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Bernard Weisberger Headshot

Onward Wisconsin

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How strange and wondrous it must be to gaze from some celestial perch and see history -- your history -- being relived. From their great Progressive Precinct in the Sky the family of Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette surely must be smiling as they observe the throngs of workers and sympathizers flooding Madison to protest the Koch brothers and corporate America's drive to cripple and ultimately destroy Wisconsin's public service unions. The LaFollettes have seen and lived it all before.

I know the LaFollettes. I spent four years researching and writing a book about them. And I'll wager that they would see the growing resistance in this fourth year of the so-called Great Recession -- which, for those who have lost jobs, homes, and futures is indistinguishable from a Depression -- as a turning point, a wake-up call that begins a counter-revolution against the steady encroachment of the political and corporate Right, with help from Democratic "centrists," on the shrinking contours of the social contract they fought so hard to advance.

That's up to us. If we ourselves light candles from the flame kindled in Madison and carry them to our communities, then the tumult in Madison could resemble events in the 1890s that provoked a political revolt against the first Gilded Age, like our own, dominated politically, culturally and economically by an elite of super-rich securely entrenched behind their golden walls, indifferent or hostile to the protests of debt-stricken farmers and exploited workers, the thwarted hopes of small businessmen and professionals crushed under the weight of the great trusts and their legions of bought lawyers and editors , the sufferers from the poverty that festered in the shadows of the great cities' monuments to progress.

But year by year as the twentieth century dawned, a new breed of thinkers and activists who labeled themselves "Progressives" -- journalists, academics, enlightened businessmen and financiers, officeholders in state capitals and city halls -- along with anonymous and rebellious workers and farmers who pushed from below -- chipped away at the golden walls. They pushed through three amendments in the Constitution -- a deliberately long and hard process -- between 1909 and 1920: a progressive income tax, the direct election of Senators, and votes for women.

Campaign by campaign, local, state and national, navigating through the endless grind of assemblies and petitions and public events sometimes supported by striking workers who risked their jobs, their physical safety and even their lives for equal justice, they gained other protections and guarantees. Workers compensation, occupational safety, guarantees of pure food and drugs, conservation of natural resources, restriction of child labor, regulations of railroads, trusts, and insurance companies, strengthened defenses against financial panics ignited by reckless speculation. Protections for all, especially that vital middle class on whose shoulders democracy rested. Achieved through a political process made accessible to all by machine-fighting reforms like the secret ballot and the open primary.

A climactic highlight was reached in 1912's presidential election. Of the four candidates, only the incumbent president, William H. Taft, was a forthright conservative (and by the standards of current "conservatism," a trust-prosecuting big-government liberal). Denied the Republican nomination, Theodore Roosevelt was running on a third-party ticket on a platform embodying most Progressive demands. So was Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat. Differences between the approaches those two candidates took did not blur the close similarity of their goals.

And there was also Eugene V. Debs, running on a still-respectable Socialist ticket, though in general "socialism" was still a national bugaboo and some Progressives defended their own programs as safety valves to relieve pressure towards the frightening revolutionary doctrine. Debs' capitalism-denouncing platforms were indeed fiery-sounding, but his personal interpretations of them owed as much to Jesus, the Founding Fathers, and philosophical anarchists like Tolstoy as they did to Marx.

It was a no-lose situation for progressives of all shades; Taft received only eight electoral votes, Debs none (but a striking seven per cent of the popular vote -- just under a million cast their ballots for him) while TR and Wilson split the remainder, with Wilson coming out the winner.

Which is where La Follette and Wisconsin enter the picture and connect this week's headlines to that Progressive past. Madison was possibly the best-known center of the political hurricane that had blown down the glittering, deceptive towers of the first Gilded Age. As a three term governor from 1900 through 1906 La Follette -- a Republican, bear in mind -- pioneered the "Wisconsin Idea" -- an alliance between a popularly chosen government and a cadre of experts in law, economics, sociology and associated disciplines who would help him to translate "reform" into rational, research-based regulations governing such areas as transportation and utility charges, the taxation of corporate property, the financial responsibility of lending institutions, and the proper management of public resources resource and public health.

The presumed goal was always fairness, rather than what the traffic would bear or what corporations could get away with. Madison's geography puts the university campus and the State House at opposite ends of a walkway no more than a few hundred yards long -- an axis of cooperation between Governor La Follette and his pioneering version of what later, under FDR, was called a "Brain Trust."

