Who is “Wisconsin’s most dangerous professor“?  He’s William Cronon.  Who he?  He’s this incredibly threatening man:

[...] In 1991, Cronon completed a book entitled Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which examines Chicago ‘s relationship to its rural hinterland during the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1991, it was awarded the Chicago Tribune‘s Heartland Prize for the best literary work of non-fiction published during the preceding year; in 1992, it won the Bancroft Prize for the best work of American history published during the previous year, and was also one of three nominees for the Pulitzer Prize in History; and in 1993, it received the George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History and the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Award from the Forest History Society for the best book of environmental and conservation history published during the preceding two years.


In July 1992, Cronon became the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin ­Madison after having served for more than a decade as a member of the Yale History Department. In 2003, he was also named Vilas [pronounced "Vy-lus"] Research Professor at UW-Madison, the university’s most distinguished chaired professorship.

Cronon has been President of the American Society for Environmental History, and serves as general editor of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series for the University of Washington Press.  [...]  He has served on the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society since 1995, and on the National Board of the Trust for Public Land since 2003. He has been elected President of the American Historical Association for 2011-12.Born September 11, 1954, in New Haven , Connecticut, Cronon received his B.A. (1976) from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He holds an M.A. (1979), M.Phil. (1980), and Ph.D. (1990) from Yale, and a D.Phil. (1981) from Oxford University. Cronon has been a Rhodes Scholar, Danforth Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, and MacArthur Fellow; has won prizes for his teaching at both Yale and Wisconsin; in 1999 was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society’ and in 2006 was elected a Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He is obviously a Maoist of the worst Marxist-Leninist sort!

How do we know?  Because the Republican Party of Wisconsin wants him investigated.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin has made an open records request for the e-mails of a University of Wisconsin professor of history, geography and environmental studies in an apparent response to a blog post the professor wrote about a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Professor William J. Cronon, who is the president-elect of the American Historical Association, said in an interview Friday that the party asked for e-mails starting Jan. 1.

The request was made by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. In his request, Thompson asked for e-mails of Cronon’s state e-mail account that “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.”

Most of the names are Republican legislators. Marty Beil is the head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union and Mary Bell is the head of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Cronon said the university had not yet complied with the open records request. The e-mails would be subject to the state’s open records law because they were written on an university e-mail account.

The university has an e-mail policy that states, “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.”

Cronon said he did not violate the policy in any way. “I really object in principle to this inquiry,” Cronon said of the party’s open records request.

Thompson was not available for comment. But in an statement, Mark Jefferson, the party’s executive director, said, “Like anyone else who makes an open records request in Wisconsin, the Republican Party of Wisconsin does not have to give a reason for doing so. [...]“

What was Cronon’s offense?  He wrote an Op-Ed piece for the terrorist-loving New York Times.

Entitled “Wisconsin’s Radical Break,” Cronan wrote:

NOW that a Wisconsin judge has temporarily blocked a state law that would strip public employee unions of most collective bargaining rights, it’s worth stepping back to place these events in larger historical context.

Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well.

You’ve heard of the states as laboratories of democracyCronon:


Wisconsin was at the forefront of the progressive reform movement in the early 20th century, when the policies of Gov. Robert M. La Follette prompted a fellow Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, to call the state a “laboratory of democracy.” The state pioneered many social reforms: It was the first to introduce workers’ compensation, in 1911; unemployment insurance, in 1932; and public employee bargaining, in 1959.

University of Wisconsin professors helped design Social Security and were responsible for founding the union that eventually became the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Wisconsin reformers were equally active in promoting workplace safety, and often led the nation in natural resource conservation and environmental protection.

But while Americans are aware of this progressive tradition, they probably don’t know that many of the innovations on behalf of working people were at least as much the work of Republicans as of Democrats.

Although Wisconsin has a Democratic reputation these days — it backed the party’s presidential candidates in 2000, 2004 and 2008 — the state was dominated by Republicans for a full century after the Civil War. The Democratic Party was so ineffective that Wisconsin politics were largely conducted as debates between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party.

Let’s remember who led the “conservative wing” of the Wisconsin Republican Party in the Fifties: Senator Joseph Raymond “Joe” McCarthy was a Republican U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957.

You may have heard of him.

Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.


When the Wisconsin Democratic Party finally revived itself in the 1950s, it did so in a context where members of both parties were unusually open to bipartisan policy approaches. Many of the new Democrats had in fact been progressive Republicans just a few years earlier, having left the party in revulsion against the reactionary politics of their own senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, and in sympathy with postwar liberalizing forces like the growing civil rights movement.

