The New Progressive Movement in Wisconsin – Where We Go From Here

A little over one week ago, volunteers from all over the state gathered in Madison and turned in over one million signatures to recall Governor Scott Walker. A little less than a year ago, that same Governor dropped the bomb known as the “Budget Repair Bill” on the people of Wisconsin, triggering a movement that can only be characterized as a true grassroots resurgence of Progressivism in Wisconsin. When mass protests and grassroots activism take place because of the actions of a power hungry governor or Party, people don’t think in terms of “isms” – they think in terms of what is right for the state and its people. For decades, prior to Scott Walker and the new Corporate “Robber Barons”, that is what Wisconsin government was all about. That is the government we, as the heart of the grassroots movement, must strive to attain once again.

At the beginning of the Progressive movement in Wisconsin a century ago, Robert LaFollette – “Fighting Bob” – was fighting the same corporate takeover of government we are facing today. The original “Robber Barons” were using state and national government to increase profit, pay lower taxes, seize resources, and consolidate their political staying power through buying legislators and elections. This caused him to abandon the Republican Party, and form a new party of the people – the Progressive Party. In 1911, LaFollette defined the “Wisconsin Idea” of government as ensuring “well-constructed legislation aimed at benefitting the greatest number of people.”  The idea that government could be clean, honest, and accountable to the people was revolutionary during that time, and he characterized the challenge in a 1912 speech, saying:

“Free men of every generation must combat the renewed efforts of organized force and greed to destroy liberty.”

For Democrats and Progressives, this was a call to action that we have since left in the past – until last year. Scott Walker was a wake-up call in Wisconsin for all of us to re-engage the political process, and “combat” the “forces” of “greed” seeking “to destroy liberty.” The first shot in that battle was the mass protests that took place from February through the summer. The right of protest has been questioned and quelled by the GOP powers throughout this process, with varying rules and laws being floated to subvert the First Amendment Right of citizens to” petition their government for redress of grievances.” This right was recognized by Martin Luther King Jr. in a speech to Montgomery Bus boycotters:

“There is never a time in our American Democracy that we must ever think we are wrong when we protest. We reserve that right. When labor all over this nation came to see that it would be trampled over by capitalistic power, there (is) nothing wrong with labor getting together and protesting for its rights.”

The protests in Wisconsin last year started a wave across the nation, of people waking up to the reality of corporate money and power stealing our Democratic birthright – just as they did one hundred years ago. Those protests were just the beginning.

The second shot to restoring liberty has been the gathering of reportedly 1.9 million signatures to recall not only Scott Walker, but the Lieutenant Governor and 4 Republican State Senators – an overwhelming amount of signatures that has shaken the political landscape in Wisconsin and the nation. Because of all your efforts, along with citizens across the state; the political debate is now focused around central issues of fairness, justice and equality in government and how people are governed. These issues are central to our grassroots movement, and being a progressive. Without needing labels, we, as Wisconsinites, know instinctively what is right, and how the government of the people should function. This inherent and instinctive knowledge must be exercised to bring about change in our political system – both parties. That is where this movement has a responsibility to take the struggle, for future generations.

It has been lost to history, as those who now control the politic rewrite our history books, that our founding fathers were keenly aware of the role of government in this experimental Democracy. Striving to create a Republic where “all men are created equal”, and all have the inherent right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” this government was to be different than the monarchies of Europe.

In a letter to Robert Morris in 1783, Benjamin Franklin wrote of economic justice and fairness:

“All the property that is necessary to a man, for the conservation and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the welfare of the public shall demand such disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him live among the savages – he can have no right to the benefits of society.”

It is striking how relevant that is today – as the wealth and income gap grows to greater extremes not seen since pre-Great Depression, multinational Corporations pay less in taxes as a percentage of net profit since the 1950’s, and these same corporations have a strangle hold on our Democratic and Judicial process. That is why what is happening now in Wisconsin is as critical as any political event in the history of our state. The people are again rising up – and through grassroots action, will take back what has been lost and restore our “Wisconsin Idea” of government.

The recall elections, and subsequent elections will require all of us to choose the candidates that will represent us. The success of our movement rests on the electoral process, and the leaders we choose. With that in mind, here are what I believe are the three keys to our future success.

First and foremost, we must do everything in our power to ensure citizens eligible to vote are registered and have the proper ID to exercise their Constitutional Right on Election Day. We must hold our elected officials and the Government Accountability Board “accountable” to facilitating this process, and hold “get out the vote” drives and educational programs to talk to our fellow citizens about the importance of voting. Until this “Mississippi-style” voter ID law is repealed, we have a lot of work to do – but the resources are there, and this is the keystone of Democracy – the vote.

Secondly, we must assure that votes are counted fairly, legally, and accurately. The current scanning and electronic voting machines have been suspect in recent elections, and many do not leave a paper trail to check against during an audit (as in Waukesha County during the State Supreme Court race). There is a movement that we must support in our local elections, and push statewide – and that is for hand counted, paper ballots. In most scenarios, this method actually saves the taxpayers money, is more accurate, and can easily be audited in case of a recount or error. It is also the only way to ensure that election fraud is not taking place systemically – as local and state officials have no way of controlling or auditing programs set by the manufacturer. A manufacturer that has close ties to Conservative Republican interests.

