“You will live in the history books!” Michael Moore shouted from the rotunda of the state Capitol to the thousands of Wisconsin workers, teachers and their allies who had come Saturday to protest against Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on public sector unions and public services. Speaking without a microphone, in a voice that was worn but enthusiastic after addressing tens of thousands of protesters outside the Capitol, Moore told the crowd inside: “You have inspired so many people. You have inspired the whole country. I just had to come and thank you.”
In response came the now familiar chants of “Thank you! Thank you!” that greet every speaker who gets what this uprising in Wisconsin is all about.
And Moore does get it. He gets it in a fundamental sense, the sense of having waited a very long time for some mass of citizens, somewhere in America, to say: “We have had it!”
A dream deferred long enough can give way, even in the most optimistic and hopeful of Americans, to cynicism and despair.
Three weeks ago, the smart bet was that the economic powers that be would score another victory, perhaps their greatest victory of recent years, in the progressive heartland of Wisconsin. Walker had proposed to strip state, county and municipal workers, as well as teachers, of their collective bargaining rights. Union leaders and members were in shock. This was the most aggressive assault on the free speech and freedom of association rights of working people Wisconsin has ever seen. And it was the beginning of a national push to undermine the political power of unions to such an extent that the balance would permanently tip toward corporations, which were freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling to spend whatever they like on the buying of election results.
It wasn’t just the naive and disconnected punditocracy that imagined Walker was certain to win the day. Many of the governor’s most ardent critics doubted that his move would stir much more than a moan of mixed indignation and resignation. Instead, the governor’s overreach was met with something unprecedented in recent American history: a push back from working Americans that developed into a movement that has stalled Walker’s initiative and, as Moore says, “aroused a sleeping giant — the working people of the United States of America.”
This is what matters about the uprising in Wisconsin. Working families were battered before Walker announced his plan. Working families will be battered no matter what happens in Wisconsin. Much is needed — the renewal of manufacturing towns, the restoration of rural communities, the re-establishment of progressive taxation and accountability for banks and speculators to balance budgets and usher in an era when government works for the people rather than billionaire campaign contributors. All of what must be accomplished is at the other end of the arc of history that is being bent in Wisconsin.
But the arc has begun to bend toward justice. Something fundamental has shifted. And Moore came to Wisconsin because he recognizes how precious this moment is, not just in a political sense, not just in an economic sense, but in an emotional and idealistic sense. It is possible to believe again.
What Wisconsin has provided is a response to the closing scene of Moore’s remarkable 2009 documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” After Moore has gone to Wall Street to try to get America’s money back, after he has marked off a “crime scene” where hundreds of billions of tax dollars were diverted to bail out the very banks and corporations that caused the financial meltdown of 2008, he speaks to the American people about how frustrating it is that such wrongdoing has not inspired an uprising on the part of working Americans.
After recounting Franklin Roosevelt’s “Economic Bill of Rights,” and detailing the nation’s drift from FDR’s faith that America could be a just and democratic land, Moore details how the hedge-fund managers and CEOs got bailed out while working Americans got layoffs and foreclosure notices. “I refuse to live in a country like this and I’m not leaving,” he says. “We live in the richest country in the world. We all deserve a decent job, health care, a good education, a home to call our own. We all deserve FDR’s dream. It’s a crime that we don’t have it. And we never will as long as we have a system that enriches the few at the expense of the many. Capitalism is an evil and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something good for all people … and that something is called democracy.”
That’s the political point of Moore’s film, but he finishes on what is actually a more profound note. Worn and worried, he says: “You know, I can’t really do this anymore unless those of you who are watching in the theater want to join me. I hope you will. And speed it up!”
It took the better part of two years. But on the first cold Saturday of March 2011, Michael Moore stood before tens of thousands of public workers, teachers, farmers, students and their allies who had come to hear him attack the lie that “America is broke” with the truth: “The country is awash in wealth and cash. It’s just that it’s not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich.”
Speaking of the bankers, the speculators and the corporate CEOs, Moore said: “They have created a poison pill that they know you will never want to take. It is their version of mutually assured destruction. And when they threatened to release this weapon of mass economic annihilation in September of 2008, we blinked. As the economy and the stock market went into a tailspin, and the banks were caught conducting a worldwide Ponzi scheme, Wall Street issued this threat: Either hand over trillions of dollars from the American taxpayers or we will crash this economy straight into the ground. Fork it over or it’s goodbye savings accounts. Goodbye pensions. Goodbye United States Treasury. Goodbye jobs and homes and future …
“The executives in the board rooms and hedge funds could not contain their laughter, their glee, and within three months they were writing each other huge bonus checks and marveling at how perfectly they had played a nation full of suckers. Millions lost their jobs anyway, and millions lost their homes. But there was no revolt. … Until now!”