The demonizing of government at all levels that has become such a reflexive impulse for conservatives in the early 21st century would have mystified most elected officials in Wisconsin just a few decades ago.

When Gov. Gaylord A. Nelson, a Democrat, sought 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 the Republicans. Both sides believed the normalization of labor-management relations would increase efficiency and avoid crippling strikes like those of the Milwaukee garbage collectors during the 1950s. Later, in 1967, when collective bargaining was extended to state workers for the same reasons, the reform was promoted by a Republican governor, Warren P. Knowles, with a Republican Legislature.

The policies that the current governor, Scott Walker, has sought to overturn, in other words, are legacies of his own party.

But Mr. Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights breaks with Wisconsin history in two much deeper ways as well. Among the state’s proudest traditions is a passion for transparent government that often strikes outsiders as extreme. Its open meetings law, open records law and public comment procedures are among the strongest in the nation. Indeed, the basis for the restraining order blocking the collective bargaining law is that Republicans may have violated open meetings rules in passing it. The legislation they have enacted turns out to be radical not just in its content, but in its blunt ends-justify-the-means disregard for openness and transparency.

This in turn points to what is perhaps Mr. Walker’s greatest break from the political traditions of his state. Wisconsinites have long believed that common problems deserve common solutions, and that when something needs fixing, we should roll up our sleeves and work together — no matter what our politics — to achieve the common good.

[...]  Perhaps that is why — as a centrist and a lifelong independent — I have found myself returning over the past few weeks to the question posed by the lawyer Joseph N. Welch during the hearings that finally helped bring down another Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy, in 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The Republican Party leaders of Wisconsin have no such sense of decency:


Cronon concluded his Leninist diatribe:

Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him.The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.

Executive Director of Wisconsin's Republican Party Mark Jefferson responded as I've written above, with a press release decrying:

“I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.

“Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request.  Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner.  The Left is far more aggressive in this state than the Right in its use of open records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media.

“Finally, I find it appalling that Professor Cronin seems to have plenty of time to round up reporters from around the nation to push the Republican Party of Wisconsin into explaining its motives behind a lawful open records request, but has apparently not found time to provide any of the requested information.

“We look forward to the University’s prompt response to our request and hope those who seek to intimidate us from making such requests will reconsider their actions.”

Republican Party of Wisconsin | 148 East Johnson St. | Madison, Wisconsin 53703
p: 608.257.4765 | f: 608.257.4141| e: info@wisgop.org

What's going on here?  Andrew Leonard of Salon explains:

[...] The obvious goal is  to find something damaging or embarrassing to Cronon — although judging by Cronon’s account, smoking guns seem unlikely to be lying around in plain sight. (Eight of the names referenced in the request belong to the eight Republican state senators targeted by Democrats for recall.)

I can’t do a better, more eloquent or more profound job of summarizing the issues at stake than Cronon himself does in a lengthy blog post that the professor posted Thursday night. Everyone should read it.

I agree.  And read about ALEC.

Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here)


I don’t want this to become an endless professorial lecture on the general outlines of American conservatism today, so let me turn to the question at hand: who’s really behind recent Republican legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere?  I’m professionally interested in this question as a historian, and since I can’t bring myself to believe that the Koch brothers single-handedly masterminded all this, I’ve been trying to discover the deeper networks from which this legislation emerged.

Here’s my preliminary answer.

Telling Your State Legislators What to Do:
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)

If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.

You can start by studying ALEC’s own website. Begin with its home page at http://www.alec.org

First visit the “About” menu to get a sense of the organization’s history and its current members and funders. But the meat of the site is the “model legislation” page, which is the gateway to the hundreds of bills that ALEC has drafted for the benefit of its conservative members.

You’ll of course be eager to look these over…but you won’t be able to, because you’re not a member.

Becoming a Member of ALEC: Not So Easy to Do

How do you become a member?  Simple. Two ways.  You can be an elected Republican legislator who, after being individually vetted, pays a token fee of roughly $100 per biennium to join.  Here’s the membership brochure to use if you meet this criterion:


What if you’re not a Republican elected official?  Not to worry. You can apply to join ALEC as a “private sector” member by paying at least a few thousand dollars depending on which legislative domains most interest you. Here’s the membership brochure if you meet this criterion:

Then again, even if most of us had this kind of money to contribute to ALEC, I have a feeling that membership might not necessarily be open to just anyone who is willing to pay the fee. But maybe I’m being cynical here.

