us hope that in this new civil (so far) civil war, in the cold winter battle of Madison, unlike on that hot July day in southern Pennsylvania, the rebels against the central government win, because this time, it will be in defense of human liberty.