Wisconsin Split

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem he found a pair of mayors. Although each had responsibility for half of the town, they apparently lived near each other; they are described as working on sections of the wall in the same part of town. (Neh. 3:9-12) And while they were doing manual labor, they also appear to be the most prominent people in the city’s government.  No other community leaders were mentioned by name in the account – there are only general references to “the religious and political leaders, the officials, or anyone else in the administration.” (2:16)

I’m sure there’s a great master’s thesis in here somewhere: Why did the city have two apparently equal political leaders and exactly where and how were their districts divided? But for now, let’s just note that it is odd and a sign that Jerusalem had fallen a long way from when it was the seat of a unified kingdom. Now there wasn’t even one person in control of the city.

It appears that the city was trapped in a stalemate in which government legitimacy had collapsed. This could explain the ease with which a guy from out of town was able to mobilize the community; people were desperate for some clear direction. Anyone with a workable plan would be viewed as a savior.

So what does this have to do with Wisconsin?

Wisconsin may be entering a prolonged crisis of legitimacy, as different parts of the government have been working with opposite understandings of whether the controversial bill eliminating collective bargaining is actually a law. For a while, even the secretary of state appeared to be confused about what, exactly, was unfolding.

“At this point, we wait until Monday to see if the Supreme Court decides to do anything,” he said. “We wait until Tuesday for the trial judge to hold a hearing… Beyond that, I don’t know.”

The impact of this disarray was very real. One school board cancelled a meeting, not knowing whether they needed to act as though collective bargaining were in effect. The state association of school boards urged its members to refrain from acting until the dust cleared a bit.

The confusion has subsided in the last two weeks, but the crisis is far from over. This is essentially an enormous and high-stakes version of a problem that every organization must guard against – a disagreement over whether a decision has been made. I’ve been in and around a lot of organizations, and as bad as it is to have a divisive disagreement about what should be done, it is vastly worse to disagree about what has already been done.

Walker has tried to slip around the clear intent of a judicial ruling on a technicality around what it means for a law to be “published.” That’s the sort of behavior through which a leader can do real damage to the government.

I happen to disagree with the proposal pushed forward by Walker. I don’t think the Democrats were wise to withhold quorum. I disapprove of how the Republicans responded to this stalemate by a procedural move that rammed a “budget repair” bill by redefining it as non-budgetary.

Anyone can disagree with me on all these points. That’s all fine in a diverse democracy like ours. It’s part of the fun, even.

But the real problem I see is that Walker now seems to be willfully ignoring the role of the judiciary branch as referee. He is acting in ways that had the attorney general confused about how to proceed!

The state of Wisconsin is probably not experiencing a full collapse, but it might be getting close. There is an unprecedented number of recall drives underway against legislators from both parties. Already there are more active recall drives against 16 Wisconsin legislators. For perspective, only 13 state legislators have ever lost recall elections in U.S. history.

So we have a situation in which the legislature is destabilized by a large number of recall elections, coupled with continued disagreement over whether a polarizing proposal is law or not. All this would hopefully be sorted out by the judiciary, which is destabilized by an election that now appears headed for a recount and further controversy due to a last minute addition of votes in a county whose elections are run by a clerk with party ties to one of the candidates (who just happened to gain 7,500 votes from the discovery of this “mistake,” leading a number of people to wonder just what is going on in Waukesha County). To make matters worse, this clerk doesn’t exactly have a good reputation in terms of how she runs her elections.

It’s not hard to imagine that some version of these shenanigans contributed to the collapse of effective governance in Jerusalem, and created the need for community organizing to save the day.

Meanwhile, the federal budgetary process has become so convoluted that the government appears to be on the verge of a series of showdowns that will make orderly discussion of long-term budgeting difficult if not impossible. Our national situation is nowhere near as alarming as that in Wisconsin, but still such that we should be thinking about how to meet our collective needs without help from government. This is especially true in the District of Columbia, whose local government is at the mercy of Congress.

I bring this all up to highlight how dangerously close we are to a real crisis of legitimacy, the likes of which seems to have happened in Nehemiah’s time, when the city was in “great trouble,” split between two leaders so badly that a single person from outside the system of power could waltz in and change the direction of the community.

We can wait for legitimacy to really break down, or for someone unpalatable to take advantage of the growing power vacuum (as Hitler did after the collapse of Germany’s Weimar Republic). Or we can be proactive in our move away from reliance on government.

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3 Responses to Wisconsin Split

  1. Susan McLeod says:

    What do you mean by move away from our reliance on government?

    • coopgeek says:

      A key part of the Nehemiah story is its context. It was originally the second part of a text combined with the book of Ezra. That book (among other things) describes a slow, agonizing process of trying to get the government to follow through on its original plan to rebuild the temple. Nehemiah found a way of stepping away from that reliance and organizing the community to meet its own needs. The relevance of this story is becoming more and more apparent in these days of service cuts and threats of government shutdown.

  2. jeremy hofer says:

    I seem to remember reading that Jesus had an issue with money changers too.

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