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When You Play the Plutocrats’ Game, They Win: On Civility and Half Measures

Kristine Mattis

Like many Wisconsinites, I am feeling rather dejected after the disappointing August 9th recall elections. But unlike most of my brothers and sisters, my disappointment stems not so much from the outcome, but from the adherence to propriety and to a faith in inherently corrupt and unjust systems.

I was inspired and awed by the spontaneous and sustained uprisings in February and March and solidarity of the people of Wisconsin. Having lived numerous places throughout this country, there is no other place I would have wanted to call home at that moment. I was so proud to be among the protesters and my tendency toward negativity was suspended for a brief period. And then it ended. People went back to work (or unemployment) and though small demonstrations continued, the massive manpower and money was instead redirected toward recalling six Republican state senators and attempting to replace them with Democrats.

Though I was surprisingly impressed by the bold stand that the fourteen Democratic state senators took to protect the rights of their citizens, and though, having attended hearings in the state legislature, I have found many of these Wisconsin Democratic representatives to be supportive of the needs of the people in the state, I chose not to devote my current activism to the recall elections.

I was at the bargaining table last year when the Wisconsin state legislature and governor’s office were controlled by Democrats. Nevertheless, we state employee unions were told off the bat that any increases in any types of monetary compensation were off the table, and that our health insurance premiums would be increased. Game over. Doing anything else was too risky in “this political climate,” they said. Having worked in the U.S. House of Representatives previously, I saw firsthand the complicity and complacency of many federal Democrats, but I really had no knowledge of politics at the state level in WI. I learned quickly as, after months of negotiating, even our very crappy contracts were voted against by a couple of turncoat Democrats seeking political leverage from the incoming legion of Republicans.

In the past thirty years, state and local governments – in fact society in general - have been catering more and more to corporate interests, and consequently corporate interests have been taking over our state and our society. This has resulted in their co-opting of the only two major political parties allowed to exist in the U.S., as well as in the largest redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich in history. In real terms, massive unemployment, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and social decay has spread across America, going largely unnoticed by anyone not experiencing it, or more likely, trying their hardest to deny it. The corporate controlled media does not report it to any substantive extent. They are too busy promoting new products, gadgets and consumer distractions.

In addition to consistent tax cuts for the rich and corporations and the expenses incurred from two-plus illegal and unnecessary imperial wars, the most recent recession in 2008 - caused by the unregulated casino known as Wall Street - has caused most of the fiscal crises in the states and throughout the nation. Yet, the Wall Street bankers committed fraud, the “brilliant” Ivy-League educated economists looked blithely away as the economic system collapsed, and the government officials who should have prosecuted the thieves let the perpetrators go scot free and proceeded to blame vital public employees for the financial woes caused by the rich. They not only allowed the criminals to go away unscathed, they fed these same criminals OUR money so that they could maintain their obscene wealth. Meanwhile, all over the nation, we, who had already lost everything, were being told we had to lose MORE so that those same rich people whom we had bailed out could “save” us through their privatization of all public goods (which, of course, does nothing but fatten their pocketbooks and starve us dead).

These unspeakable acts of reverse Robin-Hood corporate socialism took place under the watch of both Democrats and Republicans. We’d all like for it to not be so, in order for us to be able to easily place blame on one side, and go to the polls to vote in the other direction, but that vote is just a half measure. It often obtains little and changes nothing.

I do not wish to blame the Democratic officials in my state, because many of them - including Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and numerous state assemblypersons and senators whom I have had the good fortune of meeting during these recent months - have proven themselves more stalwart and progressive than most. I also recognize the insidiousness of the phony “grassroots” Tea Party, their corporate sponsors, their Republican allies, and their media propaganda machine. But laying the blame for the desperate state we find ourselves in solely at the feet of the GOP is completely disingenuous. Despite the rhetoric in the media, the real conflict is not between the Democrats and the Republicans; here and throughout the world, there is not a political war but a class war – and the rich are winning by a landslide. Given that context, trying to exact change through electoral politics is futile because the system is already rigged by the plutocrats, and because if one is not willing to deviate from their system, one is bound to lose.

Many political activists working on the recall elections have been saying that we want to elect Democrats to “stop the bleeding” and then we will hold them accountable to the people. From my vantage point, I do not see bleeding; I see fatal hemorrhaging from the carotid artery that only societal change, not politics, will be able to surgically repair.

When we play the game of the plutocrats, we allow:

  • A “Citizen’s United” election in which endless corporate moneys control the outcome
  • Continuation of the false premise that Wisconsin even had a budget “crisis”
  • Media framing that “the people have spoken through their votes” (regardless of the fact that this cannot be the case in a country where corporations are considered people)
  • Domination by “middle class” in discourse, instead of discussions about poverty, racism, and severe social injustices
  • Political tricks and illegal maneuvers (see: falsification of election date on absentee ballots, consistent election irregularities in Waukesha county clerk’s office, phony robo-calls by right-wing groups, voter intimidation at polls, voter disenfranchisement through cumbersome voter ID law, etc.) going uncontested or unprosecuted
  • “Conspiracy theory” narratives to dismiss all skepticism, despite tremendous evidence of organized wrongdoings


One of the main ways we play into their game is through prevarication and civility. What should have happened, as many chanted on March 9th – the day the state Assembly illegally voted on the anti-collective bargaining bill and 7000 people immediately flooded past the gatekeepers at the capitol doors to protest – was a general strike. If our elected officials can break a law that attempts to protect the transparency of our state legislative process by pushing through a vote without due notice, then citizens should have broken a wholly unjust law that attempts to criminalize the rights of workers to not show up for work.

I’m originally from New York. New Yorkers have a justified stereotype of being rude and abrasive (often unprovoked and for no reason). By contrast, what I have found living in Wisconsin for the past two years and in the Upper Midwest for the past four, is that civility is at a premium here. As a general rule, people like to maintain decorum and do not like to complain. That can be a very nice thing, for example, when you are new in town and everyone is welcoming and nice. But it is extremely disadvantageous when one is reticent to “act out” for fear of conflict or contention.

One of the Democrats in the recall elections said in an interview that she did not like the recent changes in Wisconsin government, because things had become so divisive and people could not compromise. Given the current state of affairs, I would say that compromise is not in order. When it comes to balancing a budget by hampering or eliminating all of the social safety nets for the poor in order to enhance incentives for corporate interests, a legislator who seeks a balanced “compromise” on these unequal terms is not a legislator that any citizen needs. Likewise, a citizen who would rather retract into her (not-so) comfortable life by casting a vote rather than by challenging an unjust political and social system is not a citizen who will be victorious for her cause. Right now, I hope that Wisconsinites can realize that when battling plutocracy, one must leave one’s civility at the door. Maybe now’s the time to take a lesson from the New Yorkers; maybe now’s the time to stop playing by their rules and to be belligerent, obstinate, and uncompromising. 


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Kristine Mattis

Kristine Mattis

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email:

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