Wisconsin shows how difficult it is to hold on to progressive gains

Wisconsin-Protest-Indoors-aRobert Lafollette, Jr. and Joseph McCarthy. Russ Feingold and Scott Walker. How could one state–Wisconsin–elect politicians with such divergent views?

No state east of New York has had such a strong tradition of progressive views in both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Despite the strength that Senator Robert Lafollette, Jr. and his father brought to the progressive wing of the Republican Party in Wisconsin, it seemed to have little staying power. In what must be one of the greatest political turnarounds in American history, Lafollette was defeated in 1946 in the Republican primary by conservative witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy. Did the people of Wisconsin fall for McCarthy’s criticism of Lafollette not joining the military in World War II, even though Lafollette was 46-years old at the time of Pearl Harbor and was a sitting U.S. senator? What caused the citizens to take a quantum leap to the right?

In Wisconsin, the state capital and the state university are both in the same town, Madison. The university has traditionally been a hotbed of progressive thinking and action, and at times that has flowed into the halls of the Capitol. This trend has continued into the current decade, but not because progressives at the university and in state government have been strengthening one another. Rather, it is students and faculty at the University, joined by thousands of state public employees demonstrating under the Rotunda in Governor Scott Walker’s office building.

Scott Walker has gone from being an embattled governor to a presidential contender. He was elected governor in 2010. The Wisconsin state legislature was also part of the red wave that covered the United States that year. Walker and the legislature collaborated in 2011 to pass the “Wisconsin budget repair bill,” which significantly changed the collective bargaining process for most public employees. The goal of the bill was to eliminate the deficit in the state budget. But the means of doing so was a punch in the gut to tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens, who had fought to bring a healthy equilibrium to the management-worker struggle, which has been with us since the first cave person hired another to do some work.

Public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere are among the most under-paid workers in our economy. They often have jobs that are dangerous, tedious, and in the case of teachers, require far more than 40 hours a week with no overtime pay. Nonetheless, they were the target of Walker and the legislature. The law has survived a variety of challenges, including a recall election of Governor Walker. He defeated the recall in 2012 and then won reelection in 2014. His reelection only emboldened him to try to take the once union-strong state into a “right to work [for less]” state. Removing the confusing slogans, Walker wants to weaken labor unions in Wisconsin by not requiring workers to pay union dues, even if the employees of a company are represented in bargaining by a union.

Walker’s efforts to weaken unions in the private and the public sector has now drawn the ire of the National Football League. The NFL is certainly not  a bastion of liberalism, but players in the league have been organized and protected by the NFL Players Association since 1970. Players in the NFL may be well-compensated, but their working conditions have been terrible, with their health always at risk. Only with the Players Association has their pension been protected.

The one NFL team in Wisconsin is the storied Green Bay Packers. There is no billionaire owner of the team, just a bunch of interested citizens in the town of Green Bay and elsewhere in Wisconsin. Players on the Packers have always been enthusiastic union supporters.

Moving beyond the field of football, the NFL Players Association Is now playing politics in Wisconsin.

The union released a strongly worded statement on February 25 denouncing the state’s proposed right-to-work legislation — which would prohibit businesses and unions from requiring workers to pay union dues — and reaffirming its solidarity “with the working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in their fight against current attacks against their right to stand together as a team.”NFLPA

The statement, written by executive director DeMaurice Smith, pointed to the various support staff employed at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field who “will have their well being and livelihood jeopardized” by the law. It also acknowledged the “generations of skilled workers” who contribute to the state’s various industries and pointed to the law’s potentially devastating effects on wages and safety. Smith took direct shots at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who may be looking to boost his presidential aspirations at the expense of the state’s workers: “Governor Scott Walker may not value these vital employees, but as union members, we do.”

It would be a stretch to say that Scott Walker has been a demagogue of the ilk of Joe McCarthy. But Walker has successfully rallied Wisconsin citizens to undermine legislation that has protected them since the beginning of the progressive era in the late 19th century. What’s happening in Wisconsin is similar to “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in which citizens allow religiously formed social values to undermine their best economic interests. Yes, apparently this can happen too in Wisconsin, even with its strong university system and its proud progressive heritage.

This phenomenon stands as further evidence that the American body electorate is often more tuned into the politics of mythology and fear than to reason and their economic self-interest and that of their families and their neighbors. As I have said before, progressive education may be the best way to enlighten our citizenry.