Which Wisconsin Republican politicians are members of ALEC? Good question. How would we know? ALEC doesn’t provide this information on its website unless you’re able to log in as a member. Maybe we need to ask our representatives. One might think that Republican legislators gathered at a national ALEC meeting could be sufficiently numerous to trigger the “walking quorum rule” that makes it illegal for public officials in Wisconsin to meet unannounced without public notice of their meeting. But they’re able to avoid this rule (which applies to every other public body in Wisconsin) because they’re protected by a loophole in what is otherwise one of the strictest open meetings laws in the nation. The Wisconsin legislature carved out a unique exemption from that law for its own party caucuses, Democrats and Republicans alike. So Wisconsin Republicans are able to hold secret meetings with ALEC to plan their legislative strategies whenever they want, safe in the knowledge that no one will be able to watch while they do so.

(See http://www.doj.state.wi.us/dls/OMPR/2010OMCG-PRO/2010_OML_Compliance_Guide.pdf for a full discussion of Wisconsin’s otherwise very strict Open Meetings Law.)

If it has seemed to you while watching recent debates in the legislature that many Republican members of the Senate and Assembly have already made up their minds about the bills on which they’re voting, and don’t have much interest in listening to arguments being made by anyone else in the room, it’s probably because they did in fact make up their minds about these bills long before they entered the Capitol chambers. You can decide for yourself whether that’s a good expression of the “sifting and winnowing” for which this state long ago became famous.

Partners in Wisconsin and Other States: SPN, MacIver Institute, WPRI

An important partner of ALEC’s, by the way, is the State Policy Network (SPN), which helps coordinate the activities of a wide variety of conservative think tanks operating at the state level throughout the country. See its home page at http://www.spn.org/

Many of the publications of these think tanks are accessible and downloadable from links on the SPN website, which are well worth taking the time to peruse and read. A good starting place is:

Two important SPN members in Wisconsin are the MacIver Institute for Public Policy:


and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI):

If you want to be a well-informed Wisconsin citizen and don’t know about their work, you’ll probably want to start visiting these sites more regularly. You’ll gain a much better understanding of the underlying ideas that inform recent Republican legislation by doing so.

Understanding What These Groups Do

As I said earlier, it’s not easy to find exact details about the model legislation that ALEC has sought to introduce all over the country in Republican-dominated statehouses. But you’ll get suggestive glimpses of it from the occasional reporting that has been done about ALEC over the past decade. Almost all of this emanates from the left wing of the political spectrum, so needs to be read with that bias always in mind.

Interestingly, one of the most critical accounts of ALEC’s activities was issued by Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council in a 2002 report entitled Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States. Although NRDC and Defenders may seem like odd organizations to issue such a report, some of ALEC’s most concentrated efforts have been directed at rolling back environmental protections, so their authorship of the report isn’t so surprising. The report and its associated press release are here:

There’s also an old, very stale website associated with this effort at

A more recent analysis of ALEC’s activities was put together by the Progressive States Network in February 2006 under the title Governing the Nation from the Statehouses, available here:

There’s an In These Times story summarizing the report at

More recent stories can be found at

http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/6084/corporate_con_game (about the Arizona immigration law) and there’s very interesting coverage of ALEC’s efforts to disenfranchise student voters at http://campusprogress.org/articles/conservative_corporate_advocacy_group_alec_behind_voter_disenfranchise/

For just one example of how below-the-radar the activities of ALEC typically are, look for where the name of the organization appears in this recent story from the New York Times about current efforts in state legislatures to roll back the bargaining rights of public employee unions:

Hint: ALEC is way below the fold!

A Cautionary Note

What you’ll quickly learn even from reading these few documents is that ALEC is an organization that has been doing very important political work in the United States for the past forty years with remarkably little public or journalistic scrutiny. I’m posting this long note in the conviction that it’s time to start paying more attention. History is being made here, and future historians need people today to assemble the documents they’ll eventually need to write this story. Much more important, citizens today may wish to access these same documents to be well informed about important political decisions being made in our own time during the frequent meetings that ALEC organizes between Republican legislators and representatives of many of the wealthiest corporations in the United States.

Go access.  Knowledge is our weapon in the fight to defend ourselves from what radical Teddy Roosevelt knew:

I am well aware that every upholder of privilege, every hired agent or beneficiary of the special interests, including many well-meaning parlor reformers, will denounce all this as “Socialism” or “anarchy”–the same terms they used in the past in denouncing the movements to control the railways and to control public utilities. As a matter of fact, the propositions I make constitute neither anarchy nor Socialism, but, on the contrary, a corrective to Socialism and an antidote to anarchy.

