written towards the end of 2012…
I remember from history class, in our studies on American federalism, learning about how the states are “the laboratories of democracy” — but I only just discovered that this phrase was actually coined about one state in particular: Wisconsin.
The land that became Wisconsin was settled by Northern European immigrants, especially from Germany, Finland, and Norway. During the 2012 CooperationWorks! cooperative development training orientation at the University of Wisconsin, we were told that the Germans and Finns found here a climate and topography quite similar to their homelands, with rolling hills, lakes and rivers, merciless winters.i Anyway, they settled in, got busy, and sent for their people. Hearty Protestants with a strong communitarian heritage, fleeing despotic persecution and economic depression, come to build a new world. By the 19th century, fully a quarter of Milwaukee was German-born; meanwhile, Finnish labor organizers were shaping local politics.
It was a heady mix, with streaks of bright radicalism.ii Wisconsin was the first state to institute the fine German invention of kindergarten, and also made a bold declaration that required all children — including girls — to receive an education. The anti-slavery Republican party was born here. In fact, the International Workingmen’s Association came to be headquartered in Milwaukee, and it gave way to the Social-Democratic Party of America, and later the Socialist Party of America.
It was Wisconsin that first elected a cadre of Socialists to its state office — as well as America’s first Socialist congressman. That man was Victor Berger (an Austrian Jew). From a Socialist Movement perspective, Berger’s legacy may seem bittersweet: it looked much more like reform than revolution. Berger and his comrades spearheaded successful initiatives such as municipal utilities, unemployment insurance and worker compensation, public housing, etc. This came to be known as Sewer Socialism, oriented as it was less around Marxist utopias and more around public policy; in the face of the growing pains of the industrial era, this political program concretely improved people’s lives and helped Wisconsin’s cities flourish.
Sewer Socialism’s legacy runs parallel with the rise of Robert M. La Follette at the turn of the century, who is still today Wisconsin’s most beloved political figure. La Follette was at the leftmost edge of the Republican Party — from which he splintered off, at one point, to form the Progressive Party. La Follette especially deserves credit for “The Wisconsin Idea,” a formal conviction that institutions can accomplish concrete changes for the common good, and that people stand to reap a great benefit by working together for the betterment of society — greater than that which could be had in a society in which everyone merely claws after their own self-interest. With La Follette as a champion of the Wisconsin Idea, the University of Wisconsin formed an unusual relationship with the state Capitol in Madison, through which the university’s intellectual engines drove the Capitol’s progressive policymaking. Even as the Socialist movement sputtered and splintered out, and the Progressive Party repeatedly rose and fell alongside it (including La Follette’s own failed 1924 Progressive bid for President) many of these movements’ policy initiatives bubbled up out of Madison and made their way into houses of legislature and even FDR’s dossiers, helping shape the New Deal into what it became. The Wisconsin Idea resulted in a wave of legislation — government transparency, labor laws, civil rights and so forth — which shaped the modern nation to this day. (For instance, employer-paid worker pensions was a concept that was gleaned right from the homeland experiences of Wisconsin’s German immigrants; this eventually matured into Social Security.)
My trip to Madison was one of the those times when I could feel American history shining right through to the present. You can see it on the streets lined with businesses not just local but owned by their employees, by their customers; and you could hear it in the massive protests at the state Capitol in 2011, with turnout that you just don’t see at American protests any more, directly prefiguring the Occupy Wall Street movement that erupted just months later. And so well yeah, progressive Wisconsin lost, on balance, most of its battles with its troll Governor Scott Walker; I’m not familiar enough with the idiosyncrasies of Wisconsin politics to perceive where the reflection of the state of today’s Wisconsin polity ends and where the face of some deeper trauma in the American political system begins. iii The Wisconsinites I stayed with and spoke with (most of them evidently of German and Scandinavian lineage) had this sad but steely way when talking about the failed recall campaign, like yeah they’d given it their all and more, yeah they’d totally lost, like lost, but well heck they’re going to keep fighting anyway.iv It does feel real weird, knowing that the wingnut troll Walker is sitting there in that beautiful capitol building, likely on the phone at any given moment with his billionaire backers, when immediately outside his was, Madison is all beaming with the Wisconsin Idea, a humming laboratory cooking up many weird and maybe wonderful concoctions. I almost wonder whether, in these dying days of empire, the Wisconsin Idea needs a Scott Walker to truly stay alive, as it needed a Robert M. La Follette for its inception in the first place.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to start my studies of cooperative development there in the Lowell Center at the University of Wisconsin. No surprise, Wisconsin’s laws are exemplary when it comes to promoting and supporting the development of cooperative businesses, and it was here in 1995 at a summit of cooperative leaders that the Madison Principles for cooperative development were formed. So the CooperationWorks! cooperative development training program provided us with a direct engagement with Madison’s cooperative economy, with extensive tours of cooperative food systems, cooperative community media hubs, cooperative housing, cooperative cabbies, and more.
It was inspiring, and anyone who is interested in economic democracy stands to learn something here. You should come check it out. I mean, I find football to be boorish and boring, but I’d root for the Green Bay Packers any day.
Thanks to CooperationWorks! for a great training. Thanks especially to the CoBank, and also to the Ralph K Morris Foundation, for the critical financial support that made my trip possible. Thanks also to Mary and Steve Ploeser and Kaitlin Rienzo-Stack for lending out their cozy basements.