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Allen Ruff: If the “Wisconsin Idea” can be killed, the Right hopes so goes the nation

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The battle to shift the burden of the crisis on the public sector workers unfolds across the country, with Wisconsin still being at the forefront of that war. Now joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, to talk about why Wisconsin is Allen Ruff. Allen is a historian, a freelance journalist, and a longtime social activist in Madison. Thanks for joining us again, Allen.


JAY: The question is: why Wisconsin? The Republicans in Wisconsin have really dug in here in a way that’s polarized the situation to the maximum. Why are they doing it, just in terms of their short-term electoral fortunes, if they thought this was going to help them? It doesn’t look like it’s going to.

RUFF: I think they’re informed by an understanding that many of us have that if they can break Wisconsin, if they can break collective bargaining in Wisconsin, if they can get away with assaulting all social sectors in Wisconsin, then they’ll open the door for who knows what in the rest of the country. Folks have to understand that there’s something here in Wisconsin known as the Wisconsin Idea that’s a hundred years old. Wisconsin led the country in a whole range of political and social reform legislation dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, culminating in a raft of legislation that was passed in 1911 and in 1912, often referred to as [inaudible] progressivism.

JAY: What are some of the examples of that legislation?

RUFF: At a social-economic level, Wisconsin had the first workers compensation through legislation in the country. It eventually became the model for the New Deal–child labor laws, laws protecting the environment, laws protecting women in the workplace. Most significantly, there was what was called the clean government legislation, which meant what? Wisconsin had–was the first state in the union to have a recall vote, the recall and the referendum. That was incredibly progressive legislation at a time when corporations bought and sold state houses across the country. And so Wisconsin became the example. That’s the other meaning, the connotation of the Wisconsin Idea. Many states across the United States followed the example, the lead of Wisconsin. So the conservatives, the reactionaries in the state and in the country, understand in that sense that goes Wisconsin, so goes the rest of the country.

JAY: If there’s such popular support for the public sector workers now, it doesn’t seem to be having any effect on the Republican leadership. They don’t seem–they’ve dug in even more. So there must be some base of support for them in the state.

RUFF: Quite clearly there is, but I’m not sure where it is at this point. They’ve attempted to have mass rallies. Early on, during one of the first big mobilizations, the Tea Party mobilized. They brought in 5,000 people to the State Capitol, an estimated 5,000, incredibly outnumbered by these 70,000 that turned out in opposition to [Scott] Walker that day. More recently, last weekend there was a campaign of a kind of–Walker did and some of his lieutenants did what might be called a whistle-stop tour around a lot of the communities in the state, culminating in an attempt to have a large mobilization at an arena, stadium on the outskirts of Madison. They brought in about 400 people. Again, the demonstrators protesting Walker and his crowd far outnumbered the folks they were able to bring in. From what I understand, there was actually buses that were nearly empty as part of that caravan of Walker supporters.

JAY: So far the protests have been a little, you could say, defensive. They want to defend our collective bargaining rights. They conceded on issues of some of the economic–paying towards the pension plan, paying more towards the health care plan. But is there emerging a more positive vision of what a different kind of economy, a different kind of state budget would look like for Wisconsin?

RUFF: That’s been a real question, and finally folks from various institutes are utilizing, again, the Wisconsin Idea. Folks at the university and elsewhere, various institutes and think tanks around Madison, are devising an alternative budget.

JAY: We did–at The Real News we did some math where we looked at the nine billionaires that live in Wisconsin, and they’re on the Forbes 400 list. If you just tax their estates at what the estate tax was in 2001–in other words, it’ll add another 20 percent to the estate tax–you could pay off the entire debt of Wisconsin in one go. Over $4.5 billion could be raised through that tax. Are these kinds of discussions taking place?

RUFF: Well, interestingly, I don’t know if Real News Network was the influence, but one of the most interesting slogans that’s been raised this past week, week and a half has been: “How do you solve the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich.” Another slogan on the street that’s been taken up by thousands of people is: “Chop, chop, chop at the top.” People are understanding what the situation is. You have to remember that Walker, as one of his first acts, did a major tax cut for the rich in the state.

JAY: There’s another piece to this budget that he passed, which if I understand it correctly is going to allow privatization of certain things and–like, power facilities in no-bid contracts. What is that about?

RUFF: Yes. They’re going to basically sell off, in no-bid contracts, power plants, most of them centered at state facilities like the University of Wisconsin at Madison here. There’s some argument that they’re old and outdated. But they’re giveaways. There’s one–going back to the whole discussion of, you know, farmers in their interest, there’s a piece of the legislation which will allow an increase in the amount of phosphates that can be pumped into the state’s water. This is, you know, again, a bone to large agribusiness in the state. So any farmers that are conscious about their stewardship of the land are going to be very–are certainly ticked off about that bit of legislation.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Allen.

RUFF: Again, thank you. I’ve been a little hoarse shouting on the street, but we’re going to win here in Wisconsin.

JAY: Thanks for doing this with what’s left of your voice. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Allen Ruff is a U.S. historian and investigative researcher. His primary work centers on opposition to U.S. "grand strategy" and interventions in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere. He hosts a weekly a public affairs program on WORT, 89.9 FM in Madison, Wisconsin and blogs at