Often the regions where democratic movements, people’s movements, have made the greatest gains become centers of the most virulent reaction. The Battle for Wisconsin, the battle to recall the tinhorn governor, Scott Walker, is best example of this.
I called Walker a “tinhorn” because that is what Robert La Follette, Sr, would have called him. Walker today, like Joe McCarthy in 1946 when he defeated La Follette’s son and longtime U.S. Senator, Robert La Follette, Jr., is the antithesis of everything that “Fightin Bob Lafollette, ( his friends and supporters called him that) not only stood for but implemented in Wisconsin.
These reforms, some borrowed more than a century ago from what was the strongest state socialist party in the United States, were precursors the policies that rightwing Republicans have sought to erase over the last thirty two years.
Called by many the “Wisconsin idea,” they included support for pioneering workman’s compensation and minimum wage legislation, regulation of railroads and corporations, progressive taxation, women’s suffrage, direct election of Senators, home rule for communities, and state primaries, referenda, and recall elections.
La Follette called for the expansion of political democracy in order to enable the people to advance toward what he called “economic democracy,” another concept borrowed largely from the socialists, although LaFollette was not a socialist. He supported a publically regulated market economy in which the large corporations aka trusts would be broken up to prevent monopoly and trade unions and social legislation would be advanced to protect the people from exploitation.
A hundred years ago La Follette, then a U.S. Senator, was the most feared progressive in the U.S. When he organized a “Progressive Republican League” (yes he was until very late in his life a Republican) to defeat reactionary President William Howard Taft in 1912, George Perkins, a Morgan partner and others supported former President Theodore Roosevelt to head him off. While Roosevelt was not exactly their cup of tea, he was preferable to La Follette, who was committed to seriously busting the trusts and changing national politics.
Earlier, La Follette captured the essence of what large capital was about politically when he said that when he got to Washington to join the Senate, he realized that the real difference in Congress was not whether one was a Republican or a Democrat but whether one was a representative of the Rockefeller or the Morgan interests.
La Follette never got to be President, although he did organize a third party, the Progressive Party, to oppose Calvin Coolidge (even more reactionary than Taft) in 1924, and received nearly five million votes. While that party collapsed nationally after his death in 1925, it became a major force in Wisconsin for the next twenty years, electing his sons Robert, Jr., and Phil to the U.S. Senate and governor’s office respectively, eclipsing the Democrats as the major rival to the Republicans, and making the state a model of advanced political democracy and progressive social policy in the U.S.
Let me conclude my history lesson. After rightwing gains in the 1938 elections, Wisconsin reactionaries struck at labor and progressive policies in the state with attempts to enact draconian legislation. But they were on the whole pushed back and labor held. With the beginnings of the cold war and the complete collapse of the state Progressive Party, Joe McCarthy, defeated Robert LaFollette Jr, for the U.S. Senate in 1946.
McCarthy four years later used the background of anti-Communist purges in the CIO, a cold war against the Soviet Union and anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements through the world instigated by the Democratic Truman administration , to become a “midget Hitler” fomenting hysteria with crackpot charges of Communist agents and Soviet spies controlling the Truman administration and the Democratic party. Supported by much of the same interests who support Walker today, poisoned the political atmosphere in the U.S. for four years, until he finally turned on his own Republican Eisenhower administration and was consigned to political oblivion by the very forces who had previously backed him.
The people of Wisconsin never got the chance to defeat Joe McCarthy in 1958, although most polls believed that he would have been soundly defeated. He died a year earlier of the effects of his chronic alcoholism, ranting and raving as the hysteria he fomented literally devoured him. Some scholars think that at the end McCarthy, both an alcoholic and a sociopath, came to believe in and be terrified by his own hysterical charges.
I don’t know what Scott Walker drinks or even what he believes---he strikes me in his manner as what liberals and even some smart conservatives used to call a suburban Republican used car salesman---but the people of Wisconsin have a chance to redeem their honorable place in U.S. society by using the recall legislation that Robert La Follette, Sr. helped bring about to give the defeat that Joe McCarthy so richly merited half a century ago.
Actually, Walker has done more direct damage to the people of Wisconsin and to the La Follette heritage than McCarthy in the decade after WWII.
Walker has eliminated the collective bargaining rights of 380,000 public employees whereas La Follette advanced trade union rights. He has pursued voter suppression policies whereas La Follette fought to expand the number of voters and make their right to vote more powerful. He and his right Republican henchman have repealed the equal pay act, whose aim was to prevent wage and salary discrimination based on gender, while Robert La Follette and his feminist wife, Belle, and were champions of women’s rights and women’s suffrage.
He has advanced “tax breaks” for corporations and the rich that the AFL-CIO estimates will cost the people of Wisconsin 2.4 billion while Robert La Follette was a century ago the foremost champion of progressive taxation in the country. And of course, he has been an eager beaver servant of the reactionary big business forces that Robert La Follette called the “vested interests” and fought his entire political life. Reactionaries sometimes sneered that Wisconsin was “LaFollette land.” It would be a great shame if progressive came to call Wisconsin “Walker land.”
Robert La Follette Jr. believed that advancing political democracy and using government to prevent monopoly would enable the people to achieve economic democracy. Scott Walker seeks to cripple political democracy in order to increase both the wealth and the political power of corporations and the wealthy.
Joe McCarthy brought red-baiting to a new level in the U.S. as a servant of those reactionary “vested interests” who were seeking to repeal all of the advances made under the New Deal. Scott Walker’s “reds” are public employees, trade unionists, women demanding equal pay for equal work, moderate and low income citizens supporting progressive taxation, the overwhelming majority of citizens of the state of Wisconsin.
The AFL-CIO has urged central labor councils through the country to set up phone banking for Wisconsin next Monday and Tuesday, to get out the vote that will get out Scott Walker. If Walker survives, it will further embolden reaction. If he is defeated, it will strengthen progressive forces in the upcoming national campaign. I urge everyone to find their local central labor council through the internet or their local trade union, ask about phone banking schedules, and volunteer to participate in the battle for Wisconsin