The Wisconsin Idea

by Harry on March 2, 2011

A very nice piece by long standing CT friend Christopher Phelps in the Chronicle (SM and I have known him for about 50 years between us), about the Wisconsin movement. An excerpt:

The crowds in red, as in the old Bangles song, are walking like an Egyptian. But they are also engaging in something we haven’t seen on this scale in a very long time: a dignified outpouring of a whole American community on behalf of labor. The events of late February are a striking example of what the English labor historian E.P. Thompson called “customs in common,” the web of shared traditions whose violation can propel people into the streets.

Custom in this case is the Wisconsin Idea, a notion that sometimes refers to the relationship between university and state but has a richer and more resonant history tracing to the state’s pioneering Progressive tradition. Its personification was the Republican Robert M. La Follette, who served as congressman, governor, and senator between the 1880s and 1920s. Through direct primaries, voter recall, civil-service standards, corporate taxation, regulation, and expert policy counsel from university scholars (rather than, say, corporate lobbyists)—a set of reforms together known as the Wisconsin Idea—La Follette sought to deal with what he called “the problems of vast financial power in private hands” on behalf of “the common man­—the worker, the farmer.”

It has been a very long time since a Republican senator from Wisconsin has said, as did La Follette, “The only salvation for the Republican Party lies in purging itself wholly from the influence of financial interests.” But Madison is a capital city filled with public employees who take pride in the knowledge that Wisconsin was, in 1959, the first state to recognize public workers’ collective-bargaining rights. The Wisconsin Idea—a classroom staple of the very schoolteachers whose labor rights are now threatened—has been given new life by the multitudes chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.”

I was unaware of Phelps’ use of the Wisconsin Idea until I read this piece — on my end of State Street a different version, which concerns the value of the University to the State and its population, tends to prevail, but the version Phelps adopts is, in fact, another version with real currency, that I didn’t know. A small irony for me is that the person who first introduced me to the idea of the University version of the Wisconsin Idea, when he was a student in a political philosophy class — and went to great lengths to convince me I should start really learning a lot about education policy issues so that I could make some sort of practical contribution — is now one of the Democratic Assembly members leading the movement (and moment), and totally committed to the version of the idea that Phelps cites. Reading Phelps’ piece reminded me how much I owe to Cory Mason — I must thank him when he gets some time to relax. (By the way, he has a narrow majority, so if your name is not Koch, he’ll probably welcome donations, if you can figure out where to send them).

An aside: I came home from delivering the boy to preschool this morning and found the signs my middle one and her best friend made at my wife’s crisis committee meeting last night. “Soccer Rocks! So Do Unions!”, “We Want Unions!” etc. Can you imagine a city in the US in 2011 in which hundreds of 10-year-olds are making signs like those? It is surreal.



pathman25 03.02.11 at 4:50 pm

I just found your website and it’s great stuff! Although, the time you and another person have known Mr. Phelps can’t really be additive, can it? Otherwise excellent content.


roac 03.02.11 at 6:04 pm

Did I not see that Walker’s budget proposes to solve the fiscal crisis entirely by cutting the schools?

How did someone this stupid ever get elected? The views of the American public are always simplistic and often wrong, but Education with a capital E is the most sacred of sacred objects. Short of hiring Charlie Sheen as their official spokesperson, I don’t see how the Wisconsin Republicans could do themselves any more harm.


Margaret 03.02.11 at 7:01 pm

How indeed? I have it on the authority of the best in rumor mills that Scott Walker flunked American Politics before leaving Marquette without a degree. The election in November, in Wisconsin in particular, is a complete mystery. It is scant consolation that Wisconsin voters appear to be suffering from buyer’s remorse. That’s a fascinating piece from the Chronicle, Harry. Lots of interesting history.


John Emerson 03.02.11 at 7:30 pm

The state-university partnership in Wisconsin was also part of a dialogue with the voters. LaFollette was a Progressive in the sense that he was a reformist who tried to put advanced (academic) thinking into practice, but he also was a populist in the sense that he spoke for the people against the interests and took that message directly to the people .