Finally, we must elect the candidates that will represent us, the people of Wisconsin – not corporate special interests or high-powered financial contributors looking to turn state resources into profit. With that in mind, here is the beginnings of a “People’s Platform” – while it is not perfect, it is a starting point which we can build on for the future: 

  1. The people have a right to organize unions for the purpose of negotiating for pay and benefits, and for the redress of grievances against an employer. We base this right on the United Nations establishment of the International Labor Organization in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, and which the US adopted in 1934. This treaty recognizes the right to organize as a “basic human right in a civilized society.” In his State of the Union Address just prior to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “It must be understood, Labor is prior to and independent to capital. Capital is only the fruit of Labor, and could NEVER have existed if Labor had not first existed. LABOR IS THE SUPERIOR OF CAPITAL, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
  2. Ensure the solvency and public accountability of Social Security and state pensions, so that citizens may retire after dedicating their lives to supporting our society.
  3. Commit to a not-for-profit, single payer health care system recognizing that to achieve “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” one must have full access to quality health care, regardless of socio-economic status.
  4. Commit to the highest quality available Public Education system supported by and accountable to the community for the good of our Democracy, and the welfare and success of future generations.
  5. Public Works/Public Housing – Commit to creating programs that will not only work with existing trade and technical colleges to train new workers, but create an infrastructure recovery plan that will put these people to work, for the benefit of the community and state at large – thus creating a new influx of middle class, not diminishing it.
  6. Lobby for and support a continued progressive tax structure to assure those who are able to pay do, in support of our better society (see Franklin, above); and those who are the working poor continue to have access to the earned income credit for their relief.
  7. Any corporation desiring to tap the human, environmental, or financial resources of the state for their private profit must have accountability to the taxpayers, be subject to public audit and disclosure, and share those profits with the people of the state – without whom they would not have achieved said profits.
  8. Clear and concise regulation of financial institutions, with full legislative fiscal accountability.
  9. Increased and enforced protection of civil liberties and environmental regulations under state and federal law.
  10. An end to all offensive wars not formally declared or authorized by Congress and an end to US Imperialism around the world, focusing on diplomatic relationships and building security at home. Any entry into war should be in defense of an imminent threat to the United States and its citizens.
  11. Citizens United must be repealed or a Constitutional amendment approved to take unlimited corporate money out of politics, corporations are not people, and money is not speech.
  12. Trade policies must be repealed and rewritten to PROTECT the American worker and middle class – not decimate it and give incentives to multinational corporations to move overseas for cheap labor, only to line their own pockets.

These issues are at the forefront of this movement, and it is time for all of us to carry the message forward. For too long, as Democrats and Progressives we have run away from these ideas – they are now critical to the future of Wisconsin and the nation.

A clean, honest government that works for the betterment of a majority of the people – not the 1%. These are the ideas and initiatives that must move us forward…or we are doomed to repeat the mistake of being disengaged, and allowing the Scott Walkers and Fitzgerald brothers of the world to give away this wonderful, progressive state we love. This grassroots movement is our hope for the future, and we will not fail if we stand together.


7 thoughts on “The New Progressive Movement in Wisconsin – Where We Go From Here

  1. This is a very thoughtful post. Thank you. Now that we know how fragile some of our rights are (e.g. collective bargaining, voting rights, etc.), one of the first things we need to do is to build higher fences around those things we need to protect.

    The many protests at the Capitol are a symptom of the desire of citizens to have their voices heard in government. Repealing Citizens United is of course, one way to allow citizen voices to speak more loudly, but what are others? Now that money can gin up “movements” such as the Tea Party, grabbing headlines and causing politicians to cater to their wishes when their number is actually quite small, how do we really know where we’re at? The media is doing less reporting and more propagandizing. They do a poor job of reflecting the public mood. Our voting behavior is shaped by weirdly-drawn districts and ID restrictions. How do we make sure that citizens are heard?

  2. This captures the thoughts of so many of us around the State. We must continue to coordinate our ideas and efforts. This is only the beginning. I’m afraid that the outside corporate money being funneled to Walker will sway the many of the casual voters. We must speak with a united voice.

    Thank you for a great statement to start the conversation.

  3. The Progressive movement began 100 years before the “Wisconsin Uprising” of 2011? Awesome coincidence. I would add something about the rights of women to self-determination and equality, and a fair and reasonable path to citizenship for immigrants.

  4. Well said! Reminds me of FDR’s proposal of a second bill of rights.

    “It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
    This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

    As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

    We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.”[3] People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

    In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

    Among these are:

    The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

    The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

    The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

    The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

    The right of every family to a decent home;

    The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

    The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

    The right to a good education.

    All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

    America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens.

    For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

  5. Of course you take Franklin’s quote out of context. He was not talking about economic justice. He was talking about people not paying their fair share of taxes. The entire letter can be seen in “The diplomatic correspondence of the United States of America” starting on page 375.

    Mr Franklin would hardly approve of the modern welfare state in either the individual or the corporate level. Here is another of his quotes that illustrate that fact,

    “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” -Relating to prices and the poor, 1766

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