La Follette's career did not end in Madison, even if his symbolic presence hovers over the state capitol at this moment. Nor was he the only Progressive in Wisconsin, but his star was the brightest in their firmament. He went on to the U.S. Senate, and stayed there for nineteen years until his death in 1925, whereupon the then he was immediately succeeded by his son, Robert Jr, appointed to his unexpired term by the then-governor after he had offered it to La Follette's activist widow, Belle, and she had declined with thanks. "Young Bob" held the seat until defeated in 1946 by Joseph R. McCarthy. During the nineteen thirties his younger brother Phil also held the governor's mansion for two terms and joined in creating a short-lived state Progressive Party in Wisconsin on whose ticket he ran. It was an impressive dynastic record.

But there are other "witnesses" looking over the shoulders of the protesters at Madison, and particularly of those Wisconsin Democrats who are fighting back and fighting hard, something for which the national party has not precisely been known for a long time. Perhaps it is because these insurgents recognize that the stakes here go far beyond a simple and traditional matter of "greedy" public service unions versus their employer, the state of Wisconsin and its tax paying citizens. That is, of course, the way Governor Walker and his right-wing cohorts want to frame it. As if the public service workers themselves were not "people" and taxpayers! As if their pensions and rights were not fairly earned at the bargaining table in lieu of wage hikes in better times and they had not already agreed to negotiate them downward if their sacrifices are equally shared by the wealthy. As if their services in the "submerged" government -- the taken for granted cleaning of streets, provision of water and sanitation, police and fire protection, the teaching of the state's children -- were not honest and necessary work. How dare Rush Limbaugh, the principal foghorn of the Right-wing noise machine, denounce them as "freeloaders?"

Make no mistake. This is not a question of dealing with deficits due to the hard times created, not by ordinary Americans, but by the architects of frenzied finance at the top of the income pyramid who now want to stick the suffering public with the bill for their disasters. The assault on unions is part of the hard Right's never-ending campaign to restore workers to the situation of beggars whose choices are to take what the the employer insists is the "market rate" for labor or else starve. And not incidentally, to strip labor of any remaining countervailing political power against the steady dismantling of a democratic society and economy. That is the goal of the Tea Party and the billionaires who fund it. Of the Karl Roves and Grover Norquists who hate not only the New Deal ratified by America's voters eighty years ago, but every progressive step taken in the last hundred and ten years. That is what's at stake here. Even during early Progressive victories, even as late as the nineteen thirties, union-busting tactics, thuggery and intimidation included, continued. And as part of the LaFollette saga, it was "Young Bob" who brought them to light as head of a Congressional investigating committee during the thirties, outraging the public conscience so much that the way was paved for Labor's Magna Carta, the Wagner Act that guaranteed the right of collective bargaining.

But whether the Madison protesters begin a long march back to democratic sanity is up to us! Leadership in that struggle is not forthcoming from the White House -- the president has already backpedaled away from an earlier supportive statement to a hands-off position on a "local" issue -- nor from the "moderate" Democrats who have joined the deficit hawks in touting a self-contradictory recovery program of cutting social and "entitlement" programs, thereby reducing spending by low-income consumers, while ducking any tax increases -- especially on wealth -- that would make up for the revenue lost by decreased business activity and a shrinking tax base. That's a first-rate recipe for more debt, which will then be offered by the Right as further evidence of the profligacy and failures of government itself and renewed calls for rendering it impotent. Shame on those legislators who fall for it.

So with no help from Washington it is for us, the living, as Lincoln proclaimed, to fight for the continuation of government of, by and for the people, by spreading Wisconsin's revolt to our own communities. It means nonviolent action -- continuous and unrelenting, most especially between elections -- protest rallies, petitions, demonstrations, digging into already lean pockets to support existing centers of resistance like unions and devising creative new ways to turn up the heat on Congress. It might even mean reconsidering the long-existing strategy of guaranteeing progressive votes to all and any Democrats on every Election Day to avoid worse horrors. That road has not led to arresting the continued rightward drift of the so-called center as any meaningful left fades away like the Cheshire cat.

