arthur Kohl-Riggs

“I am a Lincoln-La Follette Republican, a real Wisconsin Republican,” says Arthur Kohl-Riggs. “Scott Walker is the fake Republican.”

Now and again the media get something wrong, and that was certainly the case with the Associated Press report that identified gubernatorial candidate Arthur Kohl-Riggs as a “fake Republican.”

In fact, Kohl-Riggs is a real Republican, a true champion of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Robert M. La Follette.

An early and determined protester against Gov. Scott Walker’s assaults on labor rights, public education, public services and the right to vote, the 23-year-old Kohl-Riggs had never been involved with either political party before he joined the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who have built a movement to recall Walker.

“People who talk to me know I am not a Democrat. That comes through right away. And they know I’m not a Scott Walker Republican,” says Kohl-Riggs. “But as I’ve studied the history of the two parties, and of Wisconsin, I’ve come to realize that Scott Walker is not a real Republican. He’s part of the crowd that took over the Republican Party and made it into something Abraham Lincoln would not recognize.”

Kohl-Riggs is right about that. The Republican Party that was founded at Ripon in 1854 was not a conservative movement. It was radical. The first Republicans were German ’48s, revolutionaries who had known Karl Marx, utopian socialists and militant abolitionists. Lincoln, himself, used his first State of the Union Address as president to assert, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

That radical Republican tradition laid the basis for the progressive movement of the early 20th century, which was led by Republicans such as La Follette, a Wisconsin governor and senator, and George Norris, a Nebraska senator. Opposed to militarism, imperialism and the concentration of wealth, these 20th century radicals sided with labor unions, small farmers and pioneering civil rights campaigners in the cause of democracy.

“I wanted to run in the Republican primary, the primary of the party of Robert M. La Follette, on a platform very much like his platform,” says Kohl-Riggs. “I want to renew that Republican tradition.”

It is a noble, and highly influential, tradition.

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With Theodore Roosevelt, Republicans sought to break up monopolies, ban corporate money from politics, and establish social programs that formed the basis for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The radical Republican tradition remained alive in Wisconsin far longer than in many states. As recently as the 1980s, there were Republican legislators who maintained solidly pro-labor voting records and it should not be forgotten that a Republican governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, signed the first statewide gay rights law in the nation.

Arthur Kohl-Riggs runs in the Wisconsin Republican tradition, a radical tradition that embraces labor rights, human rights and democracy. That’s what Wisconsin Republicans believed in for far longer than they have embraced the boilerplate language of contemporary conservatism — as espoused by Scott Walker.

“I am a Lincoln-La Follette Republican, a real Wisconsin Republican,” says Kohl-Riggs. “Scott Walker is the fake Republican.”

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