McCarthyism in Madison

Posted on March 26th, 2011 in Politics by Robert Miller

Madison Demonstration March 12 2011

On March 15, 2011, William Cronon, history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison,  posted a blog to address some of the historical facts about the national organizations that are setting the new conservative legislative agenda, not just in  Wisconsin, but throughout the country, in Republican-controlled states where the same conversations and set of legislative actions are taking place, as if someone else was pulling the strings. In his blog, Cronon cautioned that he couldn’t name the “string-pulling” conservative groups with certainty, though his strong suggestion was that the conservative legislative agenda sweeping the country this year, has been organized and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); this group was formed in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and Paul Weyrich. Their objective is to draft legislative bills that can be used to promote a conservative agenda. This year Republican-controlled states have offered a disarming array of legislative initiatives, one target of which is to emasculate public employee unions, including teachers and their unions, coupled with draconian cuts in funding, whether justified or not. The Republican legislative assault on unions, whose membership has been seriously eroded over the past three decades, is an assault on the Democratic Party and Democracy itself in the United States. Cronon’s point is, that while the Koch brothers may be providing some financing to this Republican legislative agenda and the candidates who implement it, the ALEC is providing the legislative tools and coordinating the action. ALEC for example wrote the Arizona law against illegal immigrants. You can find out more about ALEC here, though you would find it difficult to join the organization, as membership is restricted to either elected Republican legislators, or, for a few thousand dollars, you can sign up, depending on the legislative area that interests you. A brochure describing membership in ALEC is available here.

During the weekend before Cronon’s first blog appeared, he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times “Wisconsin’s Radical Break,” which was published on March 22, 2011. What follows has been taken from his NYT article and his blog postings. The Times article places the new radical Republicans, led by Governor Scott Walker,  in a historical context with the history of the state of Wisconsin, which initiated so much of the progressive agenda under the Republican Party banner. As Cronon points out, Wisconsin played a major role in developing the concepts of progressivism in the early part of the 20th Century, such that Governor Robert M. La Follette prompted fellow Republican Theodore Roosevelt to refer to Wisconsin a “laboratory of democracy.” The state of Wisconsin pioneered many social reforms and was the first to introduce workers’ compensation in 1911, unemployment insurance in 1932 and public employee bargaining in 1959. The University of Wisconsin played a role in designing Social Security and founded the union that eventually became the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.  Historically, the state of Wisconsin was run by Republicans for the first hundred years after the Civil War. Debates in that period were largely carried out between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party. But, what helped to improve the lot of the Democratic Party, and expand its membership in Wisconsin, was created when Republicans left their party in the 1950s to break away from the hateful policies and destructive rhetoric of Joseph McCarthy (yes, a Wisconsin Senator). When Democratic governor Gaylord Nelson wanted to extend collective bargaining rights to municipal workers in 1959, he did so in partnership with a legislature in which one house was controlled by Republicans. At that time, both sides believed that the normalization of labor-management relations would increase public employee efficiency and avoid crippling strikes, such as those of the Milwaukee garbage collectors during the 1950s.

Though there are similarities between Governor Walker and Joseph McCarthy, Cronon is quick to point out that Walker is not another iteration of Joseph McCarthy, despite outwardly similar appearances and similar methods in which transparency and other democratic traits are completely lacking. Cronon concludes his NYT article by suggesting that Governor Walker has generated a level of bitter partisan hostility, the likes of which have not been seen since the Vietnam War. Republicans, he argues have infuriated and divided Wisconsinites and generated a sense of hostility by the lack of transparency (trick everyone before they know what’s going on) and the complete absence of openness. He closes his article by saying “Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.”
What happened next was a surprise even to Professor Cronon. After completing his first ever blog on a guide to ALEC (well worth reading), he thought enough of it that he posted the link to it on Facebook and Twitter and sat back to watch in astonishment, as the public reaction unfolded. As he states in a subsequent blog “My little ALEC study guide succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Within two days, the blog had received over half a million hits, had been read by tens of thousands of people, had been linked by newspapers all over the United States, and had been visited by people from more than two dozen foreign countries. Many readers expressed considerable interest in the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and said they were grateful for the guidance I had tried to provide for people wishing to learn more about it. (A smaller number of readers were much more hostile, and you can read their comments on the blog.)
What happened after his blog went viral was unexpected, even for the reactionary, conservative Wisconsin Republican Party: the Republican Party of Wisconsin wrote a letter to the University of Wisconsin’s legal office demanding that the university turn over all of Professor Cronon’s emails that had something to do with politics. Here is a copy of the letter that they justified as a “freedom of information” issue in accordance with the open records laws of the state (which are among the most liberal policies in the country).

