John Nichols uplifts audience at ‘Uprising’ book tour in Madison

Even though he’s internationally known, highly respected, and a regular on MSNBC, John Nichols either doesn’t think of himself as famous or he doesn’t focus on it. Despite his accolades and his busy schedule,  Nichols makes time to talk to everybody, and not just superficially. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that all I really need to know about Wisconsin politics I learned from talking to John Nichols over the past ten years at political events and coffee shops. So I was glad I was able to get to Madison last Thursday to hear him speak about his new book, “Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.” He did not disappoint.

I really think that John Nichols’ ability to connect with people from all walks of life, and more importantly, his desire to listen to and learn from others, is what makes him such a phenomenal reporter. It’s not easy for one person to capture the mood of an entire group of people, much less that of an entire state like Wisconsin, but he seems to be able to do just that, whether it’s for The Nation, The Ed Show,  or in his books.

Nichols touched on the role of the media in his speech on Thursday, and the dangers of inaccurate reporting. He cited an erroneous report by The New York Times, and talked about how far-reaching and detrimental its effects were. He said that in February of 2011, the national press had ignored thousands of protesters gathered in Madison, thinking that wasn’t the “real story” and had instead spoken with one unionized auto worker in a tavern in Janesville who claimed that he agreed with Governor Walker.

The New York Times then ran a front-page story claiming that Wisconsinites were extremely divided. Reporters had completely ignored the obvious solidarity at the Capitol to write about one dude who agreed with Walker, giving the perception that many Wisconsinites were split along public and private sector lines. That was not an accurate reflection of the mood of our state at the time.

And, as it turns out, The New York Times had to issue a correction a week later because it had the union worker’s name wrong, he was not actually unionized, and the United Auto Workers union had never heard of him. (Here’s The New York Times story; the correction is at the bottom of the page.)

The problem, according to Nichols, wasn’t just the inaccurate information and the misperception it created, but that Walker cited the article when speaking with the “fake Koch brothers” as evidence that the public agreed with him. Walker made the incorrect assumption that many Wisconsinites supported his efforts to decimate collective bargaining, when the story was entirely based upon one unionized auto worker who wasn’t really unionized or an auto worker.

Said Nichols, “When media does not tell the story of what is really happening in a place…policy makers come to believe they are right…they come to believe their own spin because media feeds them the spin back.” Nichols provided other examples of media misinformation as well.

But John Nichols didn’t just talk about freedom of the press, he also discussed the right to assemble. He said the Wisconsin uprising was not just about collective bargaining rights, but about democracy itself. “If you are confronted with what you see as an unjust power, as a threat to your basic rights, you do not have an opportunity, you have a responsibility as a citizen to go to your public square to assemble and to return day after day, week after week, until that unjust power is made to bow down to the will of the people,” he told the crowd to thunderous applause. “Democracy is not an election, it is not an event on one day. It is an ongoing process. A process of holding those who are elected to account.”

But the topic that led Mr. Nichols to pound the podium the most was the right to petition for a redress of grievances, “to say to an elected leader, to say to a person who is in charge, we respect the reality of your election, but we demand that you respect those who elected you, we demand that you respond to the people, not merely…tell them what to do but act in concert with them.”

That’s what ‘Uprising’ is really all about, how Wisconsinites responded when their rights were trampled upon, he said. He could have waited until the recalls were over to write a book, but Nichols wanted to write about what he saw as “the real story” because much of the media didn’t really cover it.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a John Nichols speech without a lesson in Wisconsin history. He talked of Gaylord Nelson, who, in 1959, led the fight to protect the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Nelson “believed that when you protected public employees and public teachers, when you allowed them to have a voice in their workplace and   in the political life of the state and the republic you assured that democracy would always be protected in the political discourse. It was essential to give collective bargaining rights to unions so that democracy itself could extend from that life. That’s what Nelson did, and that is what Governor Walker sought to undo the better part of 50 years later, in a budget repair bill… to dismantle collective bargaining rights.”

Nichols also spoke a lot about Bob La Follette, quoting him, “We are slow to realize that democracy is a life and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can ever be nearly approximated.”

“What happened in Wisconsin in February and March of 2011, the peaceful protests and ongoing process that has carried out since then, is a living embodiment of the La Follette principle that democracy is a life,” Nichols explained.

He said that Wisconsinites “did something amazing” in fighting back against Walker and moneyed interests, but that our struggle in Wisconsin won’t be over “until social and economic justice has prevailed.”

Nichols ended his speech on a hopeful note, telling us, “We are at a point in our history where great choices will be made, and I am so very proud to have been able to tell the story of my state, a state that I believe made the essential choice, the choice that democracy is a life, not an event, not an election, but an ongoing process of the people speaking up, of the people speaking truth to power, and of the people ultimately prevailing!”

The crowd gathered early

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