The first time the state of Wisconsin comes up in my U.S. history survey classes is when I reach the section on the Progressive movement. You can’t really discuss the reforms of the early twentieth century without giving due credit to the leading role of Wisconsin. The reforming spirit of that state, represented in politics by the LaFolletes, became a model for the nation. Today, Republicans all over America are trying to turn it into another, and quite different, kind of model.
A hundred years ago, the “Wisconsin Idea” was shorthand for a whole series of reforms, most of which we take for granted today. It meant more direct democracy, a response to the wholesale corruption of state politics in the U.S. during the rise of big business in the late 19th century. More democratic institutions, progressives hoped, would also produce more enlightened economic policies, and end the stranglehold trusts had over the economic life of the nation.
The direct primary (which allowed voters, not party bosses, to pick nominees) and the direct election of senators (which allowed voters, not state legislators, to pick senators) were two major political parts of the Wisconsin idea. Economically, it meant things like workers’ compensation and business regulation.
Wisconsin was in the reforming vanguard in the late 19th century. As early as the 1880s, Wisconsin was passing worker safety and child labor laws. In 1895, as southern states were institutionalizing segregation, Wisconsin outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations like restaurants (which is the part of the Civil Rights of 1964 that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky today still thinks is unconstitutional).
Today, Gov. Scott Walker is trying to put Wisconsin in the vanguard again, but this time with an anti-progressive agenda. Walker’s controversial proposals to strip collective bargaining rights for state unions may be unique by virtue of the week-long protests they have provoked. But other states are pursuing similar anti-union agendas: The states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, among others, are experiencing similar attempts to use state fiscal crises as vehicles to disempower unions.
This is no coincidence. It is part and parcel of the Republican Party’s anti-government mentality that has been a dominant theme of theirs for over thirty years. If government is bad, then government employees are bad.
This is the proper context for understanding Speaker John Boehner’s Marie Antoinette moment last week. Boehner responded to the fact that budget cuts would mean that federal employees would lose their jobs by saying “if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it. We're broke. It's time for us to get serious about how we're spending the nation's money."
Similar comments are being made in Wisconsin. At Saturday’s counter-protest, Tea Party activist Herman Cain said: "Wisconsin is broke. My question for the other side is, 'What part of broke don't you understand?'"
Wisconsin is not broke, and neither is the U.S. Wisconsin’s current budget deficit is less than the amount of pro-business tax breaks just generously handed out by the Republicans. As for the U.S. budget, as “a share of the nation's economy, Uncle Sam's take this year will be the lowest since 1950, when the Korean War began.” And yet Republicans insist our budget deficit is entirely due to spending, not to lack of tax revenue.
Yes, both the federal and state governments have real budgetary problems. But Wisconsin’s unions have agreed to the financial sacrifices, and are only insisting on the maintenance of their bargaining rights. (Don’t be fooled when Walker says they will keep those rights—the legislation takes away bargaining rights over working conditions and caps the ability to negotiate salaries to the inflation rate. In other words, unions will never actually gain ground. At best, they will tread water; at worst, fall behind.)
Yes, unions are imperfect instruments, and could use reform of their own. But the political reality is that unions are being scapegoated by Republicans for our current economic ills. Unions did not gamble billions of dollars on financial shell games and ruin the economy. Financial institutions did, but you don’t see them being called on by the GOP to sacrifice. You see them bailed out, and, unrepentant, you see them going back to business as usual and awarding themselves unconscionable bonuses.
When the Republicans start calling business out and demand that they contribute to solving our economic problems, then I’ll take them seriously. Until then, this anti-“Wisconsin idea” is simply an attack on government workers and union rights and an attempt to turn back the clock and restore the laissez-faire world of the late 19th century.