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Bernard Weisberger

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Onward Wisconsin

Posted: 02/24/11 11:40 AM ET

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?"