I posted recently on UW-Madison Professor William Cronon's new blog, Scholar as Citizen. The blog is an excellent example of a University faculty member taking seriously the Wisconsin Idea that the influence of the state's university system should extend into governments, industry and homes throughout Wisconsin.
Professor Cronon has an opinion piece published on today's New York Times Opinions page. In it he traces the evolution of Wisconsin as a innovative leader nationally in the development of social policies that have spread from Wisconsin throughout all the fifty states: Worker's Compensation, unemployment insurance, and public employee bargaining. Most importantly, he discusses the state's once-proud tradition of getting big things done through bipartisanship, and its well-deserved national reputation for clean and open government, including some of the strongest open meetings, open records and public comment rules in the nation.
When the Wisconsin Democratic Party finally revived itself in the 1950s, it did so in a context where members of both parties were unusually open to bipartisan policy approaches. Many of the new Democrats had in fact been progressive Republicans just a few years earlier, having left the party in revulsion against the reactionary politics of their own senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, and in sympathy with postwar liberalizing forces like the growing civil rights movement.
The demonizing of government at all levels that has become such a reflexive impulse for conservatives in the early 21st century would have mystified most elected officials in Wisconsin just a few decades ago.
When Gov. Gaylord A. Nelson, a Democrat, sought to extend collective bargaining rights to municipal workers in 1959, he did so in partnership with a Legislature in which one house was controlled by the Republicans. . . .
Later, in 1967, when collective bargaining was extended to state workers for the same reasons, the reform was promoted by a Republican governor, Warren P. Knowles, with a Republican Legislature.
The policies that the current governor, Scott Walker, has sought to overturn, in other words, are legacies of his own party.
But Mr. Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights breaks with Wisconsin history in two much deeper ways as well. Among the state’s proudest traditions is a passion for transparent government that often strikes outsiders as extreme. Its open meetings law, open records law and public comment procedures are among the strongest in the nation. Indeed, the basis for the restraining order blocking the collective bargaining law is that Republicans may have violated open meetings rules in passing it. The legislation they have enacted turns out to be radical not just in its content, but in its blunt ends-justify-the-means disregard for openness and transparency.
This in turn points to what is perhaps Mr. Walker’s greatest break from the political traditions of his state. Wisconsinites have long believed that common problems deserve common solutions, and that when something needs fixing, we should roll up our sleeves and work together — no matter what our politics — to achieve the common good.
The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.Professor Cronon clearly said that he did not consider Governor Walker to be a new Joe McCarthy:
Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him.