How the Wisconsin Uprising Changed America and Why Its Renegade Politics Are Here to Stay

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.”

It was made clear to him that that Bill of Rights had to not be a defense, but also have an offensive component to it. And the offensive component is in the First Amendment. You have a right to freedom of speech, which is great, but a little bit limited by your ability to get a microphone. You have a right to the freedom of the press, which is great, and expanding because of what’s happened digitally. But still, a little bit limited when you’re up against a Rupert Murdoch.

But the great power is that right to assemble. If you can get your friends into a square, then you can petition for the redress of grievances, you can make a demand on power that’s overwhelming. What happened in Madison was this incredibly powerful reminder of that impulse, that grassroots citizens get that if you’re affronted by government, what you’re supposed to do is go and rally and march on the capitol. They came and came and came, in ever-increasing numbers, because they believed, not that they were committing a symbolic act, but that they were challenging government.

They were trying to force government not to do something they found dramatically awful, which is take away collective bargaining rights, take away the civil service, take away local democracy. Here’s the key part. It's suggested that they got beat.

Of course, the governor did implement parts of his agenda, but two days after he signed the bill, 180,000 people came to the square in Madison. What they understood, that our media and our political class has yet to catch up with, is that once you’ve begun to assemble to petition for the redress of grievances, you don’t stop just because they don’t say yes the first time. That is so powerful.

And I would argue that that is a renewal of an American protest tradition that I think really faded after the ‘60s. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t stop with one march. The anti-war movement didn’t. And the women’s movement, in its early days, really had continual action. You have to keep coming back and you have to combine the street, the assembly, with the electoral. The electoral can never exist anymore in isolation. If all that progressive politics is about is electing “the right person,” it’s doomed.

But if you combine the street with the electoral, fascinating things happen. When hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites assembled, Democratic state senators looked out the window and said, we can either be cogs in the machine or we can respond to this demand. The assembly and petition for the redress of grievances worked. You got one of the major political parties to become what it’s supposed to be, a pro-labor party. There’s still a lot of work to do there, but boy, that’s dramatic.

SJ: I love the line you have about citizens don’t elect officials to rule over them, they elect them to be responsive to them.

JN: Of course, elections matter. We respect those who are elected. But we also demand that they respect the people who elect them. It’s an ongoing process.

Jefferson had that great line. “We didn’t fight a revolution to elect a king for four years.” And so I think Wisconsin, and to an even greater extent Ohio, where you had that veto referendum, you saw the realization of the founding promise seen through the progressive promise. This is a really great linkage which we on the left ought not forget.

To the extent that we hearken back to that, we start to create a frame in which we can actually realize democracy. That’s what I think you saw some of in Wisconsin, you saw a lot of in Ohio. And, frankly, I think we’ve seen a lot of it with Occupy, that Occupy has begun to force local elected officials, police officials, others, to really respond to popular demands.

Local politicians are responsive to you but they can also be you. That’s a big deal. One year on from the protests in Madison, is the primary election for local offices. This is county supervisor, school board, stuff like that. A number of people who were on the line in the protest are now running for office. This movement has generated dozens of candidates, many of whom will get elected. People who were on the floor of the capitol during its occupation, people who slept in the capitol, are now going to be city council members, school board members, county board members, state legislators.

I believe in electoral politics. But I don’t believe in electoral politics starting at the top and coming down. I believe in electoral politics that takes street level militants and activists and makes them elected officials and then begins to bubble them up.

SJ: The one thing that I remember talking about very early on, was that Wisconsin public schools teach labor history.

JN: Yes. And it is absolutely true that some of that is under assault. I think that’s, frankly, one of the reasons, why so much of the right is so passionate about getting rid of universal curriculums and going to charter schools or going to privatization. They don’t mind having a little labor friendly school, as long as most people aren’t taught that.

When you go back and look at videos of the protests, the most brilliant videographer of the protests, a guy named Matt Wisniewski....

SJ: Whose footage was used in the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial.

JN: But they took out the labor signs.

If you go back and look at Matt’s videos--even strong supporters of the Wisconsin struggle forget how young it was. You look at these videos and you see thousands of people and they are all high school and college students. And you’re thinking, well hold it, isn’t labor supposed to be older? No. It was very young. In fact, I would argue, it looked a little younger even than Occupy.

In Madison there were a hell of a lot of high school students and young college students, and they brought rock ‘n roll, they brought passion, they brought courage, but they also brought a purity of vision with regard to labor that the labor movement has not had for a long time.

Labor’s biggest problem for a long time has been that it has been uncomfortable standing up and saying that we are the alternative to corporate power and that we’re good, they’re bad. A lot of unions don’t even want to go to quite that bluntness. But the young people did. And when they did it, then you started to see these older union leaders, go “Wow, okay. I guess we’re popular.” And they started to pick the message up.

SJ: You talk about the labor movement as something people connect to on a personal level, but also as this force that is the only institutional counterweight to corporate power. Yet we’ve seen unions taking on this “partner” mentality when it comes to corporations, we've seen unions backing SOPA, backing Keystone XL and the T-Mobile and AT&T merger. Maybe if they had a better conception of themselves as that alternative to corporate power rather than relying on it....

