Why Wisconsin? How history set the stage for rebellion

The Spirit of Wisconsin has inspired millions of Americans, as labor protests in the state continue to confront union-busting Governor Scott Walker. Because public employee unions and public education are under attack across the country, an immense wave of solidarity has embraced the Wisconsin Rebellion. People around the U.S. want to learn the tactics of the uprising to emulate it in their own states, and learn why Wisconsin’s grassroots movement grew so large, so rapidly.


I am a geography professor (and faculty union member), who edited an atlas of Wisconsin history, and was active over three decades in Wisconsin grassroots organizing and media. I moved six years ago to Olympia, Washington, and now teach at The Evergreen State College, as a proud member of the Cheesehead Diaspora. We understand  how Wisconsin’s rich social history provides a larger context for the current Rebellion. A combination of Midwestern progressive values, alliance building, and community culture have historically stimulated and shaped grassroots politics in the state.  In our 21st-century society of Big Box stores, it is difficult to detect histories of resistance, but the Wisconsin Rebellion shows deeply embedded they still are in many people.


Progressive History


Wisconsin’s history has been one of resistance by people who banded together to protect what is theirs. Because Native American nations in the region resisted forced removal to the West, most managed to remain in their homelands. Most immigrants to Wisconsin in the 1850s were Germans fleeing repression after the failed 1848 revolution. As the Progressive Senator Robert M. LaFollette wrote, Wisconsin had “a rare and exceptional people. The spirit of liberty stirring throughout Europe…gave us political refugees who were patriots and hardy peasants, seeking free government.”


Like elsewhere in the country, Milwaukee workers struck for an 8-hour day in 1886, and lost seven workers in the infamous Bay View Massacre. Populist farmers took on the railroad companies during the 1890s Depression, sparking the formation of a Progressive Republican movement that briefly took power in the 1910s. The Progressive Party split from the Republicans and took power during the 1930s Depression (like the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota), and dairy farmers launched “milk strikes” against creamery middlemen that were off skimming off their income.


Unemployment benefit and workers’ comp laws, vocational schools, and the AFSCME public employee union all started in Wisconsin. After World War II, the Left-Populism of the LaFollette family lost its competition with the Right-Populism of Joe McCarthy (who resembles today’s Tea Partiers). But Wisconsin leaders of all political stripes still had to appeal to the “common people” and Milwaukee elected Socialist mayors all through the 1950s.


The trend continued into the 1960s-70s with the strong antiwar movement that resisted the Vietnam “War at Home,” into the 1980s with the anti-apartheid and family farm movements (which besieged the Capitol), and into the 1990s-2000s with rural  environmental alliances against mining, energy and water corporations. Even many  conservative-looking Wisconsin citizens have an ingrained anti-corporate consciousness.


Wisconsin people have a pride in their own communities–particularly in farm and union households–that is often stronger than their loyalty to political parties or bureaucratic nonprofits. Even the professional football team is owned by the People, and some of its players are now joining the Rebellion. This is the history that Scott Walker is running up against, and he is not as skillful as previous Republican governors at playing this game.


Alliance Building


The geography of Wisconsin also offers opportunities to bring together people from different walks of life. The state is a meeting ground of the agricultural Midwest, industrial Great Lakes, and resource-based Northwoods. Building statewide movements is a challenging exercise in intersecting different economies, historical experiences, class and ethnic/racial identities, and generations.


The 1990s statewide anti-mining movement transcended these divides, bringing together environmentalists with unionists, urban students with rural residents, and Native American nations with their former enemies in white sportfishing groups. They were all united in their concern for clean water, and their powerful alliance defeated Exxon and the world’s largest mining companies. The chairman of a county Republican Party once set up a table at his county fair, took off the brochures for the pro-mining Republican governor, and substituted them with leaflets against Exxon.


