Reviewing John Nichols’ Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street

What is it that is swelling the ranks of the dissatisfied?  Is it a growing conviction in state after state, that we are fast being dominated by forces that thwart the will of the people and menace representative government?

Robert M. LaFollette, July 4, 1897, Mineral Point, Wis.

With that quote, John Nichols begins the first chapter of his unapologetically biased book Uprising:  How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (2012). Nichols, The Nation’s Washington correspondent and an associate editor of Madison’s Capital Times newspaper, recounts the protests in Madison and around the state in early 2011 and analyzes their importance in renewing a spirit of protest that spread from Madison to, ultimately, Manhattan.

Just as Nichols is not an unbiased author, I am not an unbiased reader. What Nichols writes about brings back vivid memories of weekends around the capitol square, in sun as well as in snow and cold, as part of the massive, diverse, palpably energetic crowds that marched around the square in February and March 2011.  Uprising is not a chronological account of the protests; rather, Nichols organizes thematically, beginning with the beginning:  the cold mid-February day, one day after Governor Scott Walker announced his 144-page budget repair bill that contained provisions that went far beyond repairing the budget to stripping collective bargaining rights of public employees.  On that day, Nichols says, fifty members of UW Madison’s Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) gathered in front of UW Madison’s Memorial Union and protested (4).  Two days later, Nichols tells us, more than 1,000 TAA members marched to the capitol. They were joined each day thereafter by hundreds and then thousands of others from all walks of life – union and non-union members, public and private employees alike – and they continued marching.

How and why what fifty or so students started became an incredible historical event is chronicled in Nichols’ subsequent chapters.  He takes a historical look at the development of what he calls First Amendment remedies.  Nichols focuses primarily on the founding father who was one of the drafters of the Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights, James Madison, for whom Wisconsin’s capital city was named.  Nichols describes Madison as a “fretful revolutionary” (16), one who was continuously concerned, as more and more of the original founders passed away, that future generations maintain that “Spirit of ’76.”  Nichols quotes Madison as saying that “the essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse” (29).  As such, Madison believed the people must be able to, in Nichols’ words, “challenge an elected despotism when it [arises], rather than merely waiting until the next election” (27). As the author of the First Amendment – protecting, among other things, freedom of speech and the right of the people to assemble and petition government for a redress of grievances – Madison provided those positive rights.

Nichols also examines Wisconsin’s progressive past, a past that includes Robert M. LaFollette, but also former Governor Gaylord Nelson, who in 1959 signed a law that allowed for the first time in any state in the country local government workers and teachers to engage in collective bargaining.  Next, Nichols attacks head on the oft-repeated claim that Wisconsin is broke, thus difficult choices must be made to balance the budget.  Nichols uses here outspoken writer, director, and social commentator Michael Moore, who visited Madison in March 2011 and delivered a rousing speech that began, “America is not broke.”

From there, Nichols addresses how traditional and new media both reported and shaped the protests, in particular explaining the importance of what he calls the “next media system,” where “[c]itizens . . . creat[e] their own media platforms, combining elements of the oldest and newest media and filling in the voids that exist with Facebook pages and Tweets” (109), a system that Nichols says is “more local, more immediate, and more diverse [than] anything that has come before it.”  Indeed, much of the news of events and rallies (and where to find the free pizza) during the protests in Madison and around the state in 2011 traveled quickly via Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging.

Finally, Nichols celebrates the revival of the labor movement, a movement that many had for decades declared, at best, dormant or, at worst, dead.  But as Nichols points out, the rise of the labor movement in the Madison protests was not simply the mobilization of union members; it was the rise of labor in a broader sense, as Nichols recounts the protest participation of farmers (126), students, and small business owners.  In order for labor to stay viable, Nichols suggests that it must “go grassroots, by supporting the union, farm, student, and community coalitions that are resisting [budget] cuts in states across the country . . .” (139), and it must put real pressure on Democrats who voice support but don’t deliver.

Part of Nichols’ message is that what happened in Madison and around various cities in Wisconsin in the early part of 2011 renewed a spirit of protest; “Wisconsinites were employing ‘First Amendment remedies.’ And those remedies were working, perhaps imperfectly, perhaps incompletely, but working still, as the founders intended” (41).  This spirit of protest spread from Wisconsin to other states like Wisconsin that had newly elected conservative governors from the 2010 elections, and from there to Manhattan and the Occupy Wall Street movement.  However, it is also Nichols’ point, correctly, that what happened in Wisconsin is not a template for any and all political protest.  As Nichols describes, Wisconsin (and Madison in particular) has had a long progressive history, with deep labor roots and activist leanings, from the political career of Robert M. LaFollette, to the formation in Wisconsin of the frontrunner to the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in 1932 (51) (for more on Wisconsin’s labor history, see here and here), to the student protests in the 1960s and beyond.

It appears that Uprising was released before June’s recall election between Scott Walker and Tom Barrett. While Walker won that election that doesn’t mean, and I think Nichols would agree, that the protests and the recall effort were for naught.  In fact, Nichols says as much when he discusses the much-touted Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April 2011 between sitting Justice David Prosser, billed by opponents as a conservative who would uphold Walker’s policies, and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, who was backed by unions and liberals.  After the contested race and subsequent recount, Prosser won re-election (see 130-31).  Nichols says, “There are critics who see in these results confirmation that electoral strategies are doomed.  I disagree.  But electoral politics cannot be the sole political focus of labor” (131).  The goal, says Nichols, is both electoral action along with what he calls “street heat,” mass mobilization and action by labor and labor supporters.   

If you opposed the protests, it is unlikely that anything Nichols says in Uprising will change your view.  However, if you participated in the protests, Uprising will remind you of the energy and the promise of change palpable during those cold winter days. And, if you couldn’t be there, Uprising will give you a good sense of the atmosphere and the motivations of many of the participants.  It reminds us that collective action – exercising those First Amendment remedies – can make a difference.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Nick Zales

    Interesting. What strikes me most about the protests of the 2000’s forward is what exactly have they accomplished? Pretty much nothing. Whether it is the protests in Madison or the Occupy movement, what change has come from these mass demonstrations? Nothing. Consider the Tea Party and its “rock star” Scott Walker. The Tea Party believes in smaller government. The most recent Wisconsin budget passed and signed by Walker is the largest in Wisconsin history. At the federal level the largest expansions of government came under so-called “conservatives” Reagan and Bush II. Protesting is great, but if it accomplishes nothing one must question why.

  2. Ben Roovers

    Thanks for the review, Prof. Mazzie. It brings back a lot of memories from a couple years ago, and does a great job of summing up Nichols’ book.

    I completely agree with the portion that reminds readers that the labor movement doesn’t start and end at the ballot box – it starts with organizing workers and educating them about the benefits of organized labor. This has been on display recently in Milwaukee in the form of the Palermo’s strike. It’s heartening to see that the labor movement is still making its presence felt in our state.

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