This Is What Democracy Looks Like
Published on February 22, 2012 by guest author: A Espeseth

Even as the Wisconsin protests in February and March of last year continued to gain momentum, achieving a recall election for the state’s sitting governor, Scott Walker, seemed to me a far off, dim hope. Gathering the 540,208 signatures needed to initiate a recall struck me as completely implausible. Strangely, it may have been witnessing the tens of thousands of people at the rallies that allowed me to imagine multiplying a population that size, and then trying to collect signatures from it. Of course I knew I didn’t have to collect half a million signatures by myself - at least, technically I knew that - but I still carried an oppressive feeling that I was alone in this fight.

Governor Walker had ignited the massive weekly gatherings and occupation of the capitol building shortly after he took office. With rapid passage, his budget bill all but dismantled public labor unions, cut off significant funding for public services, including education, and was just the beginning of enacting, without public debate, a lengthy list of policies detrimental to a wide swath of Wisconsin residents and their rights.

My sense of loneliness in the effort does seem hard to justify when surrounded by so many people willingly and vocally expressing the exact same frustrations and anger I felt. Perhaps it was my belief that this passion I was witnessing - even over so many weeks, and gaining strength at that – would dissipate as short attention spans inevitably drifted to new issues and lack of leadership and organization doomed any plans for the more directed protest of a recall campaign.

I had seen bad organization in political campaigns before. Actually, that’s all I’d seen. Not that I was an old hand at being involved politically, but the few for which I’d volunteered left me disillusioned that my efforts had in any way bent the trajectory of political space and time. I typically volunteered in order to channel my frustrations and angst into productive use. I wanted to make an impact on the outcome of a campaign that otherwise seemed to be teetering on the edge of failure. I knocked on doors, I called people - compete strangers to me - reminding them to vote.

I understood and accepted that I was just another essentially anonymous volunteer to do the drudgery work. But it was often more thankless than I anticipated. And there was a disorganization adding to a sense that my work was just filling time, not all that productive, and definitely getting lost in the much bigger machinery of the campaign. I felt dispensable. Being diligent, I stuck to the script, but I imagined I could have used my hours to call my friends or watch a movie and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome. Or maybe it would have. But the point is, my impact felt pretty puny and unmentionable.

My reasons for volunteering to collect signatures for the recall drive were the same for any of the previous campaigns: My internal tension and anger at the current political situation were overwhelming me and I needed some way to vent before the strain started to result in burst blood vessels all over my body.

Anyone volunteering to collect signatures was asked to complete a training. I dragged myself over to the campaign office certain I was losing a precious hour when I could be doing just about anything else. These trainings were being held daily at innumerable locations around the state for weeks leading up to and through the recall effort. Nevertheless the room I walked into was full of other volunteers. The training itself was nothing special or tricky and the trainer was nondescript. But what woke me up was the attitude of the organizer. She joined the room about midway through the training and she was young like organizers usually are. But she also smelled - smelled like a college student who hadn’t bathed in a couple of days. And it was then that I knew she was serious. She cared enough not to bathe.

She sat in the corner simultaneously texting, giving directions to other campaign staff in the hallway, and talking to us with the tone of a coach trying to get her team of misfits to not kick the ball into the opposing side’s goal and maybe even score some points for themselves. She told us that if we didn’t turn in our signature sheets within 10 days her office would call and harass us until we did. It was the doggedness with which she made that statement, the fed-up look in her eyes, and the attitude the said “I’m going to kick your ass if you screw this up for us” that finally gave me validation. I finally mattered. At that moment my perspective flipped on its head. It became more clear that this campaign was actually depending on me and every person in that room, and every person who had been in that room before and would be in that room after us.

Don’t fuck with us. The words were not actually spoken but permeated the tone of the room. It was directed at the volunteers just as much as it was to Governor Walker and the politicians who backed his policies. My time, my energy, my dedication and commitment to making sure my signatures were collected responsibly and ultimately counted, all mattered. It was invigorating to finally matter.

With mighty political campaigns these days, I feel dwarfed by the huge contributions. My $20 donation and my time are not even drops in the bucket. It pays for someone’s lunch on one insignificant dreary day on the campaign trail. Or maybe it’s the $20 in someone’s pocket wadded with tissues and old post-its that are all ultimately thrown in the trash. Certainly money has been given to help the Walker recall effort happen. But no amount of money could make it happen. The protests and the recall effort have depended on people showing up and giving their time. And being needed has felt great.

When the 60 days of collecting petition signatures ended, the campaign had not collected the 540,000 needed. Instead, the campaign had collected twice that amount: one million signatures. Reflecting back it all seems so simple and clear. The massive turnout at rallies and the sustained intensity of emotion against Governor Walker’s policies and actions is unlike anything I’ve witnessed here. My experience has caused me to shed a few of the layers of cynicism and distrust in the
system that otherwise bind me.

Now as we wait for petition signatures to be approved, candidates to run against Walker in the anticipated recall election are lining up. I might not be the only one who feels like telling any contender, “I’m going to kick your ass if you screw this up for us.”

A Espeseth lives and works in Wisconsin and spends much of her time thinking about how big political and social trends play out in her daily life.

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