Last Thursday night, Mike McCabe, Executive Director of The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign managed to find his way to Fort Atkinson for the monthly Drinking Liberally Fort Atkinson and spent more than two hours talking about the destruction of Wisconsin’s long tradition of open and honest government at the hands of the modern Republican Party.
Mike spent a lot of time outlining the history of Wisconsin party politics and I found his stories both disturbing and inspiring. The most significant take away? Politics is a long game that spans decades and generations.
He told us that bribery of public officials in Wisconsin was legal until 1897. He related this in terms of the story of Byron Kilbourn, a Milwaukee railroad baron who wanted to build a rail line between Milwaukee and La Crosse. In 1851 he received a charter to build the railroad between Milwaukee and La Crosse, the route would take the train through what is now the Wisconsin Dells. So rather than go to each property owner along the right-of-way he took a different path. He bribed his way to success.
Using what was then astronomical sums of cash, Kilbourn literally bought the Assembly, Senate and Governor and had them use the state’s power of eminent domain to appropriate the land for his railroad. Remember, this was perfectly legal at the time.
This triggered a huge backlash by the populace as you might imagine and they threw all the bums out in the next election. But it triggered a movement to change the laws. But that change took many years to get into place. It wasn’t until Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, Sr. came to office that final action was taken on the bribery law. That was 1897.
This parable is an important one because it teaches us that change takes time. Decades, even. ALEC and the other rightwing “think” tanks were established back in the 1970s and they’re just now coming into their own. It’s going to take an equally long time to wind down the damage they’ve done. So we must continue to work to drive change, continue to push against the reactionary right and keep the struggle alive.
Fernand Braudel, the French Annales School historian, used what he called le longue durée, the long term, to study history. He and the other Annales School historians believed that the comings and goings of historical actors aren’t nearly as important as changes in the underlying structures which underpin society. They rejected the “great man” school of history in favor of a broader and deeper historiography. And it is changes in the social and economic structures of society which merit historical study. We, as political players, must plan for that long term view.
The ultimate demise of Walker’s governorship (at the hands of the recall voters or the U.S. Attorney) is not the end game. There is no end-game to history or politics. There are only the values that we on the left all share and that we fight for while the opposition pushes back. We have to muster the energy and the drive to push harder than them. We must build the infrastructure necessary to sustain our side for the long term. And we must use it to sustain our push for the long, long game we’re playing.