How the Wisconsin Uprising Changed America and Why Its Renegade Politics Are Here to Stay
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John Nichols is a Wisconsinite.
It was an important part of his identity even before his state erupted in protest against a governor who'd gone a step too far stripped collective bargaining rights away from his state's workers. But the pride in the veteran political reporter's voice when he talks about his state now is impossible to miss.
He's many things besides, of course—Washington correspondent for the Nation, associate editor of the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times, an insightful media critic, the author of several books and a frequent guest on MSNBC. But it's the Wisconsinite front and center in his new book, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Occupy Wall Street, contextualizing and celebrating the way his state led the fight back, not just for union rights, but for democracy in America.
Nichols doesn't preserve the uprising in amber, freezing it in place as a piece of history barely a year old. Instead, he connects it to past, present and future, reminding us that the ideals Wisconsin fought for are the ideals the founders (on their best days) fought for and the ideals Occupy Wall Street and activists around the country still fight for.
AlterNet sat down with Nichols to talk about his book, the next steps for Wisconsin, and why the new media may just bring us the democracy we deserve.
Sarah Jaffe: Reading your book, I remembered the excitement of Wisconsin's protests. It was a year ago this week, right?
John Nichols: A year ago this week was the day of the first major demonstration. There had been minor little pickets and things but that day the Teaching Assistants Association, the oldest graduate employees' union in America, decided to march to the capitol. We all know how these marches start and we all know how they end. A couple of hundred people show if you really organize hard, and then maybe you can stretch it and say it was 500. You go, you do your event and everybody goes home. That’s it.
But this one, 1,000 showed, maybe more. They didn’t have to stretch their numbers, they were real. They got to the capitol, they marched, they went straight to the governor’s office and the video of that afternoon showed masses of people trying to push their way into the governor’s office. And I actually think that single event caused a lot of people to say, “Okay, something’s happening at the capitol.”
SJ: I love that you start out really situating the Wisconsin uprising in American history.
JN: Ann Coulter had written a book called Demonic, which came out right at the same time, and she said on TV, “What’s happening in Madison is a pure example of the mob. This is the demonic left on display.” She said this is exactly what Madison and Jefferson feared.
And I thought, well, first off, the people she’s calling demonic are my mom’s 70-year-old friends. They literally came from Burlington, Wisconsin with handmade signs and drove up to be a part of it. It was like a family event.
But secondly, the American Revolution was against empire. It was a revolt against a linkage of a royalism in a political context to a royalism that was economic. The Tea Party went to the ship that had the tea of the British East India Company. There was a sense of corporate power linked directly to political power. And Jefferson and Madison understood that really well, Madison especially.
The thing that I think is lost to history is that the Constitution, when it was written in 1787, it was rejected. They said we've got to have a Bill of Rights. There’s a sense that the Bill of Rights is this crumb thrown to the people after you’ve established this powerful government. Quite the opposite. Madison, when he campaigned for Congress in 1789 said “I’m going to go write a Bill of Rights.”