And the Wisconsin Idea university was quite an impure one, not merely because of its state involvement, which today’s pure university equally have, but because of its engagement with the people against the interests.

Between 1937 and 1960 (1937’s austerity economics followed by court-packing followed by WWII followed by the Cold War the Democratic Party transformed itself into a party which relied on pure technocratic experts and vote-contractors and put the phrases “the people” and “the interests” in scare quotes. Because, after all, as Hofstadter has taught us, the Populists, the Progressives, and the militant labor unions were all essentially Fascist or Communist.


Steve LaBonne 03.02.11 at 7:31 pm

I’m afraid ordinary working Americans are just going to have to get the living crap beat out of their standard of living (and out of their kids’ education) until they learn the hard way not to vote Republican. I mean, people have tried over and over to explain it to them, without success, and mere stagnation of their standard of living has taught too many of them nothing. I hate the suffering this will cause to many undeserving people, but it seems inevitable and we may as well get it over with.


chris 03.02.11 at 8:13 pm

Because, after all, as Hofstadter has taught us, the Populists, the Progressives, and the militant labor unions were all essentially Fascist or Communist.

Maybe I’m missing your subtle sarcasm, but when did Hofstadter teach us anything of the sort? Fascism has the paranoid style written all over it, as do some variants/perversions of Communism, but I don’t see the correspondence to historical Progressives, let alone the modern groups of similar name.

Also, IANA historian, but ISTR that the labor unions didn’t become “militant” in the literal sense until after they had been violently attacked by goons hired by owners.


John Emerson 03.02.11 at 8:20 pm

Maybe I was mixing Hofstadter up with Jonah Goldberg.

“Progressive” can mean almost anything. For example, some of the most virulent racists were progressive (Vardaman, Josephus Daniels, Woodrow Wilson.) LaFollette at his most intense was suspected at the time of insanity, before the phrase “paranoid style” had even been coined, and one of his sons was suspected of fscism. Burton K. Wheeler was recently accuse by Philip Roth of being a Nazi.

Then the 1948 progressives were something completely different.

Hofstadter was not as harsh about the progressives as he was about Populists, and not as harsh as Schlesinger (“Vital Center”), but plenty of them fit into his “paranoid style” cage.


Adam Streed 03.02.11 at 8:23 pm

This reminds me—I’d completely forgotten until now—that one of Walker’s proposals is to “spin off” the Madison campus from the UW system, placing it under control of a hand-picked board. This plan was mentioned on the local news a couple weeks ago, but I haven’t seen it get much attention since. Some local newspaper coverage here and here.


Tim Worstall 03.02.11 at 8:40 pm

“This is what democracy looks like.”

A certain type of democracy, yes. Demos, the mob.

Quite large efforts have been put into, over the centuries, trying to get away from this version of democracy to the versions where that voice of the mob is determined by electoral means.

Jus’ sayin’


Steve LaBonne 03.02.11 at 8:44 pm

It’s pretty funny to be prating of “democracy” in regard to measures so unpopular that they have to be rushed into passage with strong-arm tactics. But that’s our Tim.


Margaret 03.02.11 at 8:49 pm

Adam–the liberation of Madison was one of the many things announced by Walker yesterday when he presented his budget for the next biennium..


dbk 03.02.11 at 9:12 pm

The Phelps piece in the Chronicle was excellent, Cory Mason’s speech was terrific, and as for “Can you imagine a city in the US in 2011 in which hundreds of 10-year-olds are making signs like those? It is surreal”, well, perhaps surreal for some, but for this commenter, inspiring, inspirational, a testament to excellent education and parenting …


Salient 03.02.11 at 9:16 pm

The election in November, in Wisconsin in particular, is a complete mystery.

