This article was last modified on September 20, 2011.

Empire Strikes First: Fighting Bobfest 2011

What does democracy look like? According to Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, democracy is the Alliant Energy Center packed with thousands of liberals, progressives, Democrats, Greens and socialists. That was the scene on Saturday, September 17, at the 10th Fighting Bobfest, honoring the memory of Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” LaFollette.

This year’s theme was “Class Warfare: Fight Back” with the sub-theme being, “A strong middle class requires a strong labor movement”. The speakers, ranging from a Madison firefighter to the outspoken Dr. Cornel West, were more than ready to expound on this idea and pick up the fight against Governor Scott Walker where it had left off months ago.

Former representative Dave Obey was the highlight of the morning, full of energy and not mincing words. He railed against Congressman Paul Ryan’s “radical” budget, which he says would “repeal the 20th century”. The budget “shrinks opportunity for middle class families” and “shreds Medicare”, providing corporate tax cuts paid for by “middle class misery”. He stuck to the class warfare theme, pointing out that the richest 20% of Americans control 85% of the wealth, while the remaining 80% — you and me — are left fighting for “table scraps”.

Obey then went on the offensive against our state government, calling Walker “mean-minded and thuggish”, with his agenda being “savage” and “abusive”. He denounced Walker’s budget cuts without consideration for raising taxes, noting that Wisconsin’s top tax rate has fallen 22% since Obey took office in 1969. He scolded the Republicans for hiding behind a false Christianity, saying those who “shout the loudest about God and Christian values” are the same who support an “anti-Christian” economic policy and shun social responsibility to help their neighbors in need. They were more concerned about protecting their party than their people, redrawing districts to “insulate” vulnerable politicians such as Alberta Darling and coming up with “fraudulent” excuses to deny people access to the ballot box.

No one in Congress knows class warfare better than Senator Bernie Sanders, and he came out swinging, openly declaring what President Obama is trying to deny: “class warfare is being waged in America, and the wrong side is winning.” The wrong side, according to Sanders, is “a handful of Wall Street crooks”. And he had the facts to back up his loaded words.

The middle class is “collapsing”, he says, with people aged 50-60 earning “substantially less” than they did just twenty years ago, with some people left receiving only “starvation wages” while the wealthiest Americans have seen their income expand exponentially. In fact, 46 million Americans live below the poverty line, including 22% of this nation’s children. With poverty guaranteeing a decreased life expectancy, “poverty is a death sentence” and “we have to eliminate that form of capital punishment.”

Poverty leads to early death in a variety of ways, most notably through poor nutrition. But less income also means less access to affordable health care, and one Harvard study claims that 45,000 Americans die every year because they had no health insurance. While these people suffer, billionaire hedge fund managers are enjoying lower effective tax rates than teachers, police or firefighters. Corporations are gorging themselves at the public trough — ExxonMobil paid absolutely nothing in taxes in 2009, yet was able to collect $156 million in tax rebates. Why? In fact, in the past ten years corporate taxes have dropped 27% while corporate profits have increased 60%, and the defense budget has tripled in the same time period — yet the thought of raising taxes or cutting defense spending is verboten.

Baldwin picked up where Obey left off, saying that with Walker “our worst fears were realized” as legislation erased sixty years of progress within a mere six weeks. She reminded us that Wisconsin was the first state to pass workers compensation, unemployment insurance and the right to education.

Of course, like any political event, one had to sift through the rhetoric and keep a strong nose for bullshit. Some was mild, like the claim that unions were “armed, ready and equipped” to fight. Other claims were a bit stronger, such as Mark Pocan’s claim that Republicans have turned Wisconsin into the country of “Fitzwalkerstan” ruled by a “third-world junta” or radio host Thom Hartmann’s idea that Ron Paul believes freedom is the freedom to “die in the gutter”. Such words, in my opinion, just hurt any positive cause and are juvenile in nature. If you want people to believe you are better than the opposition, can we agree that “Fitzwalkerstan” is a childish thing to say?

But Baldwin ended the event on a positive note, informing the crowd that “what we do in the next fifteen months” will determine the path we take for a generation. This was a not-so-subtle reminder that in 2012 she will be running for Senator Herb Kohl’s seat. With the power of democracy — and perhaps a vote for Tammy Baldwin — “we can rescue the American dream.”

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