CHICAGO — Picture the state of Wisconsin trying to clean up after a devastating economic slump. Foreclosed farms and homesteads, high unemployment. Schools overcrowded and streets badly in need of repair. The gap between rich and poor more gaping than ever before. With rising property taxes (due in part to discounts for favored corporations), some people called for more budget cuts, but that had been practiced until whole counties had been driven into effective bankruptcy. The Republican Party, with a lock on state government, was forced to make difficult choices. How would it respond?
The picture above approximates today's Wisconsin, but it also describes the state of the state circa 1900. Conditions in the earlier period hatched the "Wisconsin Idea," a forward-looking set of policies developed under four Republican governors (most notably Robert M. La Follette and Francis McGovern) that proved a blueprint for a nationwide Progressive Era.
The Wisconsin Idea, as first popularized by state legislative librarian Charles McCarthy in 1912, helped lift Wisconsinites from the doldrums of the great depression of the 1890s into a prosperous "mixed" economy combining the resources of farm and factory with science, engineering and human welfare expertise rooted in a state university system centered in Madison.
The policy initiatives were legion. After years of retrenchment, Wisconsinites turned to "tax fairness" as a way of redistributing the burden for vital government services, inaugurating an inheritance tax on the rich and raising rates for railroads, insurance companies and utilities. The wage-earners of the state - recognized as suffering under "unequal conditions of contract" - were rewarded with pioneering statutes in worker's compensation, health and safety regulations and extension schools for adult education.
Wisconsin's Progressive Republicans were not utopians. They proposed no wholesale rejection nor systemic reformulation of the industrial capitalist system they inherited. Yet, in attacking "monopoly" and "predatory wealth," they were determined to fashion a future in which workers and business people, farmers and students could all find respect and a bright future. And they adopted a favorite institution and characteristic principle for resolving deep social conflicts. It was the independent state commission as governed by "tri-partism."
In the case of the industrial commission, for example, appointed, university-trained "experts" representing the "public" huddled directly with representatives of organized labor and leading employers in overseeing relevant planning and regulatory processes.
It was a formula that soon made Wisconsin the envy of the nation on questions ranging from taxation to industrial relations to land use policy. All told, the Wisconsin Idea suggested that through a close working relationship among major stakeholders, as pioneer labor economist John R. Commons put it, "order, intelligence, care, and thought could be exercised by the state."
Even when Republican "Stalwarts" took back the state from party "Progressives" in 1914, they maintained the foundations of the Wisconsin Idea. Public employee bargaining, which did not come about until 1959, thus continued the spirit of accommodating conflicting interest groups through a formal dispute resolution process.
Alas, Gov. Scott Walker and today's Wisconsin Republicans have responded quite differently to the challenges of economic dislocation and fiscal crisis. Identifying the state's problem only as a matter of the budget gap (rather than a larger question of economic development), they refuse to countenance tax increases or reforms that might alleviate the fiscal squeeze. Instead, they have singled out one group of citizens - public sector employees - for sacrifice, not only determined to cut salaries and benefits but to strip them of long-established collective bargaining rights.
Rather than engage the unions in multi-party negotiation or begin with a nonpartisan commission to assess alternative budget remedies - this, at a time when only a month ago, the legislature gave away enough money in tax breaks to nearly make up the state's deficit - they have acted in unilateral haste.
As a result, today's Republicans have surely reaped the whirlwind. Not only union pride but a basic American sense of fairness bristles when one productive and hard-working sector of the population is made to "pay" for the sins of everyone else. Moreover, when a so-called "emergency" is manipulated for partisan and ideological use, state authorities threaten the very legitimacy of their own tenure in office.
Amid today's rancor and stalemate, with many classrooms as well as offices shuttered by civil discord, might it not serve all the state's representatives - beginning with the governor - to take time out for a family history lesson?
If old Bob La Follette could meet up today with Scott Walker, chances are his preferred venue would be the woodshed.
Leon Fink, who formerly taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, is distinguished professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the recently published "Sweatshops at Sea."