The Wisconsin Protests' Widespread Influence—From Obama to Occupy Wall Street

Protests of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union policies inspired movements nationwide.

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One year ago, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsonites took to the streets to protest Gov. Scott Walker's move to strip unions of bargaining rights and impose austerity measures on the state. Last month, activists filed petitions calling for Walker's recall and removal from office. In Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, The Nation's Washington correspondent John Nichols argues that what happened in his native state is important for American democracy. Nichols recently spoke to U.S. News about what's at the heart of Wisconsin's uprising and how it has influenced grass-roots movements around the country and abroad. Excerpts:

Why did you write this book?

I wanted to write a book that really looked at ways in which grass-roots citizens, great masses of people, can push back against some of the really challenging threats to middle class lifestyle, to wages, benefits, pensions. Things that were traditionally expected to be a part of our lives but now are under great threat in an age of austerity.

[See pictures of the protests in Madison, Wisconsin.]

Did Wisconsin inspire the Occupy movement?

I think Wisconsin influenced the Occupy movement. There's simply no question that the images from Wisconsin of tens of thousands of people occupying the State Capitol and the hundreds of thousands of people surrounding it on the streets, had some inspirational effect. Not just on the Occupy movement but on social and political movements in the United States and around the world.

Even in the Middle East?

In the midst of the Wisconsin struggle, there were letters and messages arriving from protestors in Egypt, who were cheering on Wisconsinites.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

Have last year's events shaped the national debate during this presidential election?

I think what happened in Wisconsin and what has happened since then in other states such as Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and with the Occupy movement, has caused a great deal of rethinking on the part of political players.

For example?

A year ago, Barack Obama was really speaking the language of austerity. Now, in his most recent budget, he is talking about higher taxes on the very wealthy and the need for programs that serve Americans.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Do the Rich Pay Their Fair Share in Taxes?]

What role did the media play in Wisconsin?

In some sense, the media was essential because those images, those pictures of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Madison had a profound impact. They caused an awful lot of people to pay attention to what was going on. By the same token, a good deal of the media coverage, particularly in television, was a bit dismissive. It suggested that these people were unreasonable, or that they didn't really know what they were asking for.

What was the role of social media?

It was a way in which folks were communicating a great deal of information, often jumping over the old-school media. You saw Facebook pages become really valuable tools for communicating information about budgetary and fiscal issues. And I think we've only begun to realize the potential of social media as an educational and even journalistic tool.

What's next for Wisconsin?

In January, this movement, which really focuses around a group called United Wisconsin, filed more than one million signatures seeking recall and removal of Walker from office. And so as the year progresses there will be a new election and that election could see the removal of the individual who really began this fight when he proposed to strip many of the collective bargaining rights from public sector workers.

[Read Robert Schlesinger on why Scott Walker and other swing-state GOP governors will get Obama re-elected.]

What in this story surprised you most?

This deep connection that a lot of Americans have to the trade union movement. In the United States today, only about 10 percent of Americans are union members. But many families trace their roots back to an auto worker or a steel worker or a teacher. And so when the fight came in Wisconsin, you saw those connections come into play. People who were not members of unions currently went to the streets to defend the rights of unions and the right of public employees to organize and collectively bargain.