I tell ya, it’s no mystery to anyone who watched the TV ads that, in effect, promoted Barrett as Doyle II and Walker as Tommy Thompson II. The Walker folks plastered that kind of stuff all over the TV screen up in Door County (and presumably elsewhere). They convinced my parents to throw their hands in the air and not bother voting (something I still kinda gnash my teeth about) and they even convinced lots of other people to actually vote for the alleged Thompson II. (Hell, I’d have probably voted for Thompson II over Doyle II, if that was genuinely the choice on offer. Or maybe I’d write in Kathleen Falk.)

So: Not just buyer’s remorse. Sold a false bill of goods.

Quite large efforts have been put into, over the centuries, trying to get away from this version of democracy to the versions where that voice of the mob is determined by electoral means.

Yep, and oddly enough, almost all of those efforts required… the voice of the mob. It is a paradox. Through “mob” political pressure, you can hope to gain greater equality of control of the forces of government, you attempt to institutionalize that distribution of power, something inevitably breaks down, you revert to “mob” political pressure to fix it.

…I was actually kind of surprised the Tea Party didn’t attempt to sustain a protest in the Capitol over Obamacare. There was a lot of talk of doing that. (To proactively counter the inevitable crap — retirees don’t have to work, and lots of retirees are Tea Party affiliated and could protest without getting fired.) But nothing really came of it. I hope it helps demonstrate that I’m not hypocritical when I say I was a little saddened that nothing came of it. People should have their say, even folks I consider to be misinformed.


Christopher Phelps 03.02.11 at 9:30 pm

Harry was a bit too modest in his manner of posting my piece since he neglects to say that I ran a draft by him and he caught a very important error. I had attributed “Walk Like an Egyptian” to the B-52s. How Harry knew it was the Bangles is a mystery to me, since he thinks Green Day is a Wisconsin band. I believe Harry and I met when the Bangles song could still be heard on college stations (perhaps it still can be, for all I know) although I was more inclined toward some odd combination of the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, the Ramones (who I caught live in 1983), Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Crass, Public Enemy, R.E.M., the Dead Kennedys, Billy Bragg, and vintage Stones, a pretty much all-male lineup (but for Patti Smith and Nico), accounting for my utter obliviousness to the Bangles, except as a kind of irritating background noise playing at certain parties.

Anyway, I appreciate very much the posting of my shout out to Wisconsin, for whatever it is worth. You in Wisconsin are leading the way. May it auger well. The Depression-era labor movement didn’t get rolling properly until 1933-34, in the mild recovery phase, crescendoing around 1936, with even more strikes and organizing in the Second World War. Analogies are seductive, but the Wisconsin surge has all the feel of a fresh breeze blowing.

Closing tale: Here in Nottingham yesterday my students read the Port Huron Statement (along with Walt Rostow, say no more) for an intellectual history course, in one of several weeks on the sixties. I was stunned when one student mentioned the events in Wisconsin as a case in point of participatory democracy. Consider that, those who think representative democracy is the be-all and end-all of popular consent and expression.


JJ 03.02.11 at 9:40 pm

Pitting right-wing workers against left-wing workers while the commissars of industry pick up the pieces and pocket the profits is standard operating procedure for American democracy.

Communism for the rich. Fascism for the rest.


chris 03.02.11 at 9:57 pm

@8,12: ISTM that candidates lying about their agenda until after they get elected is, in at least some cases, a serious problem with representative democracy, to the point that someone like Walker lacks democratic legitimacy to the extent that he’s implementing an agenda he didn’t run on (and, therefore, the electorate didn’t vote for).

But is there a fix for it? In a parliamentary system, would a party feel more bound to the platform it had run on and not pull this kind of after-election shenanigans?

Wisconsin should probably eliminate its minimum time before recall (maybe replace it with something like doubling the number of signatures needed on a recall petition in the first year after election, to reduce nuisance attempts at immediate recall) — regardless of which side you personally back in this struggle, the people have no official lever on the outcome of Walker’s bait and switch, which seems wrong for any government with pretensions to representativeness *or* democracy.


