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Before the first of the evening rallies where public employees and their allies would mass in ever-expanding numbers to protest the assault on labor rights by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, I went through one of the three boxes of historic campaign buttons in my basement. Finally, in the third box, I found it: a big white badge with blue lettering that read: “Gaylord Nelson for Governor.”
I pinned it on and headed to the rally, where, to my delight, people got the point: The rightwing Republican who now held the governorship was attacking more than just labor rights. He was attacking everything—and everyone—that forward-looking Wisconsinites valued.
Nelson, who as a Senator issued the call for the first Earth Day and ushered in an era of mass mobilization on behalf of environmental causes, was a Wisconsin progressive. His dad was a friend and supporter of Robert M. La Follette, the legendary progressive governor and senator. Nelson was a member of the small band of young progressives who took over the dormant Democratic Party in the late 1940s and turned it into a fighting liberal movement that swept state elections in 1958 and installed him as governor. Within months of that election, Nelson signed the pioneering collective bargaining law that extended protections to public employees across the state—precisely the law that Walker has been seeking to eviscerate.
An understanding of these connections, both historical and emotional, has been at the heart of the uprising in Wisconsin that has captivated progressives around the nation. And, as Howard Zinn so frequently reminded us, it is impossible to explain what has happened in this one state, and what might happen in other states, without embracing and exploring a past that serves always as prologue.
The question of “Why Wisconsin?” has been a common one among activists, academics, and pundits trying to explain the scope and intensity of the reaction to Walker’s proposal, which took just about everyone—including Wisconsin’s savviest pols and pundits—by surprise. It’s an appropriate inquiry, as the mass mobilization of union members, farmers, students, public employees, and private sector workers countered the national narrative that says the political energy in the country is on the right, that taxpayers see state and local employees and teachers as rampaging hordes emptying the public treasury, that unions are dead or dying, that sustained demonstrations only happen in Cairo and other Middle Eastern capitals, that nothing will rouse the great mass of Americans against corporate power.
Wisconsin embraced and amplified the language of the left with hundreds of thousands of people chanting: “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!” “Tax the Rich!” “People Power, Not Corporate Power!” and “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!” Michael Moore captured the excitement of the moment when he recounted the failed efforts to generate a movement against bank bailouts and corporate welfare. “The executives in the board rooms and hedge funds could not contain their laughter, their glee, and within three months they were writing each other huge bonus checks and marveling at how perfectly they had played a nation full of suckers,” he said. “Millions lost their jobs anyway, and millions lost their homes. But there was no revolt . . . until now!”
“On Wisconsin!” Moore shouted on a frigid Saturday in Madison. And 50,000 people shouted back: “On Wisconsin!”
Where did all these labor activists, these economic justice stalwarts, these radicals come from? And are there more of them, waiting to come from the shadows in states across the country? The answer to the latter question is most certainly yes.
The Wisconsin uprising need not be seen as a freak phenomenon or a brief deviation from the steady race to the bottom politically. It can and should serve as an inspiration for state struggles across the country.
Indeed, that inspiration has already spread to Florida, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and other targets of Republican wrecking crew governors and legislators who seek to dismantle worker rights, public services, public education, and local democracy.
But for these movements to achieve the scope and force of the Wisconsin movement, it is important to understand the indigenous character of the revolt in Madison, Milwaukee, Platteville, Portage, Ashland, and Appleton. And it is essential for activists in every state to rediscover and honor their own homegrown progressive history.
What happened in Wisconsin in the late winter and early spring of 2011 was not just a reaction against the dishonest and disreputable austerity agenda of old rightwing think tanks and new rightwing politicians. Nor was it merely an appropriate and necessary response to the overreach of a particular Republican governor. It had roots in Wisconsin, the state where The Progressive was founded more than a century ago (as La Follette’s Weekly) and continues to publish from an office just blocks from the epicenter of demonstrations that regularly drew tens of thousands of people to the great square that surrounds the state capitol in Madison. Wisconsin has a rich history of progressive populist activism that stretches back to before the Civil War. The notion of resisting political and economic power is not new to the people of this state. Many of the mass demonstrations at the capitol were held on a corner of the square where stands a statue of Hans Christian Heg, the Norwegian immigrant who in the 1850s organized the “Wide Awakes,” a militia that prevented fugitive slave catchers from operating in the state. Heg led a unit of “Norsemen” in the Civil War, and he died from wounds suffered at the Battle of Chickamauga. The Wisconsinites who returned from what they saw as “the noblest cause” carried with them an outsized sense of the state’s responsibility to see off threats to a vision of a just and equitable United States.
