Wisconsin Republicans Seek Return to McCarthy Era

William Cronon

What has happened to Wisconsin? The Republicans there seem to be modeling themselves after Joseph McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin from 1947-57.

McCarthy was obsessed with rooting out “communist infiltration,” and became the public face of the obsessive hunt for “reds” in government, the military, academia, the media, and the entertainment industry that took place during the ’50s. The smear tactics, demagoguery, and abuses of civil liberties used during those awful days have come to be referred to as “McCarthyism.”

Joseph McCarthy

Today’s Wisconsin Republicans, not satisfied with destroying the public employee unions in their state have now begun to persecute those who supported the cause of the schoolteachers, janitors, and social workers of Wisconsin. First up, Professor William Cronon, a historian at the University of Wisconsin.

James Fallows wrote about it at the Atlantic today.

Because Cronon dared write an op-ed piece in the New York Times* pointing to Wisconsin’s long tradition of bi-partisan, “good government”-minded support of collective bargaining rights, and criticizing Gov. Scott Walker for his campaign against organized labor and collective bargaining, the Wisconsin Republican Party is launching a legal effort to look through his email archives to see if he has been involved in the recent protests in the state. The putative rationale is that Cronon’s messages were sent on the University of Wisconsin’s email system and therefore are covered by the state’s open-records law.

Fallows later learned that the attack on Cronon began even before the op-ed, and instead was a reaction to this post on Cronon’s personal blog.

In the post Cronon writes that he doesn’t believe the Koch Brothers funding of Walker provides a full explanation of what is happening in the Republican Party and the wave of reactionary legislation Republicans are proposing in so many states. Follow me below the fold….

So who is behind it? Much of what Cronon writes is similar to what Dakinikat has been regularly writing about here at Sky Dancing (She also mentioned this story in a comment yesterday, but I thought it deserved a front-page post.)

I can’t fully answer that question in a short note, but I can sketch its outline and offer advice for those who want to fill in more of the details.

I’ll start by saying–a professorial impulse I just can’t resist–that it’s well worth taking some time to familiarize yourself with the history of the conservative movement in the United States since the 1950s if you haven’t already studied the subject. Whatever you think of its politics, I don’t think there can be any question that the rise of modern conservatism is one of the great turnaround stories in twentieth-century American history. It’s quite a fascinating series of events, in which a deeply marginalized political movement–tainted by widespread public reaction against Senator Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and the massively defeated Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964–managed quite brilliantly to remake itself (and American politics) in the decades that followed….

One key insight you should take from this history is that after the Goldwater defeat in 1964, visionary conservative leaders began to build a series of organizations and networks designed to promote their values and construct systematic strategies for sympathetic politicians. Some of these organizations are reasonably well known–for instance, the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a Racine native and UW-Madison alumnus who also started the Moral Majority and whose importance to the movement is almost impossible to overestimate–but many of these groups remain largely invisible.

That’s why events like the ones we’ve just experienced in Wisconsin can seem to come out of nowhere. Few outside the conservative movement have been paying much attention, and that is ill-advised.

Cronon then provides suggested readings for those who want to investigate what the conservative movement has been up to and what they want to do to this country. The “most important” group he highlights is The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was initiated by Henry Hyde, Paul Weyrich, and Lou Barnett. This group drafts “model bills” that can be used by state legislators.

Are you starting to get why so many states, are suddenly introducing draconian anti-union and anti-women law? This is something we really need to keep our eye on, and I’m vary grateful to Professor Cronon for providing a resource list. I for one will be following his blog daily from now on.

In this blog post published yesterday, Cronon responds to the Republican attacks on him.

Here’s the headline: the Wisconsin Republican Party has issued an Open Records Law request for access to my emails since January 1 in response to a blog entry I posted on March 15 concerning the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in influencing recent legislation in this state and across the country. I find this a disturbing development…

He goes on to explain what has happened and reprints the letter from the head of the Wisconsin Republican Party to the U. of Wis. legal department requesting access to Cronon’s e-mails:

From: Stephan Thompson [mailto:SThompson@wisgop.org]
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:37 PM
To: Dowling, John
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:

Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.

We are making this request under Chapter 19.32 of the Wisconsin state statutes, through the Open Records law. Specifically, we would like to cite the following section of Wis. Stat. 19.32 (2) that defines a public record as “anything recorded or preserved that has been created or is being kept by the agency. This includes tapes, films, charts, photographs, computer printouts, etc.”

