Archive for March, 2011

No Sense of Decency

March 22, 2011

Today’s New York Times op ed piece by William Cronan, of the UW Madison Geography Department (Go Badgers!), is so on the money that I’m just posting it in its entirety.

NOW that a Wisconsin judge has temporarily blocked a state law that would strip public employee unions of most collective bargaining rights, it’s worth stepping back to place these events in larger historical context.

Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well.

Wisconsin was at the forefront of the progressive reform movement in the early 20th century, when the policies of Gov. Robert M. La Follette prompted a fellow Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, to call the state a “laboratory of democracy.” The state pioneered many social reforms: It was the first to introduce workers’ compensation, in 1911; unemployment insurance, in 1932; and public employee bargaining, in 1959.

University of Wisconsin professors helped design Social Security and were responsible for founding the union that eventually became the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Wisconsin reformers were equally active in promoting workplace safety, and often led the nation in natural resource conservation and environmental protection.

But while Americans are aware of this progressive tradition, they probably don’t know that many of the innovations on behalf of working people were at least as much the work of Republicans as of Democrats.

Although Wisconsin has a Democratic reputation these days — it backed the party’s presidential candidates in 2000, 2004 and 2008 — the state was dominated by Republicans for a full century after the Civil War. The Democratic Party was so ineffective that Wisconsin politics were largely conducted as debates between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party.

When the Wisconsin Democratic Party finally revived itself in the 1950s, it did so in a context where members of both parties were unusually open to bipartisan policy approaches. Many of the new Democrats had in fact been progressive Republicans just a few years earlier, having left the party in revulsion against the reactionary politics of their own senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, and in sympathy with postwar liberalizing forces like the growing civil rights movement.

The demonizing of government at all levels that has become such a reflexive impulse for conservatives in the early 21st century would have mystified most elected officials in Wisconsin just a few decades ago.

When Gov. Gaylord A. Nelson, a Democrat, sought to extend collective bargaining rights to municipal workers in 1959, he did so in partnership with a Legislature in which one house was controlled by the Republicans. Both sides believed the normalization of labor-management relations would increase efficiency and avoid crippling strikes like those of the Milwaukee garbage collectors during the 1950s. Later, in 1967, when collective bargaining was extended to state workers for the same reasons, the reform was promoted by a Republican governor, Warren P. Knowles, with a Republican Legislature.

The policies that the current governor, Scott Walker, has sought to overturn, in other words, are legacies of his own party.

But Mr. Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights breaks with Wisconsin history in two much deeper ways as well. Among the state’s proudest traditions is a passion for transparent government that often strikes outsiders as extreme. Its open meetings law, open records law and public comment procedures are among the strongest in the nation. Indeed, the basis for the restraining order blocking the collective bargaining law is that Republicans may have violated open meetings rules in passing it. The legislation they have enacted turns out to be radical not just in its content, but in its blunt ends-justify-the-means disregard for openness and transparency.

This in turn points to what is perhaps Mr. Walker’s greatest break from the political traditions of his state. Wisconsinites have long believed that common problems deserve common solutions, and that when something needs fixing, we should roll up our sleeves and work together — no matter what our politics — to achieve the common good.

Mr. Walker’s conduct has provoked a level of divisiveness and bitter partisan hostility the likes of which have not been seen in this state since at least the Vietnam War. Many citizens are furious at their governor and his party, not only because of profound policy differences, but because these particular Republicans have exercised power in abusively nontransparent ways that represent such a radical break from the state’s tradition of open government.

Perhaps that is why — as a centrist and a lifelong independent — I have found myself returning over the past few weeks to the question posed by the lawyer Joseph N. Welch during the hearings that finally helped bring down another Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy, in 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him.

The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.

William Cronon is a professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 22, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition.

So its going to take longer than I had hoped …

March 11, 2011

… but I don’t think anyone is done fighting this battle yet. Now that the collective bargaining portion of the Budget Repair Bill has passed what remains for its opponents is to take back the WI legislature the old fashioned way … by throwing out the bums. Its not very satisfying to my craving for instant gratification but it won’t take as long as it might. We can start by voting Joanne Kloppenberg onto the Supreme Court. Then we can recall Dan Kapanke and any other republican state senators who caved to party loyalty instead of voting with their constituents. And in 2012 we can take back the whole Assembly. To keep spirits up, here’s another wonderful video by Matt Wisniewski:

Vodpod videos no longer available.
Wisconsin Protests Pt. 4, posted with vodpod


We can protest in La Crosse too.

