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Why Wisconsin?

Perhaps the most famous Wisconsin Socialist was Victor Berger, who with Eugene Debs helped found the Socialist Party in 1901.

With all that’s been happening in Wisconsin the past month, a question came to mind: Is there something unique about the history and culture of the Badger State that helped make this uprising possible?

When we consulted with our good friend and Wisconsin native Quince Mountain, who wrote some amazing dispatches from Madison, he pointed out that the recent events didn’t just appear from nowhere—nor were they solely inspired by Governor Walker’s budget cuts and union-busting efforts.

After all, there have been activist groups organizing in and around the politically vibrant state capitol for a long time. Their experience no doubt fostered the right environment for massive protests.

Even so, this explanation doesn’t fully explain “why Wisconsin?” A recent piece in The Indypendent, however, does a great job of looking back on the state’s rather radical political history:

If there is one single reason why Wisconsin has become a national battleground in the war to roll back labor rights, it is history. Starting with Germans who immigrated to the Badger State after fleeing the crushed revolution of 1848 in Germany, Wisconsin is steeped in more than a century of popular movements that fought for women’s equality, freedom of the press, grassroots democracy and socialism.This history includes “Fightin’ Bob” La Follette who was governor of the state from 1901 to 1906 and the founding of the nation’s first public employees union in 1932. Robert Marion La Follette was a radical, anti-slavery Republican who championed the first system of worker’s compensation, progressive taxation, the open primary, women’s suffrage and the direct election of U.S. Senators. All this came to be known as “the Wisconsin Idea.”

Less well known is that the city of Milwaukee had Socialist Party mayors and city councils from 1910 to 1960. European immigrants poured into Wisconsin in the late 19th century as Milwaukee was industrializing. The resulting concentration of wealth and monopolies in railroad rates, grain elevators and utilities spurred labor organizing.

The piece goes on to make a compelling case for the role of Wisconsin’s radical history in today’s uprising. Still, it’s by no means a definitive answer to the original question. When it comes to understanding what it is that makes people take action we may never know for sure. Each case has a variety of reasons that create a sum greater than the individual parts.