In late 1787, supporters of the recently drafted federal constitution, or “Federalists,” dominated the Pennsylvania ratifying convention. Their opponents, however, the so-called “Anti-Federalists” (or “Antis,” as they were sometimes and derisively labeled) comprised a large minority of that convention. Alarmed at the Federalists’ eagerness to approve the proposed constitution before Pennsylvanians had time to consider it, the Anti-Federalists simply refrained from attending the ratifying convention. To ensure a quorum, and thus a legitimate vote, a Federalist mob rounded up the absentee Antis and forced them to return to their seats. Pennsylvania approved the constitution by a vote of 46-23.
Today, Wisconsin Republicans, led by Governor Scott Walker, have acted on what they regard as an electoral mandate to fix, or at least attempt to fix, their state’s massive budget crisis. Part of the Republicans’ plan includes a bill that would adversely affect public-sector unions by diminishing their members’ existing benefits and curbing their rights to collective bargaining. The Republican-dominated state assembly has approved the bill, 51-17. Assembly Bill 11, as it is called, now heads to the state senate, where fourteen Democrats, emboldened by massive protests, have channeled their inner Anti-Federalists and, some believe, fled the state altogether. Wisconsin police, less fearsome perhaps than a Federalist mob, have conducted a search for the missing Democrats and come up empty.
Reasonable people can and do differ on the bill’s merits. It is worth noting that this bill’s signature features, apart from those that affect collective bargaining--a dubious "right" in any case when one bargains against the public--include a requirement that state employees pay more of their own money into their health and pensions plans, along with freedom from compulsory union dues and even from union membership itself if the individual worker so chooses. Given the history of labor strife in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when both trade and workingmen’s unions struggled against real injustices, the current protests, with their overheated rhetoric and thuggish tactics, seem disproportionate at best.
It is the tactics employed by the fourteen missing Democrats, however, that should alarm us more than anything. Imagine the reaction if, during the 2009-10 health-care debates in Congress, the minority Republicans had walked out of the U.S. House of Representatives and refused to return. They would have been universally and justifiably condemned. Elections, in short, have consequences. Democrats and Republicans had their say during the 2010 campaign season in Wisconsin, and the Republicans prevailed. Now, fourteen Democrats in the state senate refuse to deliberate, and the electorate’s will is effectively thwarted. In all of this, the merits of Assembly Bill 11 should be a secondary consideration. Whether or not one agrees with the Republican initiatives, the sordid and inescapable truth here is that popular government cannot survive amidst such political vigilantism and extra-constitutional sabotage as these fourteen Democrats have perpetuated against the people of Wisconsin.
Pennsylvania’s Anti-Federalists of 1787 failed to defeat the Constitution. We applaud their failure and decry their tactics. In their loss, however, they did not cease making an argument, and in the end their contributions to the American constitutional settlement of 1787-88 would prove to be as profound as those of their Federalist opponents. The Pennsylvania Antis printed and signed an “Address of Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention, of the State of Pennsylvania, to their Constituents,” wherein they pled their case in a reasoned and powerful way. Radical changes to the national government, they said, required serious reflection, not haste. The people, they said, needed a bill of rights, which the framers had neglected to include in the original document. The Federalists’ initial momentum gave way to a groundswell of opposition in other states that nearly killed the proposed constitution. Massachusetts ratified by a vote of 187-168. In Virginia the margin was 89-79. In New York it was 30-27. All of these states, like the Pennsylvania Anti-Federalists, proposed multiple amendments, some of which, in 1791, found their way into the Bill of Rights.
The message for Wisconsin’s senate Democrats is this: if you wish to channel your inner Anti-Federalist, you should stand your ground, make your case, and hope to persuade. In our deliberative process, you should be heard. No matter what you perceive to be the strength of your argument, however, and no matter the result of debates, you do not have the right to subvert popular government.