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Stateside With Rosalea Barker: Wisconsin

Stateside With Rosalea Barker


Who moo? There’s a contract job that comes up every year in Wisconsin for which the incumbent receives a salary of $40,000, professional travel expenses and a mink garment from the Kettle Moraine Mink Breeders Association. The lucky contractor also gets to use a 14-karat gold and platinum brooch and a tiara with diamonds, citrines and amethysts, courtesy of the Wisconsin Jewelers Association.

This year’s lucky winner of the Alice in Dairyland competition is Cheryl O’Brien, an assignment editor for WISN-TV/DT in Milwaukee, who grew up showing dairy animals and working on her family’s dairy farm in Eastman, near the state’s Mississippi River border with Iowa. The Alice in Dairyland event has been going since 1948, the state’s centennial, but in the early days Alice was usually a high school girl blessed with "beauty and health, general personality, and ability to present herself and her message before large groups." Today’s Alice is a marketing agent for the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and is usually a public relations or communications professional.

What’s not to like about Wisconsin? For one thing, one of my favorite US cities is there—Milwaukee, home to beer-lovers’ beer and sausage-lovers’ sausages—and the whole state is so famous for its dairy industry that its inhabitants are known as Cheeseheads, a name which even has the Presidential seal of approval. Or, if not the seal, at least the Presidential signature.

The state’s own coat of arms features a sailor and a lead miner on either side of a shield whose four quarters contain symbols for agriculture, mining, manufacturing, and navigation. Wisconsin’s northern boundary is Lake Superior (except for where Michigan lay prior claim to a peninsula); its eastern boundary is Lake Michigan; and its western boundaries are two important rivers, hence the plurality of symbols to do with seafaring (waterwayfaring?). Wisconsin’s state animal sits atop the shield and shows why it’s known as the Badger State; and down the bottom is a cornucopia and a pile of 13 lead ingots, symbolizing not just the state’s mineral wealth, but the original 13 United States.

But don’t let all that healthy Germanic wholesomeness and industriousness fool you! Wisconsin has its very own (Not-so) Little Red Book, published in 1912 by the head of the state’s legislative reference library to explain “The Wisconsin Idea” to all the reporters and legislators from other parts of the nation and the world who had been inundating his office with requests for information about the progressive legislation that was emanating from the Capitol. The author, Charles McCarthy, himself ran for nomination as the Democratic candidate for US Senator in March 1918.

The introduction to The Wisconsin Idea was written by Teddy Roosevelt who, incidentally, was shot by a would-be assassin on his way to speak at an election rally in Milwaukee in 1912. His words are as appropriate today in light of the health care reform debate as they were back then:

Nothing is easier than to demand, on the stump, or in essays and editorials, the abolition of injustice and the securing to each man of his rights. But actually to accomplish practical and effective work along the line of such utterances is so hard that the average public man, and average public writer, have not even attempted it; and unfortunately too many of the men in public life who have seemed to attempt it have contented themselves with enacting legislation which, just because it made believe to do so much, in reality accomplished very little.

In the introduction, Roosevelt refers to Senator La Follette, whose name is synonymous with the Progressive Era in US politics. According to Wikipedia: “A 1982 survey of historians that asked them to rank the ‘ten greatest Senators in the nation's history’ based on ‘accomplishments in office’ and ‘long range impact on American history,’ placed La Follette first, tied with Henry Clay.” And as Governor of Wisconsin, “La Follette championed numerous progressive reforms, including the first workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, direct legislation, municipal home rule, open government, the minimum wage, non-partisan elections, the open primary system, direct election of U.S. Senators, women's suffrage, and progressive taxation.”

It was La Follette who established the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library which was headed by Charles McCarthy.

Roosevelt and La Follette were both Republicans, but at this stage in the party’s history, their policies were so far away from the conservative Republicans’ view of what the American voters wanted that at the Republican Convention in 1912, the party machine refused to seat Roosevelt supporters because they were determined that the incumbent President—Taft—would once again be their nominee.

The Progressives promptly held a second convention, nominating Roosevelt. “At the election on November 5th, [Democrat, Woodrow] Wilson was elected by 6,286,000 votes out of 15,310,000 votes, thus being a minority President by two million and a half votes. Roosevelt received 4,126,000 and Taft 3,483,000 votes. The combined vote of what had been the Republican Party amounted to 7,609,000 votes, or 1,323,000 more than those received by Mr. Wilson.” So says the author of a 1919 book about Theodore Roosevelt, available on here.

William Roscoe Thayer goes on to write: “… we must remember that the Democratic Platform was hardly less progressive than that of the Progressives themselves. Counting the Wilson and the Roosevelt vote together, we find 10,412,000 votes were cast for Progressive principles against 3,483,000 votes for the reactionary Conservatives. And yet the gray wolves of the Republican Party, and its Old Guard, and its Machine, proclaimed to the country that its obsolescent doctrines represented the desires and the ideals of the United States in 1912!”

Several national and state officeholders were elected from the Progressive Party—most before the United States’ entry into WWI. Since The Wisconsin Idea, which nurtured the seeds of Progressivism, was largely based on German socialism, the Progressive Party very quickly went out of favor, especially as its members were opposed to America’s entry into the war.

In 1924, La Follette Sr. reincarnated the Progressive Party, but he died the following year, and it was led instead by his sons. It continued as a strong state party in Wisconsin, its candidates often beating out Democrats, until the threat of war with Germany again loomed in the late 1930s and it again fell into disfavor.



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