Uncle Kvetch 03.02.11 at 10:22 pm

my utter obliviousness to the Bangles, except as a kind of irritating background noise playing at certain parties

Wildly OT, but what the hey: their debut album, All Over the Place, is an excellent slice of smartly written, hook-laden, harmony-rich jangle-pop.

Until some corporate chuckleheads* talked them into covering Prince songs, walking like Egyptians, and pushing the babe factor as their main selling point, the Bangles were the real deal. It all ended in tears, of course, with one of the drippiest lighter-waving ballads ever recorded, leading to the inevitable flame-out.

*OK, maybe this isn’t all that off-topic after all.


roac 03.02.11 at 10:27 pm

May it auger well

Correcting spelling on the Internet is the province of dickheads; however, it bears mentioning that an auger is a kind of screw, so augering is what the Wisconsin GOP is engaged in.


Christopher Phelps 03.02.11 at 10:38 pm

roac, it augurs well that someone exists who can call me out on auger.

And Uncle Kvetch, I have spent the evening surfing the Bangles videos and being filled with nostalgia. You are, I concede, correct.


Christopher Phelps 03.02.11 at 11:05 pm

I just offer the following in self-defense:


Uncle Kvetch 03.02.11 at 11:20 pm

No self-defense required, Mr. Phelps — you have excellent taste!


Ken Schulz 03.03.11 at 5:51 am

“Did I not see that Walker’s budget proposes to solve the fiscal crisis entirely by cutting the schools?”
Did I hear he will propose renaming the state “Wississippi”?


Phil 03.03.11 at 9:18 am

Back when I was freelancing, I got a commission to do a quickie 1,000-word biography of Helen Keller to go with a TV programme. I’ve been suffering from nostalgia for the Republican Party ever since. (OK, finance capital, strikebreakers, Pinkerton’s, not cool. But NAACP! and ACLU! and Helen Keller herself, personally underwrititen by Andrew Carnegie, with politics somewhere between Debs and the IWW! I don’t think there was anything in the USAn mainstream further Left than the Left of the pre-WW1 GOP between then and Jesse Jackson.)


John Emerson 03.03.11 at 11:34 am

The left of the 1916 Republican Party was the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota, which was a quasi-socialist group which took over the party through the primary system. They established a state bank which still exists. Within a few years the remnants of the mainstream Republican Party and the state’s Democratic Party, which had always been weak, formed a coalition to oppose the NPL. One year the NPL even tried to negotiate a statewide farm labor agreement with the IWW.


Josh G. 03.03.11 at 3:38 pm

chris @ 15: “But is there a fix for it? In a parliamentary system, would a party feel more bound to the platform it had run on and not pull this kind of after-election shenanigans?

The current Clegg/Cameron situation in the UK seems to indicate that the answer is no.


pathman25 03.03.11 at 5:59 pm

Was there something wrong with my previous comment? I was actually praising your website.


John Quiggin 03.04.11 at 8:20 am

@26 Although a close reading reveals a genuine compliment, our filters are attuned to automoderate generic comments like “Great website”, much favored by spambots. So, thanks for the kind words, which I’ve rescued.


a.y.mous 03.04.11 at 10:01 am

So much energy and that too from schoolkids. Bravo! Wisconsin walking the Egyptian walk further solidifies my already firm belief that Plato was right. A full stomach is the cause of a fuckton of social issues.


Christopher Phelps 03.04.11 at 11:25 am

Extremely interesting article here in the Madison paper that makes it clear that the very life of unions themselves, not just collective bargaining rights, is at stake:

By the by, I forgot, in the above list, to mention early Gang of Four, probably the most formative band of my youth.


fred lapides 03.04.11 at 4:17 pm

I am a firm believer in collective bargaining. What is taking place in Indiana is and will happen in any number of other states that have collective bargaining.
I take the following stand:


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