JN: It has been a challenge for the labor movement, it’s been a pretty raw one. It’s not just those compromises, it’s foreign policy issues in the past. These things are in the history and they’re not pleasant ones.

However, there are two things now that I think are very, very positive. One, the labor movement has a younger leadership. It’s a leadership that recognizes those missteps.

And two, I think that there is something that comes from being under assault, a realization that the bad guys really want to get rid of you. They might partner with you on a particular issue, but at the end of the day, they’d like to see you gone. They would like to pass a ban on collective bargaining. They would like to pass a right-to-work law. This is happening across the country.

If we begin with that concept, it’s much easier to get unions to begin to see beyond themselves. And even if they feel that they have a responsibility to defend their workers in a unionized setting and thus take a stand that you or I might not like, that they acknowledge it as that. I’ve seen smart union leaders make some of those distinctions.

Here’s the thing that Wisconsin brought to this. The governor tried to divide labor. And the division was a classic one. It was the public sector unions that are non-safety -- that’s snowplow drivers, nurses, teachers, they’re going to lose their collective bargaining rights. They’re going to also take huge hits economically. Police and fire are not. This separation was done intentionally.

The amazing thing was, and maybe Governor Walker didn’t calculate this, that Madison Teachers Incorporated is in the same building as Firefighters Local 311. John Matthews, the 40-something-year head of Madison Teachers Inc., which is such a pivotal union in this struggle, and Joe Conway, Jr. the head of the firefighters, they would talk to each other each day. Within a matter of hours, Joe Conway said, “I’m not going to let them divide the house of labor, because if they get you this year they’ll come for us next year.”

There was a moment in Madison at one of the first big rallies, tens of thousands of people were out, and in the distance you heard bagpipes. I want to tell you, it was as good as any movie you have ever seen. The crowd began to part, and through the middle of it came uniformed firefighters with their bagpipes. They marched to the stage and one of their leaders, Mahlon Mitchell, stepped to the stage and he said, “Firefighters are taught that when there’s an emergency you don’t run away from it, you run to it. This is the emergency. They’re trying to burn down the house of labor, and we won’t let them do it.”

It’s that moment, that moment preached every lesson that needs to be learned about solidarity. It also preaches every lesson that needs to be learned about purity of commitment on the part of labor. People who had their protections saying, “We stand with those who do not.” It was so powerful.

This is a lesson not for the kids, not for the young people that have already come in: this is a lesson for labor leaders.

SJ: You have a wonderful section talking about a general strike: could it have worked?

JN: There was a general strike. It just wasn’t declared as such. As a young labor reporter I got to know Harry Bridges, I knew the folks who did the general strike of 1934 in San Francisco, which is widely referenced as the great American general strike. I know the physical layout of that strike, the neighborhoods that were in play. They weren’t bigger than what was going on in Madison. In classic general strikes you want to have a lot of workers out from different sectors, you want small businesses to be supporting them. You want the police to be kind of wavering, taking the side of the workers against the bosses.

Well, look what happened in Madison. Hundreds of thousands of people surrounded the capitol, bringing the whole city, basically, to a halt. They occupied the capitol for 18 days. They slept in the capitol. They forced legislative leaders to make the choice of whether to stand on the side of economic power or on the side of the protesters, and many of them left the capitol to stand in alliance with the workers. The police force, when ordered to clear the capitol, didn’t. Small businesses were rushing food to the capitol. There were kids on bikes coming with pizzas.

You had moments there that mirrored a classic model of a general strike, and it wasn’t just in Madison. It spread: in Platteville, Wisconsin 1,500 people were out, in Juneau, a tiny county, 500 people were out. Students walked out of schools, the first student walkouts came before any teachers had walked out. In Stoughton, kids walked out that first Monday. So what I’m telling you is you had a lot of the models that you would want, but it was never declared.

What I argue is that there were key points, when to my view, the call should have been made. First off, to declare it a general strike, and to say we are either there or on the verge of it; and then secondly to say join us, let’s do it, let’s take this thing statewide, let’s see what we can do. I’ve sat with friends who are labor leaders, who said it wouldn’t have, we couldn’t have done it. I’ve sat with other people who say we absolutely could have. But I do believe that there was a point there, especially when you had 180,000 people at the capitol on March 12, I believe if the message had been, let’s not go to work on Monday, let’s not go to school, let’s not open our businesses, let’s show Governor Walker just how much we disapprove of what he’s done, I have a sense it might have worked.

You can find errors along the way. And yet, I don’t take it as a depressing thing. What I take it as is a very powerful lesson that when you hit critical mass, don’t stop.

SJ: You write about the lack of labor beat coverage, the way the media got the story wrong in Wisconsin.

JN: The fact of the matter is that we do have a lot of bad media in this country, but the biggest problem is we don’t have enough people out there. We don’t have the labor beat anymore, and a paper the size of the New York Times, a paper the size of the Washington Post, an operation like CNN, you should have 10 people covering organized labor. This is a mass movement across this country.