Robert M. La Follette imbibed this worldview as a child; he was nurtured in rural Primrose Township on stories of courageous struggle not just against southern slaveholders but the economic interests that would impose another form of bondage on the great mass of American farmers, shopkeepers, and workers. There was no lack of clarity and no confusion regarding the lines of battle. La Follette’s entire political career, one of the most storied in American history, was a response to a call he heard issued in 1873 from Edward Ryan, the fiery chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who warned: “There is looming up a new and dark power. . . . The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economical conquests only, but for political power. . . . The question will arise and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine: ‘Which shall rule, wealth or man? Which shall lead, money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?’ ”
When I read Ryan’s words to tens of thousands of Wisconsinites as they rallied at the capitol on a cold February night, many in the crowd were familiar with the words. They had studied them in history classes. They had heard them repeated from the stages of Fighting Bob Fest, an annual gathering in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where as many as 10,000 come together each summer to celebrate the legacy of La Follette and the progressives. They had listened to variations on the theme in the speeches of former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ed Garvey, former Senator Russ Feingold, former House Appropriations Committee chair Dave Obey, and current Congresswomen Tammy Baldwin and Gwen Moore, all proud heirs to the progressive tradition.
Few states have done so good a job as Wisconsin when it comes to retaining a sense of a distinct radical history.
So when the crowd this night was reminded of Chief Justice Ryan’s words, the assembled masses spontaneously responded: “People power, not corporate power!”
The radical character of Wisconsin progressivism is part of a distinct Upper Midwest brand of activism that gave rise to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the North Dakota Non-Partisan League. From 1910 to 1960, Milwaukee repeatedly elected Socialist mayors and Congressional representatives, and in Wisconsin “socialism” never became the epithet that it is in so much of our current political discourse.
There were always setbacks. Robert M. La Follette Jr., a great champion of labor rights, lost his U.S. Senate seat in a 1946 Republican primary to Joe McCarthy, and the late 1940s and early 1950s were a time of Republican hegemony in Wisconsin, a time when old progressives worried their movement had died.
Yet, in 1957, McCarthy’s seat was won by Bill Proxmire, the first Democrat to secure a Wisconsin Senate seat in a quarter century. A year later, the progressive movement reemerged in a Democratic sweep of state offices. This was Gaylord Nelson’s moment, and he grabbed it by working with Democratic legislators to enact a slew of pro-labor laws.
Nelson would go to the Senate in 1963 and spend the next eighteen years maintaining the progressive tradition of supporting civil rights and labor rights, promoting conservation and food and drug safety, and opposing military adventurism and the imperial presidency. He was ousted in the Reagan Republican landslide of 1980, a reminder that Wisconsin remains a swing state in national politics.
But twelve years later, his seat was won back by the son of a Progressive Party stalwart, a young Democrat named Russ Feingold. Like Nelson, Feingold never really served as a national Democrat; he was an outlier, truer to the Wisconsin progressive tradition than to the compromised and compromising approach of Democratic Presidents and Congressional leaders. It was a point of honor that he was ranked the least popular Senator among corporate lobbyists; this, Feingold said, was as La Follette intended. Unfortunately, as U.S. politics “nationalized” in 2010, after corporate interests faked up the faux populism of a tea party movement and turned disdain toward Barack Obama into an excuse for defeating all candidates with a “D” after their name, Feingold lost his reelection run in the same election that put Scott Walker in the governor’s office.
Walker made a point of being sworn in on the opposite side of the capitol from the bust of Robert M. La Follette, where previous governors—Democrats and Republicans—had taken their oaths. That should have been a sign of what was coming. It was not just that Walker wanted nothing to do with the La Follette name and the progressive tradition; he was hoping that the bonds Wisconsinites felt with their state’s history had frayed sufficiently so that he could lurch the state rightward.