Thank you for your prompt attention, and please make us aware of any costs in advance of preparation of this request.


Stephan Thompson
Republican Party of Wisconsin

This is an outrageous attack on freedom of speech and association, and on academic freedom specifically. As Cronon writes, it’s an attempt to intimidate him into silence.

I’d be willing to bet quite a lot of money that Mr. Thompson and the State Republican Party are hoping that I’ve been violating this policy so they can use my own emails to prove that I’m a liberal activist who is using my state email account to engage in illegal lobbying and efforts to influence elections. By releasing emails to demonstrate this, they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.

Cronon is a distinguished Historian. John Nichols of The Nation summarizes Cronon’s impressive resume:

The Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he obtained a doctor of philosophy degree from Jesus College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s also holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an M.A., MPhil and PhD from Yale.

Cronon has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and written books, such as Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang), which have been broadly recognized as paradigm shifting studies of American history and ecosystems.

In the best “Wisconsin Idea” tradition, and old progressive principle that said University of Wisconsin professors should share their knowledge with the people of the state, Cronon has been a public intellectual of the highest order.

In his latest post, Cronon details the Republican response to his criticism of their attempt to access his personal e-mails.

Here are some other responses to the vicious smear attack on Professor Cronon:

Josh Marshall: My Worlds Collide

Paul Krugman: Academic Intimidation

Prairie Weather: A very scary Wisconsin

9 Comments on “Wisconsin Republicans Seek Return to McCarthy Era”

  1. dakinikat says:

    The John Birch society is on the rise once more. They hate intellectuals as much as any fascist group. I couldn’t believe this when I read it. They always don’t like laws passed by Democrats but they are the first to distort and abuse them. How is one history professor and his email a public agency? This is just vengeance and more activities ala CREEP and Donald Segretti.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Agreed. And you’ve been talking about all this for awhile now. We really need to keep following up on ALEC. There really are conspiracies, and this is one for sure.

      I might do a post about what is happening in Maine too.

      • dakinikat says:

        We should. They always do this. I had one little CREEP in Nebraska that some how got a job at the IRS. He kept files on people he didn’t like and he didn’t like me early on because I wasn’t “Conservative” and I was a woman. He was a short little balding twit. Anyway, he eventually got fired by the IRS but he showed up with some interesting information that he completely twisted and abused about my first job at university that had to come from the IRS. I worked as a teller for like 3 months over the summer. He told the local newspaper I had been fired for embezzling money which wasn’t even remotely possible, true, or anything else. But, when I showed up for a newspaper interview. They asked me if I’d been fired from this bank for embezzling money. I said what? Absolutely not. I had to call the old retired VP and get him to sign an affidavit to that effect unless any one asked again but I’m sure it was whispered out there. It was bizarre. They wanted a full time person and I couldn’t work my school hours around theirs. The question surprised me in front of the reporter and was off putting which, I think was its purpose. THEN, they stole my headshot for the article out of the newspaper file and the newspaper put up a picture I had taken right after I had cancer that featured my recovery. This newspaper had endorsed me twice but it didn’t stop some one from doing stuff on the inside. It looked like I as half dead as I was at the time. They ran whisper campaigns that I didn’t even find out about except that people I’d known for years wouldn’t talk to me any more. I’m sure Rove is still training them in the CREEP tactics.

      • Branjor says:

        Holy SHIT, what terrible experiences. 😦

      • bostonboomer says:

        That is bizarre, but with all that is happening right now it’s very believable.

      • Seriously says:

        Wow, that is unbelievable. I was aware that if you work for a public university, the university is legally allowed to demand to see your emails, since it’s “their” system (which is why public university workers should be really cautious about discussing private union matters, or anything personal really, over the email unless they want their employers to see them), but non-affiliated private entities and political parties getting access to personal
        emails? That’s really scary.

        God, sorry that happened to you, dak. We live in really wacky times.

      • Minkoff Minx says:

        I had not heard of ALEC before today. Thanks for posting this BB, I have to add Cronon’s blog to my reader…

  2. Fannie says:

    I am just staring at the computer, after reading Cronon’s website, staring, and wondering how in the hell can I just sit here? There must be a thousand things to do, to expose, to work against them, but right now, I am trying to cope with the shocking truth from hell, and I’m staring.