It seemed unusual when Wisconsin police officers refused to arrest Capitol protesters and instead joined them. In Washington state, everyone assumed that the cops would attack protesters, as they often do here. In that kind of atmosphere, it is easy to quickly dehumanize your enemy, and polarize a conflict. It is rarely understood that people’s brains have multiple impulses, often resulting in contradictory beliefs and actions. In Wisconsin’s political history, even some Republicans have this split consciousness, and are open to a heartfelt anti-corporate appeal that assumes our common humanity.


Wisconsin social movements have also had some major weaknesses that prevented statewide allians. Madison white activists would often elevate the city’s radical history and status as a state capital and central university campus, and ignore the rest of the state as a cultural-political wasteland. But it is remarkable how quickly this urban-rural divide has been overcome in 2011, in a Rebellion that encompasses diverse regions and ethnic/racial identities. State employees and supporters have come to the Capitol from Milwaukee, the industrial Fox Valley, rural farm towns, and the small cities such as Eau Claire, LaCrosse, and Janesville. They have also held their own large rallies in these small cities that that have become the real battlegrounds for the heart and soul of America.


Midwestern Sense of Community


Social movement alliances have flourished in Wisconsin because of a sense of community that emerges from Midwestern history. Like elsewhere in America, Big Box stores have destroyed small businesses, and people have become more individualistic and isolated. However, deep social networks still exist and can make a difference when they become active. People with different opinions can pull together at key times when they use respectful communication and join on issues where they agree. These relationships are not touchy-feely, but simply make people feel that belong in a community, that everyone has something to contribute, and that we can look to ourselves rather than to a political elite for the answers.


Wisconsin historian Jack Holzhueter observes that many Madisonians are only one generation removed from the dairy farm, where everyone had to work together, and no one wanted to stick out. The same is true of labor households that value the idea of solidarity, even if their union bureaucracies no longer uphold class consciousness. Notice that the Wisconsin Uprising is not identified with any particular leader (or even group of leaders), because everyone is pitching in with the chores.


Living now on the West Coast, I have been struck by the culture of individualism here. Parks have benches for couples, but not many picnic tables for larger gatherings. Meetings sometimes start without round-robin introductions, rather than getting to know each other’s names and stories. In moving West, many European Americans also moved from an extended family to a nuclear family, from richly ethnic communities to a homogeneous white racial identity, and from church socializing to secular isolation. Because the collective social fabric has been disrupted, it is more difficult to get people to agree and work together–but it is not impossible.


Rebuilding Community


Rebuilding a sense of community is vital not only to spark future Wisconsin Rebellions, but to enable greater individual creativity. Most of the signs in the protests (and solidarity rallies around the country) have been handmade and humorous, not prefab and dour. The rallies evoke the feeling of grassroots movements rather than political campaigns, because Wisconsinites would rather have a real party than join a political party. This Rebellion is not just about Democratic politicians finally finding their spines; it is about working people who are finding their own voice and their own collective strength.


Organizers around the country are learning and drawing on their own states’ progressive histories and community traditions. Each generation has something to offer, and can learn from each other, and each generation also has the potential to develop new tactics and do the unexpected. Effective alliance-builders are trying to weave together different issues without weakening the identities of distinct social groups. They are getting out of the progressive ghettos, and trying to bring together different regions within their state that represent different economic and ethnic/racial histories.


But the Spirit of Wisconsin is not just about political tactics and strategies. It is about building a greater sense of community through warmth and hospitality. It is about gathering to share food and exchange ideas, rather than simply having meetings. It is about overcoming apathy and fear through strengthening our social bonds. Americans are trying to find this real human solidarity in our own towns and neighborhoods, rather than simply waiting for the next rally or election. Wisconsin shows us what is possible in America, but change always begins at home.



Zoltan Grossman edited and produced maps for Wisconsin’s Past and Present: A Historical Atlas, by the Wisconsin Cartographers Guild (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002). He is a member of the faculty in Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and can be reached at grossmaz@evergreen.edu or through his website at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz

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