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The most progressive legislative session in Wisconsin history took place precisely 100 years ago, when a coalition of rural Republicans and Milwaukee Socialists united to enact reforms that broke the grip of the robber barons and finally put state government on the side of working Wisconsinites, small-business owners and farmers.

During the remarkable 1911 legislative session, the Republican-Socialist coalition established the first successful progressive income tax in the United States, instituted a state life insurance plan, set maximum work hours for women and children, created an industrial commission to protect factory workers, wrote a pioneering workers’ compensation plan, regulated railroads, reformed the insurance industry, developed a new plan for taxing private utilities, outlined programs to aid farmer-owned cooperatives, put in place structures for technical and vocational education, designed plans to conserve water and forests, and passed a Corrupt Practices Act to clean up politics.

The legislators of 1911 also enacted a law that identified schools as “social centers” where citizens — not just students but adults from the community — could gather to discuss the great issues of the day, and to formulate communal and political responses to challenges facing society.

Louis Brandeis, soon to join the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice, considered the developments in Wisconsin and hailed the state as “the hope of democracy.”

Wisconsin established the standard by which other states were measured. It was the most innovative, the most humane, the most responsible and, above all, the most politically progressive state in the nation. And the ideas that came from Wisconsin formed the underpinning for the labor, farm, civil rights and social justice movements that would eventually come to the fore two decades later, as Franklin Roosevelt imported University of Wisconsin professors and veterans of the state’s legislative and political battles to forge a “New Deal” for America.

There is bitter irony in the fact that, a century on from the year when Wisconsin took the national stage fully and conclusively as what former President Teddy Roosevelt dubbed America’s “laboratory of democracy,” Gov. Scott Walker has just signed the most reactionary budget in the state’s history. Walker’s budget, enacted by a rubber-stamp Republican Legislature, actually dismantles programs and policies that date to the 1911 legislative session. More broadly, it reverses the practices and procedures that identified Wisconsin as the national model for clean government, responsible budgeting and wise allocation of resources.

Walker’s budget makes deep cuts to funding for education and local services, shifts funds from public programs to private interests that have contributed generously to the governor’s campaign fund, and tips the balance away from Wisconsin-owned small businesses and toward multinational corporations that move jobs and revenues out of state. By doing these things, it reverses a century of progress.

It also undermines local democracy, taking power away from elected town boards and school boards, and shifting authority to the governor and his cronies.

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Walker and his legislative allies are attacking not just the programs and policies that made Wisconsin great. They are attacking the progressive values and the ideals that once defined Wisconsin as a more democratic, more equitable and more visionary state than any in the nation.

Instead of celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wisconsin’s greatest legislative session, Walker is attacking the legacy of that session. It is a tragic circumstance. But Wisconsin will have its celebration. Walkerism is nothing new; it is the threat that Robert M. La Follette warned of when he wrote in 1911: “Against the natural laws of trade and commerce is set the arbitrary will of a few masters of special privilege … they encroach upon the public rights, defeat legislation for the public good, and secure laws to promote private interests.”

La Follette spoke of the “old fight” between those few masters of privilege and the great mass of citizens. Wisconsinites won the fight in 1911. We will win it again, beginning with the state Senate elections of 2011, which are employing a tool developed by the progressives — the recall process — to hold legislators to account.

The recall elections are not the start of anything. They are the continuation of the “old fight” by Wisconsinites who know that this is a progressive state, with a progressive history and a progressive future.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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