Wisconsin's Progressive Tradition
at Stake in the Recall Election
The Walker Recall Election is about more than jobs. Or public education. Or union rights. Or women’s rights. Or protecting our environment. Or making sure corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Or safeguarding the right of poor people to BadgerCare.
It’s about all of that — and much more.
Fundamentally, the conservative agenda seeks to turn back history and demolish the century-old tradition that gained Wisconsin a national reputation as the home of honest, competent government serving the needs of its citizens.
The ultimate goal is eviscerating Wisconsin’s Progressive Movement and its many legacies. Nor have conservatives been shy about proclaiming this goal.
Eighteen years ago, the 800-pound gorilla of Wisconsin policy debates — Michael Joyce of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation — wrote an article outlining his plan to overthrow the Progressive Movement and the related concept of the Wisconsin Idea.
Borrowing from Marxist imagery, Joyce wrote that progressivism “is destined for the dustbin of history.” The common project, he told fellow conservatives, “must be to hasten the demise of progressivism.”
The dream of destroying Wisconsin’s progressive tradition continues to this day. This March, at a symposium in Milwaukee hosted by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, conservative commentator Michelle Makin asked rhetorically, “How did Wisconsin become such a ground zero for the conservative movement?
“Well, I think it was push back to the excesses of progressivism,” she answered. “That’s wrapped up in your state history and somebody has to pay for that.”
THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT’S LEGACY
Conservatives have promoted their policies using rhetoric that extols individual liberty and belittles the “nanny” state. Leaving aside conservatives’ clever rhetoric, what are the actual accomplishments of Wisconsin’s Progressive Movement that are so upsetting.
In 1911, during the height of the Progressive Movement, Wisconsin was the first state to introduce workers compensation. In 1932, it passed unemployment insurance; in 1959, it was one of the first states to give public workers the right to collectively bargain. Professors from the University of Wisconsin helped set up Social Security, and Wisconsin reformers “were equally active in promoting workplace safety, and often led the nation in natural resource conservation and environmental protection,” historian William Cronon wrote in his now-famous opinion in the New York Times in March of 2011.
The Wisconsin Historical Society—in an objective tone I find reassuring yet also disturbing in essentializing what’s at stake—has this to say in a web-based essay on Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea.
[T]he rise of big business after 1870 had concentrated economic power in the hands of a few privileged individuals. These two groups, party leaders and business leaders, often overlapped, personally and pragmatically, as the interests and actions of government and business converged.
Progressive Republicans, in contrast, 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. The Progressive Movement appealed to citizens who wanted honest government and moderate economic reforms that would expand democracy and improve public morality. …
The most important and influential progressive legislation, however, was passed during the next (1911) session, under the governorship of Francis McGovern. The 1911 legislature created the nation's first effective workers' compensation program to protect people injured on the job. It passed laws to regulate factory safety, encouraged the formation of cooperatives, established a state income tax, formed a state life insurance fund, limited working hours for women and children, and passed forest and waterpower conservation acts. …By the 1930s, when depression and unemployment dominated American public life, the assumptions of the Wisconsin Progressives had penetrated deeply into national politics. Much of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation was drafted by Wisconsin citizens.
The Bradley Foundation’s Joyce launched his attack on progressivism in the Winter 1994 issue ofWisconsin Interest, the publication of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. (Right-wing talk show host Charlie Sykes is the magazine’s editor.) The Bradley Foundation gave the institute a $2.8 million start-up grant in 1987, and by 2010 it had given the institute a total of $16.5 million. As the Bradley Foundation knows, in the marketplace of ideas, it helps to have money to promote one’s product.
For more than two decades, the Bradley Foundation has used Wisconsin as a guinea pig to promote its conservative policies — whether school vouchers, getting rid of welfare, or attacking unions. While the Bradley Foundation doesn’t enjoy the same national name recognition as right-wing funders such as the Koch brothers, it is more powerful. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has noted, “from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.”
Joyce, known for enjoying both the public limelight and rough-and-tumble politics, died of liver disease in 2006. Michael Grebe, the current President and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, has a lower public profile but is no less powerful. He is also arguably better connected and more respected than Joyce was, especially during Joyce’s latter years.
Former CEO of the Foley & Lardner law firm, Grebe chaired Walker’s gubernatorial campaign and is currently chair of “Friends of Scott Walker.”
Walker, within days of his election in November 2010, met at Milwaukee’s elite Bacchus restaurant with the board and senior staff of the Bradley Foundation. Two weeks later, the right-wing John K. MacIver Institute in Madison wrote an opinion calling for Walker and the incoming legislature to end collective bargaining for public employees and to make Wisconsin a so-called “right-to-work” state limiting private unions' ability to collect member dues, and thus undermining the unions' financial base.
Walker implemented that first recommendation last spring with his infamous Act 10. Recently released video footage shows Walker promising a Beloit billionaire that the move against public sector collective bargaining was his "first step" and was part of a policy towards unions of "divide and conquor." The video was filmed shortly after Walker took office.
MacIver, a relatively new and increasingly influential think tank, received $360,000 from the Bradley Foundation from 2008- 2010. Overall, the list of grants awarded by the Bradley Foundation reads like a who’s who of the right wing—from the Americans for Prosperity, to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and Reason magazine.
The Bradley Foundation had assets of $630 million in 2010, and made almost $40 million in grants. (Starting with 2004, its annual reports are available online.)
WALKER TURNS HIS BACK ON FIGHTIN’ BOB
No person is more associated with Wisconsin’s Progressive Movement than Fighting’ Bob LaFollette —U.S. representative, Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator.
Walker is well aware of Fightin’ Bob’s iconic status as a champion of democracy and a defender of the common person against corporate greed.
Wisconsin governors have historically been sworn into office in the East Gallery of the Wisconsin State Capitol, near a majestic and impossible-to-miss bust of Bob Lafollette. Walker snubbed that tradition. He didn’t explain why, but actions speak louder than words. Walker chose to be sworn in near the North Gallery, forcing many in the audience to turn their backs on Fightin’ Bob.
Coming Friday: The conservative attack on “The Wisconsin Idea” — a century-old tradition linking public universities and public schools with sound government policy and the common good.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.