But as soon as Wisconsinites began to occupy the state capitol during a remarkable demonstration of the people-power nature of the protests, students from the University of Wisconsin and AFSCME road crews surrounded the La Follette bust and made it the emotional and physical center of the occupation. Day after day, visitors to the capitol placed flowers in front of the bust. Quotes from La Follette were attached to the great pedestal on which it sat.
“We’re guarding Bob and everything that’s real about Wisconsin,” declared Ed Sadlowski Jr., an AFSCME organizer from Rock County, who slept a dozen nights beside the bust. “This goes deep, man. This is about defending who we are. Walker doesn’t just want to take away collective bargaining. He wants to take our history as a state that stood on the side of the working people, not the corporations. We’re not going to let him.”
That understanding is essential to the spread of uprisings and movements like the one that has developed in Wisconsin—where, months after the governor announced his anti-labor initiative, it continues to be blocked by legal actions, legislative maneuvers, and mass protests so large and consistent that the Republican majority leader of the Wisconsin state senate has admitted that many of his members fear moving forward in the face of mass opposition.
Make no mistake: What is often referred to simply as “Wisconsin” has spread. And it will continue to spread if activists in other states go to their own histories for inspiration.
Making these historical and emotional connections is essential to building popular movements that burst the boundaries of recent political coalition building. People have to feel that they have a stake in defending something bigger, something that is hardwired into their understandings of themselves as individuals and as a citizen of a particular state. In an age of increasing homogenization of our politics, these connections form a vital—and too frequently undervalued—counterweight to a dumbed-down discourse.
It would be absurd to try and rally a radical movement in Massachusetts without recalling Sam Adams, Lexington, and Concord and the real tea party’s anti-corporate message. That’s a touchstone, a source of pride worth tapping into.
But every state has radical roots.
It matters that Michigan has a great labor tradition of sit-down strikes and United Auto Workers struggles not just for union recognition and contracts but also for civil rights.
It matters that Montana was a hotbed of Wobbly activism in the days when the Industrial Workers of the World were on the march, and that towns such as Butte still identify with their radical labor history. And it matters that La Follette’s running mate on the 1924 Progressive Party presidential ticket was Montana’s anti-imperialist Senator Burton K. Wheeler.
It matters that North Dakota Non-Partisan Leaguers started a state bank and state grain elevators almost a century ago, and that they are still going strong.
It matters that labor political activism in New York City didn’t begin in the 1930s but in the 1830s, and that those first great fights put a woman, Fanny Wright, in the forefront.
The histories of farm activism in Missouri, Kansas, and eastern Colorado are justifiably sources of great pride, and the fodder for contemporary organizing.
California did not start experimenting with radical politics in the 1960s; it started fifty years earlier with the radical governorship of Hiram Johnson—who went on to become one of La Follette’s Senate allies in the struggle against imperialism and military profiteering—and the even more radical campaigning of Upton Sinclair and his End Poverty in California movement in the 1930s.
Connecticut has a rich Socialist history in Bridgeport.
Pennsylvania has one in Reading.
Ohio has one in Cleveland and Toledo.
And so it goes.
The history is there, and it is powerful; it reminds people that they are part of something bigger, something stronger than a momentary battle. It creates a sense of connection not just with fellow workers but also with a legacy worthy of defending. Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob Fest, the annual gathering of progressive faithful organized by Ed Garvey and his comrades, has always done this. And the Bob Fest model is ripe for export.
In each state, we need to reclaim our progressive history, honor this heritage, and celebrate its continual life. There should be yearly progressive festivals in every state to invoke this unique collective progressive memory. At such festivals, people gain strength by gathering en masse, recharging their batteries, reclaiming their roots—and they have fun doing it. Jim Hightower, an annual attendee at Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob Fest, is a huge fan of the right to assemble not just to protest but also to celebrate who we are at events that “excite and empower ordinary people.”
The empowerment comes from sensing that we are a part of something constant and strong. Maintaining an understanding of progressive roots, of where we come from—not for purposes of nostalgia but for renewal and revitalization—is a powerful tool.
That’s what Wisconsinites did long before Scott Walker started going after unions, public schools, and public services. And this keeping of the faith is a part—a big part—of the answer to the question: “Why Wisconsin?”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and Washington correspondent for The Nation. His latest book is “The ‘S’ Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism” (Verso).