The look of delight on Moore’s face when he uttered those words, and the knowing roar of approval from the crowd, was the most powerful moment Saturday.
It was followed not by the poignant plea for engagement that closed “Capitalism: A Love Story,” but rather by a celebration of the answer to that plea.
“On, Wisconsin!” Moore shouted. “Never has a Michigander been more happy to share a big, great lake with you! You have aroused the sleeping giant known as the working people of the United States of America. Right now the earth is shaking and the ground is shifting under the feet of those who are in charge. Your message has inspired people in all 50 states and that message is: WE HAVE HAD IT! We reject anyone who tells us America is broke and broken. It’s just the opposite! We are rich with talent and ideas and hard work and, yes, love. Love and compassion toward those who have, through no fault of their own, ended up as the least among us. But they still crave what we all crave: Our country back! Our democracy back! Our good name back! The United States of America. NOT the Corporate States of America. The United States of America!”
The crowd took up the chant: “The United States of America,” “The United States of America,” “The United States of America!”
It was clear that the American story of submission and surrender was done. Now, finally, the American story — not just the Wisconsin story but the American story — of the fight for a republic that might yet realize FDR’s dream of economic liberty has begun.
Michael Moore is not alone anymore when he says that he refuses to live in an America defined and deranged by banksters and crooked CEOs. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of Americans are coming, as their ancestors did, to the village green, to the city hall, to the Capitol Square and declaring: “We refuse to live in a country like this and we’re not leaving.”
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times, Wisconsin’s progressive newspaper.
About Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette By John Nichols
ON March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or--at best--an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.
The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.
The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.
La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."
The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."
This was the La Follette that his friend Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. This was the man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. The antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, La Follette genuinely believed that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions.
It was this militant faith in the people that enabled him to win reelection to the Senate in 1922 by an overwhelming margin. And this faith guided the Midwestern populist as he embarked on the most successful leftwing Presidential campaign in American history.
Running with the support of the Socialist Party, African Americans, women, organized labor, and farmers, La Follette terrified the established economic, political, and media order, which warned that his election would bring chaos. And La Follette gave them reason to fear. His Progressive Party platform called for government takeover of the railroads, elimination of private utilities, easier credit for farmers, the outlawing of child labor, the right of workers to organize unions, increased protection of civil liberties, an end to U.S. imperialism in Latin America, and a plebiscite before any President could again lead the nation into war.
Campaigning for the Presidency on a pledge to "break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people" and denouncing, in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan's resurgence, "any discrimination between races, classes, and creeds," La Follette told his followers: "Free men of every generation must combat renewed efforts of organized force and greed to destroy liberty." La Follette's 1924 crusade won almost five million votes--more than five times the highest previous total for a candidate endorsed by the Socialists. He carried Wisconsin, ran second in eleven Western states, and swept working-class Jewish and Italian wards of New York and other major cities--proving that a rural-urban populist coalition could, indeed, be forged.
La Follette declared in a post-campaign article for the national publication he edited, La Follette's Weekly, which would soon be renamed The Progressive, that, while threats and intimidation had weakened the 1924 drive, "the Progressives will close ranks for the next battle."
Though he did not live to see it, La Follette would within a decade be proven right.
The 1924 campaign laid the groundwork for the resurgence of leftwing populist movements across the upper Midwest--the Non-Partisan League of North Dakota, the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, and the Progressive Party of Wisconsin. It spurred labor-based independent political action by New York's American Labor Party and other groupings. And La Follette gave inspiration, as well, to those who swung the Democratic Party to the left in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Harold Ickes Sr., a key aide to La Follette's 1924 campaign, would become an architect of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in the words of historian Bernard Weisberger, "completed the elder La Follette's work."
Roosevelt acknowledged the inspiration of La Follette. But the Wisconsinite's truest heirs were of a more radical bent--people like his sons, Bob Jr. and Phil, who served respectively as U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and governor of the state; Minnesota's Floyd Olson, who was very possibly the most radical figure ever to govern an American state; author Upton Sinclair, whose 1934 foray into gubernatorial politics borrowed heavily from La Follette's 1924 platform and promised to "end poverty in California"; and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a veteran La Follette partisan who nominated the Senator for President in 1924 with the announcement that "I speak for Avenue A and 116th Street, instead of Broad and Wall."
In 1941, when U.S. Representative Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, cast the sole vote against entering World War II, she recalled La Follette's lonely opposition to the First World War. And a full four decades after La Follette's death, the two U.S. Senate votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that committed the United States to all-out war in Vietnam came from Oregon's Wayne Morse, a Wisconsin native who had imbibed La Follette's anti-imperialism as a youth, and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, who had served as spokesman for La Follette's 1924 campaign.
