I. Polling Place
I vote in an elementary school that was built in the 1930s. I vote in the auditorium, the walls of which are decorated with modernist murals depicting scenes from Wisconsin history. They are beautiful. I like to think of pioneers and lumbermen and wildlife looking down on me as I exercise my civic responsibilities. They are, I imagine, always a little shocked to see us, the voters, with our blue folders and our funny clothes, standing in line, marking pieces of paper and feeding them into a machine, talking with one another, running into friends, being neighborly. The men and women look down knowingly, proudly, like they know what they are building. The animals are silent and serene. What they see, perhaps, is older, and longer, and outlasting.
This is a piece I wrote in March of 2011, when the Wisconsin Capitol was closed to the public.
When I came to Wisconsin in 2005, I didn’t expect to fall in love with a building.
I was making a tour of graduate schools, and Madison was first on my list. To get a feel for the city, I decided to walk from one side of town to the other. It was a chance to find out if this was a place I could not only study, but live and be happy.
There were many things to like about Madison, but what I really fell in love with that morning was the capitol building downtown. It wasn’t just that it was impressive or beautiful—all state capitols are. Rather, it was this capitol’s sheer openness that struck me, its permeability to the rest of the city, the way in which it clearly served as not just an enclosed place of business, but a thoroughfare for citizens: from legislators, to tourists, to those just passing through. This, I learned, is partly by virtue of geography: the capitol sits smack-dab in the center of Madison, a city squeezed onto a narrow isthmus between two lakes, and, chances are, if you’re on your way somewhere downtown, you’ll want to walk through it to get there.
But the capitol’s accessibility is also a result of policy. Its doors are open all day long, there are no metal detectors or bag-checkers, and it is a pleasant place to escape the heat of a Madison summer, the cold of a Wisconsin winter, or the bustle of a Saturday farmer’s market—and maybe run into someone you voted for. My first semester in graduate school, a group of friends and I ran into the governor as we passed through on our way to a bar. He said hi to us, we said hi back, and we went our separate ways, as if this were a completely ordinary occurrence. The great thing about Madison is that it was.
Full disclosure here: I love capitols. I grew up in Albany, where my father had a job in the capitol, and as a kid, I explored the building from top to bottom. The elevator operators knew me, the Sergeant-at-Arms made me hot chocolate, and I would happily have given tours without script or pay. But by the time I left for college, it was a different world. The elevator operators were gone, replaced by buttons. Metal detectors, pat-downs, and searches greeted visitors, even those just looking for the tour. The capitol had transformed from a place of wonder to a place of fear.
I had assumed that it had gotten to be this way everywhere; that every statehouse tour involved a bag search and a frisking, that feeling at ease in public buildings was a thing of the past. When I discovered that the past was alive and well in Wisconsin, I knew I had come home.
When I moved to Madison that fall, I embraced the capitol as the encapsulation of a civic engagement and democratic participation I thought I had lost. Without ever needing to go to the capitol, I was there routinely, and this profoundly transformed my relationship to state and local government. I felt empowered and listened to before I even approached my assemblyperson’s door.
The images of protesters being turned out of the capitol, of citizens barred from entering, of members of the legislature accosted by police, are therefore heartbreaking to me both personally and politically. The capitol lockdown that unfolded in Madison last week has brought me to angry fist-shaking over the morning paper, loud shouting at the radio, and, last night, tears as I watched footage of police tackling a Wisconsin assemblyman on the way to his office. Every photograph, every video of the protests depicts a place I know and recognize, a place I have walked and biked and driven, a place I have sat and listened to music, or enjoyed laughter and a meal with friends. And yet the thought of a locked-up capitol in broad daylight on a Madison weekday is so unfamiliar, so deeply foreign and wrong, that it breaks my heart. And it makes me angry, angry at those who would move to shut down an orderly, respectful, and peaceful protest in a place Wisconsinites rightly thought of as theirs, a place that was woven deeply into their everyday lives: their capitol.
What we need in this country is more proximity to one another and to our elected representatives, not less; more responsible citizenship, less disconnection. Capitol buildings can and should fill this role by becoming or continuing to be a constant and vital part of the everyday activity of a state’s entire citizenry, not just its politicians and activists. I urge officials in Madison to lift the restrictions on the capitol, to restore the building to the people, who have shown the utmost respect for the edifice and all that it represents. Because I believe—and the events in Wisconsin attest—that routine free and open access to our halls of government, and the comfort and familiarity this fosters, makes each citizen a willing and able recipient of the responsibilities of self-government and democracy. If the events in the Midwest are any indication, we will surely need them all.
Walk down State Street from the Capitol one mile, and you hit the foot of Bascom Hill. On your right are two important libraries: the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library, and the Library and Archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The latter houses the largest collection in the entire world on the history of North America.
Walk the campus and your are surrounded by the pantheon of Progressivism. Bascom. Ely. Commons. Henry. Van Hise. Chamberlin. Go to the top of the hill and run your fingers over the plaque that upholds academic freedom. Believe that there are still principles and possibilities, no matter how dark things look. Believe in the ability of citizens to stand up, to discuss, to share, to be heard; to listen.
If there are any books that deserve a second look today, of all days, they are Charles McCarthy’s The Wisconsin Idea and Frederic C. Howe’s Wisconsin: Experiment in Democracy. I read them recently for my research, and was struck by their deep resonance with current events, their continued relevance today. For anyone who believes that the divisive partisanship we see today is unprecedented, that the corrupting influence of huge sums of money in politics is merely a modern phenomenon, I urge you to read these books. Our state capitol is beautiful and lovely and open for another reason, a political one, an economic one: the will to say that a corporation has power that must, in a democratic society, be met with equal power, collective power, organized power. McCarthy calls it “Force,” and “unequal conditions of contract” (pp. 1–2), but it is the same thing.
The books read as both timely and out-of-date. They are infused with evolutionary theories about the progress of races, nations, and civilizations, and eugenicist ideas that will strike the modern reader as quite repellent. They evince a faith in government and the state that seems perhaps naive and horribly old-fashioned today. They are, in other words, documents from another era, another time, when people looked at the world differently. What is worthwhile about them today is the sense of possibility they contain, and the belief in the ability of citizens, policymakers, and experts to come together in a reasonable fashion and, using the best available information from all parties, create reform: not partisan reform, but reform that makes life better for the people of the state.
This image, from page 8 of McCarthy’s book, is one of the resonances that make you stop and say, woah. The Wisconsin Idea (written by a librarian, by the way) is a jeremiad, an appeal to the rest of the country to recognize the forces that are preventing America from achieving its promise. Growing inequality, as depicted in this diagram, is at the root of it for McCarthy, and legislative interventions are needed to help prevent Stage 2 from becoming Stage 3.
Forward, then, is not forward to Stage 3 (where he fears we are heading), but forward to a future where Stage 3 is foreclosed, where the commonwealth (a word that shows up often in McCarthy and Howe) is safeguarded willingly by all. In a state with so rich a tradition, today I have great hope.