The real history of recalls in Wisconsin

On Monday I shared my thoughts on the prospect of a state without a recall mechanism.

Since I’ve still got recalls on my mind, here’s a snippet from an excellent essay written by Robert Kraig, the Executive Director of Citizen Action Wisconsin, who provides some much-needed historical perspective on the recall mechanism in Wisconsin in the face of distortion of the history of Wisconsin’s recall process by conservatives.

One major distortion of the historical record in the WPRI history of the recall is what Buenker calls “a strange appeal to authority,” the claim the La Follette era progressives would have opposed the way the recall is being used in 2012. The key to the argument is a complete misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of what the La Follette progressive meant by “special interests” and “moneyed interests.” It is true that progressives saw the recall as a way to reduce the grip of special interests and big money. The WPRI argues, from its own worldview, that as organized labor is spending significant resources on the recalls, the recall of Scott Walker is strengthening the special interests that the La Follette progressives were attempting to dethrone.

This is absurd, and as Professor Buenker concludes “a historical.” The term “special interests” in the political lexicon of the La Follette progressives meant large corporate interests and the robber barons of the era which had a stranglehold on state government, and certainly not organized labor. The recall was specifically designed to provided a popular check on the domination of the early 20th Century predecessors of Walker’s wealthiest supporters, the Koch Brothers, the Texas billionaire behind the swift boat ads, the Beloit billionaire to who he revealed his “divide and conquer” strategy, ALEC, and the WMC.

Another major distortion identified by Professor Buenker exemplifies just how atrociously bad the WPRI history really is. The WPRI argues that modern communication technology, especially social media, has frustrated the original intentions of the recall, which was to be an unusual mechanism used only in exceptional circumstances, by making it as easy as “pressing a button.” In the La Follette era, the WPRI contends, “few people would likely even know a recall effort was underway unless they heard about it from a neighbor.”

As Professor Buenker points out in his essay, this interpretation betrays a shocking ignorance of (or willingness to distort) the progressive era and the way the La Follette era progressives wrested governing power from entrenched corporate interests. As any serious student of the era knows, the early 20th Century saw the highest development of the advanced print age which featured hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers which kept the electorate arguably better informed than modern electronic communications. In addition, the La Follette progressives were masters of new communications and organizing techniques, mobilizing average Wisconsinites on a scale that was not seen again until the Madison uprising of 2011. While social media offers a new and important way to “by pass the power structure,” as Buenker puts it, this capacity was also at the heart of the progressive insurgency 100 years ago which did so much to shape modern Wisconsin and inspire a national movement that led to the major reforms of the century.


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