That was the progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt who inspired George W. Bush, who John McCain so admires:

[...] the Times has the entire transcript.  It’s worth quoting at length:

Q: How do you think of your self as a conservative? Do you think of yourself more as a Goldwater conservative or Reagan conservative or George W. Bush conservative?

Senator John McCain: A Teddy Roosevelt conservative, I think. He’s probably my major role model…. I think Teddy Roosevelt he had a great vision of America’s role in the 20th Century. He was a great environmentalist. He loved the country. He is the person who brought the government into a more modern – into the 20th century as well. He was probably engaged more in national security slash international affairs that any president [had] ever been. I understand that TR had failings. I understand that every one of my role models had failings…..


Q: Roosevelt wasn’t really a small government person. He saw an active role for government what thing in your record in your record would you say are in a similar vein of using government to do things that…

Mr. McCain: Campaign Finance reform – obviously he was a great reformer — is one of them. Climate change is another. He was a great environmentalist

Q: You don’t believe in small government, the sort of classic conservative view of minimal government is not one you would necessarily share.

Mr. McCain: …I also believe there is a role for government. If there is abuses, TR was the first guy to enforce the Sherman anti-trust act against the quote trusts that were controlling the economy of America. Because I believe his quote was unfettered capitalism leads to corruption. So there certainly is a role for government but I want to keep that role minimal. And I want to keep it in the areas where only governments can perform those functions.

Government should take care of those in America who can’t care for themselves. That’s a role of government. It’s not that I’m for no government. It’s that I’m for government carrying out those responsibilities that otherwise can’t be exercised by individuals and the states — that’s the founding principles of our country — and at the same time recognizing there’s a role for our government and society to care for those who can’t care for themselves, to make sure there are not abuses of individual rights as well as the rights of groups of people and to defend our nation. And National Security is obviously No. 1.

So I count myself as a conservative Republican, yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold.

The GOP now wants to break doyen professor of history William Cronon. They’re attacking in full.

Read how and why.  And study up on American conservatism:


An Introductory Bibliography on the Recent History of American Conservatism

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, 2004 (lively, readable overview by sympathetic British journalists).

David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Brief History, 2010.

George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 1976(one of the earliest academic studies of the movement, and still important to read).

Lee Edwards, The Conservative Revolution, 2002 (written from a conservative perspective by a longstanding fellow of the Heritage Foundation).

Bruce Frohnen, et al, American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, 2006 (a comprehensive and indispensable reference work).

Jerry Z. Muller, Conservatism, 1997 (extensive anthology of classic texts of the movement).

There are many other important studies, but these are reasonable starting points.

And, of course, Rick Perlstein.  Knowledge is power.  Knowledge is our weapon.  Use it.  Fight back.  Defend William Cronon.

Cross-posted at Amygdala.

ADDENDUM, March 26th, 8:58 a.m., PST:  Everyone and their dog has been blogging and tweeting about this, so a bazillion links, so I’ll give few or none, but here is the NY Times editorial: “A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin.”

Fitzgerald, Barca disagree on whether law goes into effect Saturday:

Madison — In a stunning twist, Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation limiting collective bargaining for public workers was published Friday despite a judge’s hold on the measure, prompting a dispute over whether it takes effect Saturday.

The measure was published to the Legislature’s website with a footnote that acknowledges the restraining order by a Dane County judge. But the posting says state law “requires the Legislative Reference Bureau to publish every act within 10 working days after its date of enactment.”

The measure sparked protests at the Capitol and lawsuits by opponents because it would eliminate the ability of most public workers to bargain over anything but wages.

The restraining order was issued against Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette. But the bill was published by the reference bureau, which was not named in the restraining order.

Laws normally take effect a day after they are published, and a top GOP lawmaker said that meant it will become law Saturday. But nonpartisan legislative officials from two agencies, including the one who published the bill, disagreed. [....]

As well, I’ll stress:

In response, Cronon has posted a lengthy rebuttal on his own web site. In the post, Cronon states that he has committed no wrongdoing in terms of the use of his state e-mail account — and also saying that it would violate federal law to reveal e-mail conversations with students that have touched upon these subjects.

Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings.

Cross-posted at Amygdala.

About the Author

Gary Farber

I put together words and links. Amygdala & Obsidian Wings http://amygdalagf.blogspot.com/ http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/

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