Recalling the Wisconsin Idea

By - Nov 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Barry Wightman

A century ago there was a political agenda known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” As Sanford D. Horwitt, author of Feingold: A New Democratic Party, puts it, the idea at the center of then-nascent progressive political thinking “became widely known as shorthand for new, enlightened rational government that would rein in laissez-faire capitalism, invest in vastly expanded educational opportunities and infrastructure, and use the expertise at the University of Wisconsin to create pioneering programs to promote the health, safety and economic interests of ordinary workers and farmers alike.” One would be hard-pressed to argue with that agenda.

Famed Wisconsin Governor and Senator, Robert M. La Follette, one of Russ Feingold’s political heroes, personified the progressive Wisconsin Idea. And understanding La Follette is key to understanding our current senator. Having read La Follette’s autobiography as a high school student, Feingold was steeped in the progressive tradition. Simply put, true progressives believe in competence, community and thrift and are fervently against the power of big money and behind-the-scenes influence. With roots in the Northern European traditions of many of Wisconsin’s 19th century settlers, progressives cover a wide political spectrum that, in today’s terms, is neither red-state nor blue-state. And it is that pragmatic, party boundary-crossing approach that is central to Feingold’s politics.

Progressivism as a coherent political movement is largely forgotten, its tenet planks scattered among the dusty platform statements of the two major parties of the 20th century. But Feingold is, by the historic definition, a progressive. Asked about the prospect for a progressive revival in 21st century America, Feingold was hopeful. Saying that his hero Bob La Follette would be “passionate” about today’s possibilities, Feingold is clearly working to speak for the independent, pragmatic and public-minded of Wisconsin.

Those are not the words of cautious man. Feingold’s habit of confounding the leaders of the Democratic Party establishment would have been familiar to “Fighting Bob” La Follette. Feingold’s was the lone vote against the Patriot Act in 2001 and he was one of the few to vote against the authorization for war against Iraq in 2002. He was also the only Democrat to vote to continue the Senate Clinton impeachment proceedings in 1998 – a very unpopular position, at least among Democrats. And with Republican maverick John McCain, he has consistently championed campaign finance reform, attempting to drive corrupting big money from the national political process. Feingold, Horwitt writes, can be counted on to vote for reform, not to play it safe.
As a result, Feingold frequently tangles with his more cautious contemporaries. His 2002 public dust-up with Senator Hillary Clinton on campaign finance – she claimed he wasn’t living in the “real world” – rocked the party boat, as did the recent failed Feingold-Reid Senate bill to end the Iraq war. Many Democrats veered away from him.

But Feingold remains undeterred, going about the business of serving his state and nation unbowed by what some might perceive to be political failures. In speaking about the war at one of his annual visits to each county in the state, a “listening session” in Dane County in October, Feingold, referring to the defeat of the Feingold-Reid bill, said “People are so disheartened that some Senators don’t have the guts to vote against this war. So [those Senators] are playing with fire. But I think they do understand that the warnings from the people are real. They’ve got the majority and they’ve got the power because of this disastrous Iraq war and they’re saying “Hey, we’re the majority!” But why? They’ve got to remember.”

In a debate bogged down by indecision and the very deal-making the Democrats rode into town to clear out (a la 1994), Feingold is firm. “We need to cut off funding. That’s what we need. We might pass a de-authorization bill, but guess who wouldn’t pay any attention to it?”

Straight talk like that wins friends and enemies. But his enemies, at least, know that he can be counted on to vote honestly. And judging from the voters attending that recent Dane County session, people may not always agree with him, but they will vote for him.

We talked about that with Feingold biographer and Milwaukee native Sanford Horwitt during one of his recent visits to the city.

VS: These days, is the word “progressive” just a stand-in for “liberal?”


SH: Yeah, it’s used as a euphemism, it’s used without any thought, and then it becomes nearly meaningless. But it really does have a real reference in the real historical world of politics. But for it to really gain the attention of people in a more coherent sort of way, it does need someone who is a real, authentic personification of the progressive tradition. And John McCain, before he just sort of fell off the trail, might have been that person. But he apparently decided that he had to do and say a lot of things to get the support of the very un-progressive part of his current Republican party, and he’s bollixed it up so much that it’s hard to figure out who he is. And he’s paying the price, unfortunately, because I think he is a good and decent guy and I think his heart really is right in the old progressive La Follette/Teddy Roosevelt sort of Republican tradition. But he’s lost his way.

VS: Feingold dropped out of the 2008 presidential race.


SH: I was disappointed that Feingold kept his hat on his head because I think he would have brought something to the conversation, the debate that we’re still not hearing. Hillary Clinton can say, in answer to the question “Are you a liberal?” in the South Carolina debate and go through a rambling thing that ended up in the last line that “I am a moderate progressive.” I heard that and I thought ‘What does that mean?’ And I certainly don’t associate Hillary Clinton with the progressive tradition.

VS: Does anybody really know how to vote a split ticket anymore? Everybody’s red state or blue state, polarized.


SH: I don’t think that’s true. You know, the Democrats and Republicans keep losing people, and increasingly with every election cycle for the last twenty years, maybe thirty years – and pollsters argue about this a lot – more people are less aligned with either major party and are more likely to split their ticket. Wisconsin used to have this reputation as almost being in a class by itself as being very independent-minded, very willing to split their tickets, you know with lawn signs from both sides…but Wisconsin is no longer very exceptional. The rise of the independent voter is nearly universal. And that’s where somebody like Feingold is pretty interesting; he’s found a way to tap into that.

VS: In the book, you described Feingold’s controversial Clinton impeachment vote as being key to understanding him. He was the only Democrat to cast that vote.


SH: There are two consequences of that very controversial vote. One is that a certain small but important group of hardcore Democrats, professional Democrats, have never forgotten or forgiven Feingold. But then I think that there’s a far bigger audience that associates Feingold’s honesty and independent thinking with that vote. And for a politician to achieve something like that… maybe I should have been more explicit in this biography about making the point that Feingold is not merely this fascinating, principled politician. He is just a great, effective politician.

VS: And he crosses the usual party lines. Feingold can attract Republican voters.


SH: He won 27 counties that George Bush carried in the last election. Feingold’s clearly made inroads among people who see themselves as Republicans, or at least as independents but who tend to vote Republican. And it’s because of a number of things. Honesty can take you a long way. According to campaign manager George Aldrich, untold numbers of people have said to him, “Well, you know there are a lot of things I don’t agree with Feingold on, but you know he’s really honest and he’s intelligent.” And for a lot of people, that’s enough. Those two things by themselves will take a candidate a long way.


Sanford D. Horwitt’s book, Feingold: A New Democratic Party, is published by Simon and Schuster.

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