Bad news out of Wisconsin last night. Tom Barrett lost to a man who shouldn’t have been elected dog catcher, much less Governor. Scott Walker is also currently the target of a FBI investigation, so he may not sit in that office much longer, but there is no doubt, a lot of people were disappointed last night. I was one of them.
I’m not from Wisconsin, but I know a little of their history. I thought I might share that history to put this defeat into perspective. The first thing you should know is that Wisconsin was the heart of progressive movement in the last century. The second thing you should know –hold onto your hats – those progressives from Wisconsin were originally Republicans. Unlike the pro-business kleptomaniacs of today, the Progressive Republicans, as they liked to call themselves, believed that the business of government was to serve the people. They sought to restrict the power of corporations when it interfered with the needs of individual citizens. In their crusade for reform on a state and national level, Progressive Republicans were led by Robert La Follette, Wisconsin’s governor from 1901 to 1906, and U.S. Senator from 1906 to 1925.
La Follette developed what came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, he argued that “efficient government required control of institutions by the voters rather than special interests.” He thought that the “involvement of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government.” To aid in this endeavor, faculty from the University of Wisconsin played a significant part in Progressive reform efforts, helping legislators draft laws and serving as experts on governmental commissions. While advocating for more scientific and efficient government, many of these specialists were equally persistent in their efforts to expand educational opportunities. Much of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was drafted by Wisconsin citizens, such as Edwin Witte (author of the 1935 Social Security act), who had been trained by Progressive Wisconsin economics professor John R. Commons. In fact, the momentum of La Follette and his allies rippled down through the decades into John Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs.
In many ways, Progressive Republicans of Wisconsin were the exact inverse of today’s Republican party which has abandoned any pretense of intellectual vigor or scientific objectivity. Not a single contemporary Republican candidate could admit to the Theory of Evolution during the primaries, much less support the notion that climate change is a problem caused by man—despite near perfect scientific unanimity on the question. In deference to the ideological zealots on the religious right, they have actively sought to restrict contraceptive options for women across the country and the world–despite its negative impact on women’s health. In deference to ideological free market zealots, they have signed pledges which now make it impossible to balance the budget without slashing social safety nets for millions of America’s most needy, while billionaires have their capital gains shielded from taxes and corporations pay little or no taxes at all. None of this is rational governance. Progressive Republicans would have been horrified to see what the party is doing in their name.
And last night, two billionaires and their surrogates safe guarded Scott Walker, a relentlessly incompetent executive from a recall effort by out spending his opponent about 20 to 1. As Andy Borowitz put it, “Wisconsin: The people have spoken, and they’re both named Koch.”
I think anyone who watched this carefully is disappointed, but Joe Hill—a great progressive and union organizer said it best under much more dire circumstances than these—on his execution day, in fact. He had been accused of murdering a doctor and his son on very scant evidence, but he knew that rational ‘evidence’ isn’t what determined outcomes in cases that involved labor organizers (much less Wobblies!) in deeply conservative Utah. Just prior to his execution, Hill had written to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, saying, “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize… Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” His last words to the firing squad that day were beautifully brazen as well. He shouted, “Fire”! .
So let’s learn what we can from this moment, but don’t mourn. Organize.