SJ: There's a class bias in media itself. You have to be able to take unpaid internships and go to a fancy school to get into a media job.

JN: You didn’t used to. When I was coming up as a kid if you were willing to go to some out-of-the-way town in Ohio or in Indiana and take a very low-paying job, you could be in media. You could get out of college and be reporting on city council meetings and labor strikes and all sorts of other things, very early on.

Now the problem is that those papers in Indiana, if they exist, have shed three-quarters of their reporters, and as a result, they don’t have those jobs anymore. So young people are forced to take these internships, they’re forced to try and fit into a media system that won’t even pay them minimal amounts.

It’s a nightmare. It is a dysfunctional situation for a democracy because we have vast areas which just get uncovered. And labor has been the most victimized of all of these. When you don’t cover it, you diminish it.

The wonderful thing about Wisconsin is that it was so identified with labor. And same with Ohio, and to some extent, Occupy. We haven’t won much but we have shifted a little bit of the discourse. We’ve forced media itself, by the power of literally putting hundreds of thousands of people in the street, to begin to cover a little bit of the story of labor.

Now we’ve got to pick that up and there’s two things that people have to do. Number one, we have to keep it in the streets. To simply steer into electoral politics is a disastrous move. You could do electoral, but don’t lose the street, because it’s the image, it’s the power, it’s the force.

Secondly, we have to recognize that people, during the Wisconsin fight, in Ohio, through Occupy, they’ve learned to do a lot of their own media, and this next media system that they’re developing is incredibly powerful. It blows apart the old debates between old media and new media.

So what we have is, we’ve got working journalists like yourself. You do a good story. Some working mom in Wisconsin sees Sarah Jaffe did a great story, okay, I’m going to put that on my Facebook and I’m going to like it. In fact, I like it so much I’m going to Twitter something about it. But I’m also going to get Matt Wisniewski’s video of the protests at the capitol, I’m going to put that on my page too. I went out myself and took some pictures. I’m going to put those up. Here’s my kid there. And wow, I just read this economic article that a friend of mine sent me. That’s really good too. So you start putting it all together on this Facebook page and then tweeting out saying, “Come look at this.” It’s like that Facebook page is a great newspaper.

That’s journalism. That’s news. That isn’t just organizing. If we begin to harness this, recognize that we still have to give resources to working journalists, we’ve got to have people go out and do the stories, but we also are going to have to give props and power to students, working moms. We have to make sure that people who go out and do this are celebrated for what they are.

They are the Tom Paines of our time, because Tom Paine was an unemployed, or under-employed journalist, who wrote a pamphlet, Common Sense, and he said on the back of it, I think these are really important ideas but I can’t go everywhere in America. If you like this pamphlet, the copyright is off. Copy it, print it up, give it out to the next person. That’s forwarding an e-mail. We were founded as a country by grassroots, independent journalists. We just didn’t have the same words.

If we get democracy in America--we’re a long way from it--it’s going to come because we have a small-d democratic communications feeding into a small-d democratic protest movement that is massive, that is unrelenting, unyielding, that is coming toward power without apology, and that, might just give us the country we want.

SJ: Let’s finish up with the Walker recall. What’s going on?

JN: The thing I love about the Walker recall is what I loved about the Ohio referendum fight. It’s renegade politics. It’s politics that scares the political elites in both parties--the funny thing is that Walker and his partisans will say that this is the Democratic Party driving this, or this is the unions driving this. Democrats and unions were scared about it.

The process is struggling a little because even grassroots citizens are sort of obsessed with the political strategy, you know, who is the candidate going to be? How are we going to structure this? And that’s a danger.

Look, we have to be practical about politics. We have to be realistic. We have to recognize that when you schedule an election you’ve got to have a candidate, you’ve got to raise money. But the one thing that will decide whether the Walker recall succeeds or fails is the extent to which it remains a renegade, challenging political endeavor that does not follow the rules of existing parties and existing players.

Walker is following the rules. He is raising money like crazy at a rate of almost $5 million a month and he is doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do. The other side is only beginning to get itself together. But its response must be much more popular. There’s no way you’re going to counter Walker’s money. But when you’ve got 30,000 volunteers, that’s huge.

Now, the other thing too about the Walker recall, and this is a practical reality of why I think it will probably succeed, is that while we care very much about these labor issues, and these popular democracy issues, corrupt corporate power tends to be corrupt. Walker is the subject of a John Doe investigation in Wisconsin that continues to reveal increasing amounts of illegal activity by his aides. The revelations are devastating politically to him. I’ve seen the polling that suggests that it really moves numbers even among moderate Republicans.

So my sense is that the Walker recall will succeed in part because Walker will be in a lot of trouble. But it must succeed as a popular movement that isn’t just about money and politics, it’s got to be real and it’s got to have something to it that excites people because politics shouldn’t be a boring spectator sport.

That’s what Wisconsin was in February and March. People who had never gone to demonstrations decided they wanted to go to demonstrations. You've got to make an election campaign that’s so exciting that people who have never voted want to vote.

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