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Wisconsin Idea plaque

The Wisconsin Idea plaque in on the front of Bascom Hall at UW-Madison.

The explanation for why Tony Evers defeated Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday’s election is not complicated.

Evers sought the governorship as a champion of the Wisconsin Idea.

This distinguished him from Walker, who in 2015 got caught trying to eliminate the state’s historic commitment to invest in higher education, research, science and public service.

The roots of the Wisconsin Idea go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when then-Gov. Robert M. La Follette and University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise embraced the principle that “the beneficent influence” of the great state University of Wisconsin would be put to work “for every family of the state.” This was a progressive premise, which was soon extended to mean that Wisconsin would rely on ideas and innovation to make real the promise of an equitable future.

Walker and his allies rejected the Wisconsin Idea. At every turn, they sought to use the power of the state to reward their political donors and corporate collaborators. Three years ago, the governor provoked a statewide outcry when he released a budget that rewrote the UW System's mission statement in a way that removed references to the Wisconsin Idea and replaced them with a charge to "meet the state's workforce needs." The governor’s proposal even deleted the phrase: "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth."

After he got caught, Walker backed off the specific proposal. But the fact is that his entire tenure as governor was an assault on the Wisconsin Idea as it has been been understood by generations of Wisconsinites.

Tony Evers, who as state superintendent of public instruction and as a member of the UW Board of Regents fought lonely battles against Walker’s abuses, recognized the danger of the governor’s many assaults on independent inquiry and the pursuit of honest answers to challenges facing the state.

During the course of what many saw as an unlikely challenge to the incumbent governor, Evers regularly spoke about the Wisconsin Idea and about renewing respect for research, science and the idea that state employees should be free to act in the public interest. Pundits who did not understand Wisconsin imagined that Evers was old-fashioned; they fretted about how the Democratic candidate was belaboring points that had not been poll-tested or focus-grouped.

But on the campaign trail, especially in the rural counties and small cities that flipped from red to blue on Nov. 6, the Democrat got a warm welcome when he distinguished himself from the Republican on specific issues such as climate change and on the broader question of whether Wisconsin would respect science.

Evers always got a loud round of applause when he declared: “As a former science teacher, I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in science.” And the cheers would grow louder as he announced: “Here’s the bottom line: As your governor, I won’t bury my head in the sand or play politics with our future.”

This is the vision that Wisconsinites were ready to renew. And with the election of Tony Evers as governor, they have done so.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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