But whatever roads we take, if we rise to this occasion, we'll be supported by the other ghostly witnesses in the antechambers of the Wisconsin legislature and on Madison's streets. By the Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge who said in those very halls in 1874, "the question is: Who shall rule? Man or Wealth?" Among the listeners may well have been Robert La Follette and his future wife, Belle Case, soon to be undergraduates at the state university. We will also be standing on the shoulders of anti-laissez-faire economics professors like Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons. We will hearten the wraiths of Jane Addams who founded Hull House smack in the midst of an impoverished immigrant neighborhood and fought steadily to make it a center of empowerment for them. And of "graduates" of Hull House's many transient residents and assistants like Dr. Alice Hamilton, specialist in industrial diseases and in fighting the corporations which knowingly allowed for working conditions that brought them on. Of battlers against child labor like Florence Kelley, students of social science like Julia Lathrop and Grace Abbot, and Sophonisba Breckenridge, who meticulously studied the conditions of life of Chicago's immigrant and native workers to create a foundation for public policies that improved their lives. They also developed the new profession of social work. All the efforts of these forerunners of our forthcoming battle are sneered at to this day by wealthy conservatives as a needless drain on the pockets of the successful for the benefit of "losers." They are the adversaries we will face.

Moral support will issue from the spirits of the Populists of 1892, mainly farm folks, who recognized a fact of life earlier than most -- that the American Revolution was not against "government" in itself, but against a British government that conferred special privileges on royal favorites, including chartered corporations like the East India Company, and that in a modern economy the task of democracy was not to destroy government but to harness it to the service of the public sphere -- to make it active in the promotion of the general welfare specified in the Constitution's Preamble instead of the protection of private affluence at the top, and public squalor at the bottom of society. And from a great cast of others who fought to preserve a society with freedom, justice and opportunity for all.

All these and more will be standing with us if we take up the challenge.

If we fail to do so, the growing plutocracy threatens to harden into permanence. Those Progressives understood that great inequality of fortune and genuine democracy were incompatible. That insight nerved their efforts, sustained them through setbacks. We, too, in this critical hour, need their fighting spirit. We stand in an honorable American tradition of revolt that stretches back beyond the Progressives and runs throughout our history. We need to remember the words of Tom Paine about the American Revolution: "The sun never shone on a worthier cause." And when attempts are made to muzzle our protests by denunciation and ridicule, we need to recall the words of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's opening salvo in his newspaper The Liberator. "I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch AND I WILL BE HEARD."

There's much to overcome. The legacy of eight years of Bush wars and Bushonomics. Election "victories" in 2006 and 2008 that were hollowed by retreat and compromise. A hard Right whose growing momentum and power casts long shadows over the future. A business-friendly Supreme Court that has declared corporations not only to be "persons" but endowed the human right of free speech of which money is a form, and thereby sanctified their right to buy elections. And a media system which has gutted its news-gathering and analysis staffs and folded them into entertainment departments. The owners of those outlets deserve the epitaph once penned by William Allen White about newspaper tycoon Frank Munsey: "He combined the talents of a meatpacker, the manners of an undertaker, and the morals of a moneychanger. May he rest in trust."

All the more reason for a now or never fight to be present in spirit and action with those protesters in Madison. Let me leave the last word to La Follette. In 1924, during the delusive era of "Coolidge Prosperity" when the Republicans ran the incumbent "Silent Cal" and the Democrats a Wall Street lawyer, John W. Davis, the shrinking cadre of surviving beleaguered Progressives lacked a candidate worth voting for. "Fighting Bob," himself slowly dying of heart disease, gave them an alternative by running an underfunded, lonely but vigorous -- and of course hopeless -- independent campaign. Back in 1911, when he was an unsuccessful aspirant to the Republican nomination, he had written: "Democracy is a life and demands constant struggle." Now, at the dissidents' convention that nominated him, he ran on a platform whose final words declared: "The nation may grow rich in the vision of greed. It will grow great in the vision of service." Luckily, the progressive roots planted earlier had not died; they only required watering by efforts of the faithful, and only nine years after 1924 they blossomed in the New Deal and its successors.

Let us progressives of this moment recall those 1911 and 1924 words of La Follette, beaten but unbowed. Let us pass them on, act by them and live by them, starting with support of the Madison resisters. The past is back. The time is now.

Historian Bernard Weisberger is the author of The LaFollettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1994)

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