Wisconsin may once again play a transformative role in national politics.
In an uncanny echo of Fighting Bob La Follette and the Wisconsin Progressives 110 years ago, today's labor activists could ignite a new national movement to restore economic security and rebuild the American middle class.
La Follette's popular takeover of state government in the election of 1900, backed by an outpouring of pent-up popular outrage against corporate domination of state politics, set in motion events that would reshape America.
The protest movement that swept La Follette into power heralded the onset of decades of state and national reform that would culminate in the New Deal, the Great Society and the development of the largest middle class the world has ever known.
It is too early to say whether Wisconsin's workers rights protests of 2011 will become such a turning point, but it is clear that the all-important sense of "what is possible" expanded dramatically on February 11th when Scott Walker unveiled his now infamous budget repair bill and sent tens of thousands of nurses, educators, lunchroom ladies, child care providers, snow plow drivers and average folks from every walk of life pouring into the streets.
There are parallels between 1900 and 2011 that offer intriguing clues about this expanded scope of possibility.
Somehow in the election of 1900 a switch was flipped, and a critical mass of urban, rural and small-town Wisconsinites, previously divided against themselves, grasped a compelling and unifying political vision: that democratic government was the only force powerful enough to check the crushing economic exploitation and political corruption wrought by the Robber Barons who commanded modern industrial capitalism.
Today, we have our own Robber Barons, including the Koch Brothers, who corrupt and dominate our political system. And economic insecurity has been building for decades, without an effective political response.
As in 1900, in 2011 a switch has flipped, as hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites have risen to respond to Walker's attack on fundamental workers rights, and indeed on the survival of the American middle class.
Whether what is now happening in Wisconsin can approach the significance of what happened here in 1900 remains to be seen.
Nothing is predetermined. We are all personally and collectively responsible for whether we make the most of this second Wisconsin progressive moment.
Robert Kraig is the executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, and author of the book Woodrow Wilson and the Lost World of the Oratorical Statesman (Texas A&M University Press).
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