04/06/2011 02:35 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2011

Wisconsin Is a Tide Turner; Can We Ride the Wave?

Every now and then a moment sparks a movement. The Wisconsin moment began with the threat of an overreaching governor passing a corporate tax cut then firing workers to fill the budget hole he created; the movement began when the workers struck back. Now Wisconsin is a symbol for the new purpose-driven people-powered politics where workers' pizza parties have taken on corporate tea parties.

To understand Wisconsin, consider this email I received from a young AFSCME organizer late February 25th from a protest in the Capitol where thousands ate pizzas ordered from as far away as Cairo, Egypt:

"while the Governor has refused to sit down at the table - union members in Wisconsin have offered to balance the State's budget on their back in exchange for their basic right to organize. On the first day, 50 union members and a handful of students protested. A few days later 14 brave Senate Democrats fled the state in order to buy time and allow debate. By the weekend 100,000 joined from all over Wisconsin in support. Yesterday over 10,000 people in small towns across Wisconsin took to the streets to defend our rights."

Those Wisconsin activists were led into the Capitol by firefighters -- union members whom Walker had excluded from his draconian measures but who understood the basic premise of solidarity: "an injury to one is an injury to all."

While extremists will always decry "compromise" as if it is a 4-letter word, there is a reason that tea parties were replaced by pizza parties in Madison: extremism in defense of virtue may not be a personal vice but it is bad political advice if you want to govern effectively. Scott Walker had the unions where he wanted them -- they were willing to balance the budget "on their back" but he pushed too far, adding indignity to injury with the union busting overreach urged by tea party Republicans.

Wisconsin 2011 is to Democrats what Scott Brown 2010 was for Republicans: it is a tide turner if we can summon the courage of our convictions to ride the wave. Wisconsin has given Democrats an opportunity to rebuild our coalitions and harness the energy of the Madison pizza parties to make positive change. Thus, I was proud to join my Young Democrats of America colleagues and progressive allies in April 4 We Are One events honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of equality from sea to shining sea: from a candlelight vigil in West Virginia to a labor march down the streets of San Francisco to get out the vote rallies in Wisconsin.

As one marcher told me in San Francisco, "Wisconsin awakened the sleeping giant of working families." Wisconsin Independents have fled Republicans in droves, and joined Democrats and fed-up Republicans at the ballot boxes. Young voters who sat out 2010 are activating in 2011, marching, protesting, and voting. Hence Scott Walker's old job is now to be filled by a Democrat, and the Supreme Court race is down to the wire.

But Wisconsin is larger than an election cycle; it is a generational choice. Just as the greatest generation was judged by World War Two, the Mad Men generation was judged by civil rights and the baby boomers were judged by Vietnam, ours will be judged by Wisconsin. When our kids ask "what did you do about Wisconsin?" our answer should be: "I had a choice, and I chose to stand with working families so people have a voice on the job, a decent day's pay for an honest day's work, and a dignified retirement."