The governor of Wisconsin evidently speaks in a more unbuttoned fashion than usual when he thinks he is talking to David Koch. Hoaxed into believing that it was the libertarian moneybags on the line, Scott Walker allowed the actual caller (a near-incredulous Ian Murphy of BuffaloBeast.com) to ask him about the possible use of agents provocateurs to discredit the union protestors in the capital of his state:
â€œWe thought about that,â€ Walker admitted, while concluding that dirty tricks might not be needed. â€œThis is Madison, you know, full of the 60s liberals. Let â€™em protest.â€ This jauntiness seemed to be easily dismissive of the governorâ€™s opponents, as constituting little more than a pallid expression of NPR-addicted, bleeding-heartland has-beens of the Jonathan Franzen stripe: Wisconsin as Minnesota au gratin. Thatâ€™s not quite how I remember it. To make a stop in Madison, either as author or speaker or both, used to be no ordinary part of a radical tour. You bumped up against a tradition that went back a good deal further than the 60s. On one occasion I remember getting into conversation with a fit and wiry old man in a plaid shirt, who had bought one of my books and stayed around to make a few dialectical points. It emerged that he had been a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I was immediately embarrassed at having taken his money, and asked the staff to void out his credit card payment and charge it to me. In a Madison bookstore it didnâ€™t take any time to explain why a fighter for Republican Spain didnâ€™t have to buy his own bookâ€”or, subsequently, his own drinks. In fact, I think the shop ended up paying for the whole treat out of its own emaciated budget.
Madison is the home of The Progressive, a veteran monthly magazine edited by my friend Matthew Rothschild that, despite his enticing surname, struggles on yet another shoestring to uphold the tradition of one of Scott Walkerâ€™s predecessors: Robert (â€œFighting Bobâ€) LaFollette. In a moment when the proud title of â€œRepublicanâ€ is increasingly identified with Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and even Glenn Beck, itâ€™s a stretch to recall a time when a Republican governor from the Midwest could decide that his faction was no longer â€œthe party of Lincoln,â€ and emerge as the stoutest critic of oligarchic corporations and the overweening influence of their political â€œdonations.â€ Favoring a range of causes from workmanâ€™s compensation to the direct election of Senators, LaFollette left his gubernatorial post for the Senate, and represented Wisconsin in Washington from 1906 to 1925. Eventually setting up his own â€œProgressiveâ€ party, this alumnus of Madison University carried his own stateâ€”and 17 percent of the national vote, putting him second to Calvin Coolidge and the Democratic nominee John Davis in 11 other statesâ€”in the presidential election of 1924. LaFollette opposed the disastrous Wilsonian intervention in the First World War and stuck up for the rights of black and native Americans. His wife, Bell Case, was a considerable force in the movement for womenâ€™s suffrage.
LaFollette wasnâ€™t entirely free from the deformities of populism. He took an isolationist line on the League of Nations and in later years developed some signs of â€œeccentricity.â€ But he was one of those politicians who sounded and looked like a statesman (even managing to sport that now-eclipsed Senatorial feature, a proper â€œmaneâ€), and his many opponents could always tell they had been in a fight. Governor Walker, to his credit, also seems ready for a bit of class warfare. He has made it unmistakably plain that he wants not merely to outpoint the labor unions on a fiscal and budgetary tactic, but to neutralize and eventually cripple them. He has also chosen a time when, thanks to the documentary Waiting for Superman and other phenomena, the standing of public-sector unions is not, even among liberals, quite what it once was. How fitting it is that Madison, where quite a lot of people still know the words of â€œI Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,â€ should be the place where the initial confrontation has been set.
There are national implications to this, as President Obama has recognized in his open criticism of Walkerâ€™s union-busting. During the last presidential election, when Obama and McCain were both asked by The New York Times to name books that had influenced them, I noticed that the then-Senator from Illinois had chosen John Steinbeck. He had not, however, made the safe selection of The Grapes of Wrath: a book everybody has read and which paints the American worker in the sentimental colors of the victim. Instead he chose In Dubious Battle, a neglected and highly politicized novel that stars a Red union organizer in the Salinas Valley during the Depression, and climaxes with a bloody fight between workers and strike-breakers. (The title is taken from Miltonâ€™s Paradise Lost: â€œIn dubious battle on the plains of Heaven.â€)
I was startled at the time that Obamaâ€™s enemies didnâ€™t make more of it: they probably didnâ€™t get the reference. Another dubious battle now impends, in which a part of the Democratic Partyâ€™s traditional heart will be engaged with a part of its politically-calculating head.