A Curious Political Story

We visited the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. While we are not impressed with the politics currently going on in the building with Governor Scott Walker at the helm, the building itself is awe-inspiring.

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison Wi

Being in the building has made us reflect on the curious political history of Wisconsin, one of extremes. It has swung wildly from leftist to far right politics several times in its history.

The state started off with very left-leaning politics. In 1854, six years after Wisconsin was granted statehood, what was to become the national Republican Party was formed in Wisconsin by anti-slavery activists. The new party was formed to fight for the rights of African Americans and abolish slavery. The newly formed Republican Party’s presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln won. Republicans dominated congress, forcing “radical reconstruction” policies for the south after the civil war and passing the 13h, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution granting full human rights to everyone. Sadly, that tremendous progress was very short lived. It is sad to reflect on what this party stands for today in the era of Trump.

At the turn of the 20th century, Wisconsin was a model for democratic leadership. The progressive movement, which took root here, fought corporate power, political machines and political corruption. They advocated for average working people and championed women’s suffrage.

Then, in the late 1947, Joseph McCarthy was elected U.S Senator from Wisconsin. He was the face of the oppressive anti-communist campaign that resulted in many progressive politicians, movie stars, artists and others to be defamed and lose their reputations and jobs. McCarthy was a demagogue who sowed fear through reckless, unsubstantiated accusations on his political opponents. He was eventually censured by the Senate and died a lonely death as an alcoholic.

In 1958, the Appleton John Birch Society carried on McCarthy’s paranoid anti-communist witch hunt. In their pamphlet, The Politician, written in 1963, they claimed that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist tool.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee, just 100 miles south of Appleton, had a strong socialist labor union tradition brought by German immigrants. Milwaukee elected socialist mayors for 50 years. Socialist Frank Zeidler served as mayor from 1948-60, and oversaw the construction of the County Stadium, library and park expansions, and the creation of a public television station. 

Recent history as seen another swing to the right. The current Governor Scott Walker, was elected in 2010, and almost immediately unveiled a fiscally conservative budget catering to the interests of his wealthiest backers and removing many of the collective bargaining rights so dear to Frank Zeidler’s socialists. Walker’s budget prompted hundreds of thousands of protesters to descend on the Capitol where they occupied the rotunda and marched in circles around the building, chanting “This is what democracy looks like”. More than 900,000 signatures were collected against Walker, and the governor faced a recall election in 2012, which he survived.

In spite of, or perhaps because of the right wing politics at the state and national level, there is a movement afoot in Wisconsin for local control of the economy in the form of cooperatives. In both Madison and Milwaukee, there has been an increase in all kinds of cooperatively run businesses offering an economic alternative to traditional capitalism.

It makes sense for us all to pay attention to what happens in Wisconsin. Is it a harbinger of what is to come nationally?

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