JOHN NICHOLS discusses Wisconsin's democratic heritage and promotes the call for a "Wisconsin Wave"

February 20, 2011
John Nichols

On my dad’s side, my ancestors came to Wisconsin in 1823 to mine lead near Mineral Point. My mom’s people arrived a decade later, settling in Wyoming Valley.

I was raised with an outsized regard for Wisconsin, by a mother who made sure we never passed a Wisconsin historical marker without stopping.

So when I say that I have never been prouder of my state than I was last week, when workers rose up to challenge Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights, it is in that context.


I have always argued that Wisconsin leads the nation: We do better, ask little and give much. Our ancestors fought to end slavery, break up the trusts and make our state what Teddy Roosevelt called America’s “laboratory of democracy.”

A week ago, it seemed as if the laboratory was producing something toxic -- an assault on public servants that would quickly spread from Madison to other state capitols where Republican politicians want to use fiscal challenges as an excuse to score political points against unions.

But then Wisconsin pushed backed. Two thousand people rallied Monday. By Tuesday it was 12,000 or more. By Wednesday, 30,000 people surrounded the Capitol. And the demonstrations spread across Wisconsin, from Superior to Kenosha, from Shullsburg to Sturgeon Bay. On Thursday, Democratic state senators made real the promise of representative democracy by refusing to allow the enactment of legislation proposed just six days earlier and that the people clearly opposed.

As David Vines, a UW student who joined the protests, said: “This is what the founders intended.”

He’s right. The people spoke. And the powerful listened -- well, at least some of the powerful.

The struggle is far from finished. But Wisconsin has led once more, and in the right way -- by pushing back against a political power play.

So how will Wisconsin continue to lead? By continuing to employ the rights outlined in the Constitution to assemble freely and petition for the redress of grievances. That’s not just an immediate response to this bill. It needs to be continual -- in the tradition of Robert M. La Follette’s charge that “democracy is a life.” What La Follette meant is that democracy does not end on election day. Democracy begins on election day, as we demand that our representatives respond to the demands of the people.

Two Madison-based groups, Liberty Tree and the Center for Media and Democracy, both of which I’ve supported over the years, have proposed a “Wisconsin Wave” of democratic resistance to attempts to balance budgets on the backs of working people.

“To the giant corporate interests that currently dominate our state, we say that we will not stand by and watch you destroy Wisconsin’s democracy, Wisconsin’s economy, Wisconsin’s schools, and Wisconsin’s communities. We will not pay for your crisis. We will organize. We will march. We will nonviolently resist your policies and overcome your agenda,” reads the call, which can be found online at We’ll publish the whole call in Wednesday’s Capital Times, just as we’ll continue to cover the story of the democratic struggle to defend our public services and public schools, and the people who make them great.