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Thousands of pro-labor protesters rallied at the Wisconsin Capitol Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Madison, vowing to fight back after the state's Republican governor signed into law a controversial bill that eliminates most collective bargaining rights for public employees.

“Tell me what democracy looks like,” chant the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who have rallied to block Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on basic rights, public services and local schools and communities.

“This is what democracy looks like!” comes the reply.

Never in Wisconsin history have so many citizens rallied in such numbers and for so long against political corruption and the concentration of power in the hands of an unaccountable executive.

This is the ultimate democracy struggle.

If Walker and his corporate paymasters prevail, Wisconsin workers will be denied the collective bargaining rights their ancestors fought and died to establish, Wisconsin towns will be denied the authority to determine their own budgets, and Wisconsin school boards will lose their ability to defend educational quality and make smart choices regarding charter schools.

And as power is grabbed from citizens and communities and shifted to the governor and his appointed cronies, the ability of out-of-state corporations to promote privatization schemes, divert public dollars into their treasuries and generally profit at the expense of Wisconsin taxpayers is increased.

Wisconsinites have said “No!”

In the streets of our towns, villages and cities.

In the Capitol, despite attempts by Walker and his allies to shut down the building.

In the courts, where judges have refused to sanction the governor’s power grab.

And, on April 5, Wisconsinites can say “No” with their votes.

The race for state Supreme Court will be the highest-profile test. The grass-roots energy associated with Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg’s independence-and-integrity challenge to Justice David Prosser — whose re-election campaign was launched with a pledge that Prosser would serve as a judicial activist “complement” to Walker’s agenda — suggests democracy is on the march.

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In Madison and Dane County, voters will also be able to signal their commitment to clean elections, open government and local control by voting “yes” and “yes” on a pair of advisory referendums that address the threat posed to democracy by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which allows corporations to spend freely and without accountability to buy elections. The 2010 election results reflected that influence — in Wisconsin and nationally.

These “reclaiming democracy” referendums declare that “only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights” and they put our communities on record in support of free speech and free elections.

This year’s remarkable grass-roots activism has shown that Wisconsinites are waking up to the reality that we are in a critical struggle to answer the question posed by former Chief Justice Edward Ryan and asked so frequently by Robert M. La Follette: “Which shall rule, wealth or man; which shall lead, money or intellect; who shall fill public stations — educated and patriotic free men (and women) or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?”

The feudal serfs of corporate capital want to take away our rights in the workplace and in the public square, to shout down our voices and to increase their power.

To counter them, patriotic free men and women can vote “yes” and “yes” on Madison and Dane County’s democracy referendums.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times.