March 10, 2011

Don’t think this is only happening in Madison right now.  I skipped my first hour of work today to go to a rally outside the county court building and I was not the only one.  Protesters lined the street on both sides for more than a block and energy was still high at 10 AM when I realized I really did need to go to work.

I already have my picture on the La Crosse Tribune website for it.  We really do live in an age of instantaneous media.


March 9, 2011

Image from the twitter feed of milbot.  Taken tonight March 9.

Breaking News: After being unable to pass their destructive bill during the last three weeks WI Republicans have taken the nuclear option.  They separated the fiscal aspects of the Budget Repair Bill from the attack on collective bargaining and held a lightning vote to pass just that measure tonight.

I happened to be already attending a town hall meeting in La Crosse to learn more about Walker’s Budget and so I was able to get the story directly from my Assembly Rep. Jennifer Shilling.  According to her, Republicans convened a Conference Committee at 6:00 PM where the heads of the two legislative bodies met together and introduced a new bill.  After just minutes of discussion they called roll and adjourned and then Senate Republicans walked into their chambers together and voted to pass the bill.  It passed before 6:30 PM.  Only one Senator, Dale Schultz of the Dodgeville area, voted against it.  The Democratic caucus, of course, was still in Illinois.

I had five emails about the bill and protests against in in my inbox by the time I got back from my town hall meeting at 9:00 PM and thousands of protesters have re-occupied the capitol in immediate response.   The silver lining is the crowd in the building – it sure is good to see it full of WI citizens again.

Bless this Union!

March 8, 2011

How much to WI citizens care about this issue?  Well, we come out to protest it in the rain, snow and sleet … and apparently some of us come on our wedding days.  Heather Allen and  David Sensenbrenner came to the capitol to show their support for the protesters before they resumed their previously scheduled activity … getting married.  Read the whole story here at

So Say We All.

March 6, 2011

I saw some fantastic signs this weekend at my third consecutive saturday marching around the WI capitol building. Its been great to see all types of Wisconsinites coming together.

As you can see from these snaps, we have fans of both Battlestar Galactica and Harry Potter on our side.  But my favorite experience from this past weekend was meeting a trucker with a hand made sign reading “Walker is an asshole.” He’d just changed it a few minutes before, he told me, because words which begin with vowels should have “a an.”  A teacher marching next to him had pointed that out … and lent him a marker to make the correction.

He was delighted with his lesson.

Of course the Department of Administration (on behalf of Governor Walker) had made a sign of its own.  This is situated outside the only entrance that WI citizens are currently allowed to access their capitol building with.  You can click to see the sign enlarged but here are some selections of newly prohibited items:

  • Animals/snakes (huh?);
  • Crockpots and other cooking appliances;
  • Massage chairs/beds;
  • Mattresses, sleeping bags, blankets;
  • Musical Instruments;
  • Signs or flags on sticks;
  • Tape (masking, painters, duct, scotch, etc.)


Ok, Walker, here’s one more sign for you:

My Rapidly Escalating Obsession

March 4, 2011
Vodpod videos no longer available.
WI “Budget Repair Bill” Protest (Feb 20-24?) Pt. 3, posted with vodpod

In a trajectory similar to actual events on the ground in Madison, my interest in the protest happenings has been rapidly escalating into an obsession.

First I was waking up and checking five online news services every morning.

Soon just reading the morning updates of the La Crosse Tribune, Isthmus, Capitol Times, Wisconsin State Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (as well as anything the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Nation etc might have to add) wasn’t enough.  I started checking back during the day to see if there were updates.

My sister sent me texts with pictures from her visits the capitol between classes.

For the last two days I’ve started following the Isthmus’s Live Feed of the situation – a collection of twitter updates from protesters inside and around the Capitol building, journalists covering the story and observers in the Senate and the judicial hearing to determine if the Department of Administration should be allowed to keep the building on lockdown.

One of the updates was a link to this latest visit by Matt Wisniewski (Thanks, Matt!  I was hoping there would be more).

I think I may have finally reached information saturation (short of quitting my job and moving to a new location on the capitol steps). But I’m still craving more news.  Like everyone else, what I really want to know is how will this all end.

A Little Propaganda while I’m at it.

March 2, 2011

Hey, I know this is democrat propaganda but but I just think its beautiful.  Regular Wisconsinites out in the snow last Saturday to make a statement about what they believe and what they want from their governor.

Unfortunately his only response thus far has been to lock down the capitol building to keep out protesters trying to sway him.

In a more amusing update, Democrat Assembly members have taken their desks outside the locked-down capitol building and are holding meetings with their constituents on the sidewalk.  I love it!