Wisconsin: A History of Leading the Nation for Better or Worse

Wisconsin doesn't often provide political leadership at the national level, but when it does, it's like that old nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead:  When it's good it's very, very good, and when it's bad it's horrid.

For more than a week, Americans have been following the protests in Madison. Most of the protestors oppose the proposals of their newly elected governor, Scott Walker, especially his effort to curtail the power of public employee unions.  They share the view of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who says that Walker and his backers are trying to "make Wisconsin—and eventually, America—less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy." 
Walker is not without his defenders, who counter that, as Wisconsin's duly elected governor, Walker has the right and the obligation to do what it takes to rein in costs.  They have little sympathy for unions, denigrating them as organizations concerned only with power and with pampering their members at the cost of the common good. Union leaders, however, have offered to make economic concessions, including pay cuts, in response to the need for shared sacrifice.  They point out that stripping away their organizations' collective bargaining rights will add nothing to state coffers, whose depletion will be compounded when Walker's tax breaks for business begin to take hold next year.
It seems that Wisconsin will lead in one way or the other in this epic battle.  Either Gov. Walker will triumph and unions will lose, or the protestors will prevail and unions will retain their collective bargaining power.  Similar battles have begun in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, but eyes are still on the Wisconsin show down.
During periods of crisis in the past, Wisconsin has provided some of nation's greatest leadership—and some of its worst. 
In his three terms as governor (1900-1906), Robert La Follette saw big business threaten the foundation of democracy.  He responded by making his state a leader in the burgeoning progressive reform movement.  "Fighting Bob" sought to regulate business owners like George F. Baer, who scoffed at the need for labor unions, claiming that "the rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by the labor agitators, but by Christian men to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country."
La Follette's reforms in Wisconsin were consistent with his ultimate goal:  to distribute more equitably the nation's wealth and power.  His reforms included regulation of railroads and other powerful utilities, civil service reform, regulation of lobbyists, resource conservation measures,  tax reform, and candidate nomination by primary election.  As a U.S. senator from 1906 until his death in 1925, he continued his efforts to prevent what he termed "the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many."
Robert La Follette Jr. was elected as his father's successor in the Senate and continued Wisconsin's reform tradition for another 21 years. 
Most Americans today don't know the name La Follette, but they immediately recognize the name of the man who in 1946 ended the family's 40-year reign in the Senate: Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy, whose insistence that communists had infiltrated America's unions as well as the State Department and the Army, provided a very different kind of national leadership.  In the early 1950s McCarthy enjoyed enormous popularity.  He was hailed as a hero for his aggressive efforts to ferret out the internal communist menace.  He was featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines and celebrated by social and political organizations nationwide for displaying the kind of toughness the country needed in the crisis of the Cold War.
Despite his short-term popularity, McCarthy's aggressive crusade exacerbated rather than solved the nation's problems.  Formally censured in 1954 for bringing "dishonor and disrepute" upon the U.S. Senate, McCarthy left in his wake broken careers and damaged lives. His leadership proved an international embarrassment.
After McCarthy, Wisconsin scrambled to regain its reputation as a pioneer in democratic reforms, becoming in 1959 the first state to grant public employees the right to bargain collectively.
Wisconsin is poised once again to lead the nation.  In Madison on the second floor of the capitol rotunda, a bust of Robert La Follette looks out over the sea of protestors.  With the state and the nation at a crossroads, Wisconsin is adding another crucial chapter to its history of leadership.  That history shows just how good, or just how horrid, that leadership can be.

Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University and author of "Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer."

February, 2011