In the Upper Midwest, La Follette's legacy lives on. As recently as the fall of 1998, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold made that legacy a centerpiece of his reelection campaign against a significantly better-financed Republican challenger. Feingold, who traces his role as the Senate's leading foe of special interests to his own father's youthful involvement with the Progressive Movement, told supporters on the night of his reelection: "Now we have the chance, 100 years after the great Fighting Bob La Follette, to send a message to Washington. . . . Out of the Upper Midwest will come political reform, will come political change, will come the principle of one person/one vote once again."
WHAT is it about La Follette that has made him such an enduring figure? It comes down to a single idea: America, La Follette argued throughout his political life, cannot live up to its ideals so long as militarism and corporate power warp our democracy.
Steeped in the ideals of Jefferson and Lincoln, La Follette developed his revulsion for corporate capital as a young man--taking his cue from Edward Ryan, a fiery Irish radical who rose to the position of chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court during the great populist upsurge of the 1870s.
When Ryan spoke to University of Wisconsin students in 1873, young Robert M. La Follette heard the jurist declare: "There is looming up a dark new power. . . . The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marking, not for economic conquest only, but for political power. For the first time in our politics, money is taking the field of organized power. The question will arise, and arise in your day though perhaps not fully in mine: 'Which shall rule--wealth or man? Which shall lead--money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations--educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate wealth?'"
Those words served as La Follette's mantra as he embarked on a career that would take him to Congress, the governorship of Wisconsin, and the U.S. Senate. La Follette's election as governor came after a decade-long crusade against the timber barons and railroad interests that dominated his own Republican Party. When he took office, he pledged to end the rule of "corporation agents and representatives of the machine," who had "moved upon the capitol."
Declaring that "the spirit of democracy is abroad in the land," La Follette successfully pushed the legislature to double taxes on the railroads, to break up monopolies, to preserve the state's forests, to protect labor rights, to defend the interests of small farmers, to regulate lobbying, to end patronage politics, and to weaken the grip of political bosses by creating an open-primary system.
By the time he was elevated to the U.S. Senate in 1906, La Follette was already a national figure. He soon emerged as a leader of the Senate's burgeoning progressive camp and by 1912 was a serious contender for the Republican Party's Presidential nomination. The fight for the nomination exposed divisions within the progressive camp, however, as La Follette's more radical followers battled supporters of a more centrist reformer who also claimed the progressive mantle: former President Teddy Roosevelt.
The Roosevelt/La Follette split grew more pronounced five years later, as the nation prepared to enter World War I. While Roosevelt urged U.S. participation in the war--the position supported by the nation's political establishment--La Follette emerged as the leading foe of a war he described as a scheme to line the pockets of the corporations he had fought so bitterly as a governor and Senator.
La Follette personally held up the declaration of war for twenty-four hours by refusing unanimous consent to Senate resolutions. From the Senate floor, La Follette argued: "We should not seek [to] inflame the mind of our people by half truths into the frenzy of war." He painted the impending conflict as a war that would benefit the wealthy of the world but not the workers, who would have to fight it. And he warned: "The poor . . . who are always the ones called upon to rot in the trenches have no organized power. . . . But oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard. . . . There will come an awakening. They will have their day, and they will be heard."
Those words sounded treasonous to some, and La Follette's constant efforts to expose war profiteers only heightened the attacks upon him. He was targeted for censure by the Senate, portrayed in Life magazine as a stooge of the German Kaiser, and denounced by virtually the entire media establishment of the nation--including the Boston Evening Transcript, which announced, "Henceforth he is the Man without a Country."
As mounting domestic oppression sent more and more anti-war activists to jail, La Follette emerged as their defender, berating his colleagues with the charge that "Never in all my many years' experience in the House and in the Senate have I heard so much democracy preached and so little practiced as during the last few months."
His critics declared that La Follette would never again be a viable contender for public office.
And yet, less than four years after the Armistice, running on a platform that explicitly recounted his opposition to the war and his opposition to imperialism, La Follette won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote in Wisconsin. And two years later, he earned one out of every six votes cast for the Presidency of the United States.
The 1924 Presidential campaign was the last for La Follette. Within a year, he was dead.
NOT long after the Senator's passing, my great-grandfather and the other members of the Blue River, Wisconsin, village board renamed one of the handful of streets in their tiny community "La Follette." I make it a point to walk that street every year. I go not merely to honor the most courageous political leader this nation has ever produced, nor even to recognize the movement that my great-grandfather and so many like him saw as the way to reclaim democracy for the people.
As one who has reported for too many years on too many political compromises, I go because I know that, more than any other leader in American history, La Follette understood this country's promise. And I go because I know that, so long as we keep his vision alive, that promise may yet be kept.
John Nichols is the associate editor for The Capital Times, in Madison, a newspaper that was founded to support Robert M. La Follette Sr.'s fight against World War I. A version of this article originally appeared in the Progressive magazine's 90th anniversary issue in 1999.
"Is this a private fight, or can anyone join?" -Old Irish saying