From: Stephan Thompson []
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



Both the open records laws of the state of Wisconsin and the Freedom of Information Act, could, in principal, be used to obtain Professor Cronon’s emails. One could imagine that they posed some sort of national security threat or may relate to historical inquiry. But using such laws to clearly intimidate someone who was trying to shed a little light on the Republican Party’s organization is way beyond the conceptual justification of such laws and does indeed smack of McCarthyism. Nevertheless, the university has policies against the use of their email system: “University employees may not use these resources to support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum.” (You can read these policies for yourself at So the Republican Party is hoping to capture emails from Cronon that would violate the university’s rules and paint him as a typical liberal trying to undermine the government’s efforts (for the record, Cronon is neither a Democratic nor a Republican). In addition, many of the Republicans named in the letter from the Republican Party are those for whom a recall effort has been initiated and the Republican Party would like nothing more than to pin the charge of politicization of his privileges as a faculty member in a public university and thus neutralize Cronon’s impact on the Republican Party’s long-term future.

What the Republican Party is now demanding of Professor Cronon is a violation of his academic freedom, the ground rules for which were aided in their creation in 1894 at the University of Wisconsin. The heart of this issue has now become one of asking a simple question: can a political party use state laws to threaten and still the voices of criticism? This issue goes to the heart of government transparency and the rights of citizens to criticize their political system. What Professor Cronon produced was nothing less than a historical document. What the Republican Party of Wisconsin is reacting to is the widespread negative response that his blog provoked throughout the country and even apparently into the borders of other nations. Good news travels fast.

The University of Wisconsin and their legal office face what should be a trivially easy question to answer by denying a politically motivated group access to a professor’s emails. This should be an easy decision for several reasons. Faculty, students and all members of our society should be free to comment on public events, motivations and history and this should be an especially vital form of liberty given to our tenured faculty, to give them freedom from such hostility and suppression, so that they can pursue what they perceive to be in the best interests of the public. But the issues go far deeper than academic freedom and free inquiry. For example, as Cronon writes, he communicates frequently with students and revealing any personal information about them would violate the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) by revealing private matters concerning students. In addition, by making Cronon’s emails public, any future correspondence Cronon has with others, including his colleagues, would now be suspect by others outside or within the University of Wisconsin and it is not hard to project that a University existing under a cloud of such suspicion and hostility, would find it difficult to recruit top faculty candidates. I myself have noted that when the University of Minnesota underwent the threat of loss of tenure in the 1990s, travels which took me to other universities gave me a first hand introduction to faculty who had taken other positions because tenure at the University of Minnesota was under threat of elimination. During the peak of the tenure crisis at the University of Minnesota, the institutions became nationally known for all the wrong reasons and something similar could happen to the University of Wisconsin. These negative issues do not go away overnight, but tend to fester like a untended open wound. Indeed the attitude of the faculty towards the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota, has remained a source of deep suspicion and mistrust very since the tenure crisis of fifteen years ago. These kinds of issues, when settled in a political manner, such as the threat against Professor Cronon’s right to privacy, create a pall within the university community that can and will seriously degrade the ability of the institute to attract and retain high quality faculty, as well as students in undergraduate and graduate programs. The Republican Party of Wisconsin is playing a very destructive hand. Hopefully an acceptable resolution will be achieved before a more serious impasse takes place.

The Republican Party in Wisconsin appears to have lost its compass on the kinds of issues raised by Professor Cronon and is narrowly focused on achieving an outcome that is radically opposed to the history of Wisconsin and the country in which it resides. The University of Wisconsin is one of the great public research universities of the United States. All citizens should be alarmed at any unwarranted threats against academic freedom and the destruction of academic integrity directed towards its faculty. We may not share Professor Cronon’s views on politics or any other issue, but we should all share in our concern over his right to project his views as an academic and as a citizen interested in revealing knowledge that will benefit our entire society through a brain process known as “education” achieved through learning something new. This issue is not dead and it would appear that the University of Wisconsin Chancellor, Biddy Martin, will have to make a far reaching decision on the open records request for access to Professor Cronon’s emails. We hope she gets it right. It should be a no brainer.


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