Wisconsin protests: 'democracy in action' or 'mob rule'?
Some critics say Wisconsin protests were borderline unconstitutional because they threatened the orderly processes of state government. At issue is an obscure clause in the Constitution.
As Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin moved this week to gut collective bargaining for most of the state’s employees, cameras caught protesters storming the Capitol – breaking doors and windows – in a last-ditch push to protest and possibly block the vote.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Showdown in Wisconsin
In Pictures Wisconsin protest signs
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They were scenes that, in some respects, warmed the hearts of American labor: unions, for so long moribund and grappling with a loss of clout, infused with new energy and purpose. From the ashes of Wisconsin came the rebirth of union power and a powerful portrait of democracy in action, some proclaimed.
Yet others slightly less impressed by the spectacle are now offering a different interpretation: the masses came dangerously close to trampling the United States Constitution underfoot.
IN PICTURES: Wisconsin Capitol protests
The argument is an arcane one, even by the measure of constitutional law. But it centers on a clause in Article 4, which orders the federal government to guarantee representative government in the states instead of a direct democracy, and says the federal government shall protect the states against domestic violence.
By one historical reading, this gave the federal government a stick to beat down rabble-rousers trying to take over state government. In other words, the clause was intended to push back against forms of democratic politics that emerged in the late 18th century, when ordinary citizens took over legislatures – overriding elected representatives – and passed the laws they liked, such as debt relief bills and the institution of paper money.
But that's not the only interpretation of the so-called "guarantee clause." Some say it was actually meant to do virtually the opposite – preventing states from sliding toward rule by aristocrats.
For those inclined to see the clause as a protection against representative, republican government, however, this week in Wisconsin looked like a case study in lawmakers being threatened by the law of the street.
On Thursday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin denounced what he saw as "mob rule" trying to thwart the electoral will of the people, citing specficially the "amount of thuggery, the threats of execution" against Republican lawmakers.
University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse viewed the events in the Capitol as a near-total breakdown of law and order. "How do you like this new democracy, that has a mob storming the Capitol and, with the aid of the minority party, blocking the access of the majority party into their offices and into the legislative chamber?" Professor Althouse wrote on her blog. "It looks more like anarchy to me."
To others, this was precisely the sort of situation for which the guarantee clause was created.
"It is hard to recall many moments that more directly echo the concerns of the founders than the situation America faces today, with a mob of protesters, some bused in from out of state by labor unions bent on protecting their financial interests, occupying the state house at Madison and the governor there under heavy guard," states a New York Sun editorial.
The protests were peaceful, on the whole – with only 18 arrests during more than three weeks of steady protests in Madison – but critics question whether Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, too, was taking sides.