The Wisconsin Democratic Party was forged in the aftermath of World War II by young people who in many cases came from outside the party — as former Progressives and Socialists who sought to build something new. The Wisconsin Democrats of that first generation were, for the most part, more interested in the radical ideals of Robert M. La Follette than they were in aligning with a national Democratic Party that welcomed Southern segregationists and big-city bosses.
The first great victories for the Wisconsin Democrats came in unexpected places, like Crawford County, where 30-year-old Patrick Lucey defeated Republican Assembly Speaker Republican Donald McDowell in an 1948 upset. That same year, 32-year-old Gaylord Nelson beat a Republican state senator (Fred Risser’s dad) in Dane County, and 35-year-old Tom Fairchild was elected attorney general.
The progress was short-lived. By 1951, only Nelson remained in office. Democrats lost every statewide race in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1956, along with hundreds of legislative contests. Yet, instead of moving to the center, Wisconsin Democrats waged a righteous fight against a Republican Party that blended the corporate conservatism of Gov. Walter Kohler Jr. with the populist conservatism of Joe McCarthy — much as Gov. Scott Walker now keeps company with President Donald Trump in a Republican Party that has grown far cruder and more cynical than in the 1950s.
Staying true to progressive principles — absolute support for organized labor, a commitment to civil rights and civil liberties, and an FDR-inspired faith that tax policies should burden the rich not the poor — paid off. Sixty years ago, in 1958, Wisconsin Democrats roared back, winning every statewide office except that of moderate Republican Secretary of State Robert Zimmerman (whose family name was synonymous with the office). Democrats also won control of the Assembly for the first time since 1932 and took two U.S. House seats.
As Democrats gather in Oshkosh this week for a critical state party convention, the focus will be on a crowd of gubernatorial candidates who have, so far, failed to distinguish themselves. But if this convention is to matter they must expand their focus.
Merely electing a new governor is not a sufficient goal. The renewal of Wisconsin after eight years of corporatism and corruption will require more than one officeholder. The party must build a winning slate that proposes to win all statewide offices and control of the Legislature. That’s a daunting proposal and there will be those who say Democrats must set more “realistic” goals. As someone who knew Lucey, Nelson and the Democratic pioneers of another time, I can assure you that they were not “realistic” in 1948 or in 1958.
They could not afford the luxury of realism. They had to take the risk of going big. The Democrats who took that risk gave Wisconsin a two-party system because they knew there were no half-steps, no half-measures. Only an all-in politics that aims toward a transformation of our politics will deliver the change that Wisconsin so desperately demands.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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