Every day there are graphic illustrations of the forces of civility in Wisconsin battling the Republican administration's campaign of greed and destruction.
How many times over the last few weeks did we hear news reports of protesters "storming" the Capitol building, only to run up there and find a bunch of friendly teachers, firefighters, cops, and college students singing songs, reminding each other to stay peaceful and be courteous to the state troopers barring the door, and occasionally chanting "Thank you!" when someone with a megaphone gives them an update on what is going on inside the building while they were locked out?
Yesterday was another good example. It was recycling day in the governor's (and my) neighborhood -- the Village of Maple Bluff.
The activist group Wisconsin Wave organized a protest of the governor's plan to eliminate mandatory recycling across the state, by suggesting that people drop off their recyclables at the governor's mansion.
Here is the lurid headline the WTMJ News Team in Milwaukee gave the story: "Capitol Chaos: Protesters to Dump Garbage on Walker's Lawn".
Here is what actually happened: protesters were encouraged to drop off their recyclables at 7 am -- just in time for regular garbage pick-up on Monday morning. A couple of my neighbors got involved and spread the word on an email list-serve, only to back down when confronted by the village police chief, who didn't like the idea of making a mess or creating extra work for our own garbage crew.
In the end there was no mess -- "I would have seen it if there were," a Maple Bluff public works officer told me. Protest organizer brought a few neatly bagged recyclables, and they were hauled away.
Welcome to Wisconsin.
If there's one thing the upheaval in our state has shown it's that not even the threat of mass lay-offs, environmental destruction, and an all-out assault on our health care and education systems is cause to make people stop being nice to their neighbors.
Except for the governor, of course. As UW professor William Cronon wrote in an excellent op-ed in the New York Times on Tuesday, the governor's lack of respect for Wisconsin's traditions of openness, democratic process, and civility set set him apart. By locking the public out of the Capitol building, holding secret, midnight sessions and ramming through legislation in violation of the state's open-meetings law, and generally showing contempt not only for public employees and their right to bargain, but for citizen participation in government, the governor and his Republican allies have made a lot of enemies among people who generally pride themselves on getting along.
"The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees," Cronon writes. "It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin's citizens have not."
As a result, the recall efforts against Walker and Republican state senators who support him are gaining ground. Republicans in the assembly and the senate are beginning to break ranks as hearings on his punishing budget cuts begin, and notably, on his proposal to trash the state's recycling program.
As the April 5 state Supreme Court election, which will determine the balance of power on the court, draws near, we get the news of another major breach of civility by a Republican.
A few days ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Supreme Court justice David Prosser's temper tantrum, in which he called chief justice Shirley Abrahamson -- a pillar of professional detachment and collegiality -- a "bitch" and said he would "destroy" her.
Contrast the behavior of celebrated legal scholar Abrahamson and partisan hack Prosser and you have a perfect illustration of the struggle for the soul of our democracy in Wisconsin.
Prosser's outburst, which he admitted -- "I said, 'You are a total bitch,'" he told the Journal Sentinel, -- "I probably overreacted, but I think it was entirely warranted," came in the context of a political battle over ethics violations on the court.
Prosser's smarmy verbal attack on the genteel chief justice is akin to Walker's arrogant rule-breaking -- a visible symptom of a much deeper and more dangerous pathology.
Like Walker and the Koch brothers, the buy-out of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is a cutting-edge political trend with implications for the whole nation.
Prosser had his outburst as the Supreme Court justices were discussing ethics charges against justice Michael Gableman.
Gableman was elected to the court in 2008 in a campaign so ugly it made the national news. Newsweek compared it to a John Grisham novel.
Despite being the most unqualified judge ever backed by the coalition of business interests that financed his candidacy, Gableman won. He did so despite resounding opposition from the vast majority of other judges in the state. His record of being reversed on appeal was unparalleled. He got to the Court using a campaign characterized by outright lies, and Willy Horton-style attacks on his opponent, the only African American justice on the court, Louis Butler.
Gableman is an embarrassment. He has gotten into ethics trouble since he took his seat on the court because of the falsehoods he used to get elected and because attorneys have tried to get him to recuse himself from cases where they see a pattern of bias against criminal defendants.
I wrote about the race in the Progressive Magazine in 2008:
Bad as it was, the triumph of one unqualified pro-business hack who ran a dirty campaign would not be national news if it didn't represent a more ominous national trend. "I've watched the flow of political money over the last twenty-five years," says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "It used to be that most of the big money was focused on Washington. Then you started to see some of the kinds of lobbying organizations and special interest groups come in and seek to heavily influence state elections. So we saw this huge infusion of money." In the last few years, the money has shifted again, from state legislatures and governor's races to attorney generals and the courts. "They no longer are content with influencing lawmaking. They now want to influence how laws are enforced and interpreted as well," says McCabe.
That influence is more evident than ever in Wisconsin in 2011.
One of the most fundamentally dishonest aspects of this effort was the ad campaign focusing on lurid true-crime stories. Crime is nowhere on the agenda of groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce or the Club for Growth, who paid for the ads. In Wisconsin, it was lead paint liability and caps on medical malpractice awards that galvanized business opposition to Butler. But those issues never showed up on TV.
Just like today, business got its man elected by distracting the public with issues that had nothing to do with its true agenda.
Still, McCabe takes heart from the progressive era. "If you believe citizens can't overcome the power of organized money you haven't read Wisconsin's own history," he says. "Go back a century. People who were a lot less educated and a lot poorer than we are today succeeded against all odds fighting against corrupt, corporate interests." Besides, he adds, he's motivated by "the knowledge that if the public retreats it's the greatest gift we can give these interests." "We should deny them that gift just to spite the bastards."
That sentiment -- generally expressed in more civil and friendly tones, of course -- is spreading rapidly in the Scott Walker era in Wisconsin.
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.