[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]
Political reporters go entire careers hoping for the opportunity to cover some world historical story, to be present at a moment history is truly being made. Even journalists who pour their careers into public events, who cover the leading stories all over the globe, can never have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a story and be there as it grows to skyscraper proportions.
John Nichols is one of the fortunate few, and he chronicles the experience in Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street. Nichols is an award-winning political reporter of some renown, having covered national and international politics for a good three decades for daily newspapers as well as The Nation. Anyone who has read Nichols’s articles or blogs in The Nation or on thenation.com knows he has an almost unrivaled knowledge of American politics, and American political history.
I have also learned through writing four books with Nichols that he is a fantastic (and fantastically efficient) researcher. Sometimes he uncovers valuable material that has been all but forgotten or ignored. He truly exemplifies the notion that journalism is the first draft of history, and he provides a very good first draft.
Nichols is also a native Wisconsinite, tracing his family back to the earliest European settlers. Although his beat has primarily been national politics over the past two decades, Nichols has been based in Madison working for Madison’s progressive daily newspaper The Capital Times, and also covering state and local politics. His knowledge of Wisconsin state politics—past and present—is so extensive he probably would never wish to brag about it, for fear of being labeled a weirdo.
So when newly elected Governor Scott Walker decided to eliminate public sector unions in February 2011, Nichols was uniquely positioned to chronicle the uprising, and to be a participant in the process. A latter-day John Reed, if you will, Nichols was in the middle of everything in Madison and Wisconsin in 2011. Uprising is a streamlined, revised and supplemented collection of his dispatches over the course of the year. The book reads seamlessly, as it is ordered chronologically. It is a terrific read, and I sailed through it in one sitting.
I, too, live most of the time in Madison. As fate would have it I was in town throughout the winter and spring of 2011. I was able to participate several days every week in the rallies at the state capitol, and I attended all of the Saturday demonstrations, which ranged from 25,000 people to probably around 150,000 people at its peak. I did so as a member of the throng, and I luxuriated in the experience. Paul Buhle once said the democratic quality of a social movement can be determined by the generosity of its demonstrations. The people at the demonstrations in Madison were magnanimous, brilliant, tireless, hilarious and radical in a manner I found astounding. Were I not, like Nichols, already an inveterate optimist, it would have been a life-changing experience for me. Instead, it was a life-affirming experience.
For a brief period I wondered if Wisconsin was a just a blip on the screen and America would go back to business as usual. Nichols underlines what many in Madison understood that this was part of a global uprising like that found in Tunisia and Tahir Square. But maybe this was all America could produce? Then came Occupy Wall Street and soon Occupy Everywhere, and Wisconsin came into focus as the opening round of the great political struggle that will define our times, in the United States and worldwide.
Uprising serves the crucial purpose of providing an immensely readable and clear-eyed presentation of what happened in Madison, and an introduction to the heterogeneous cast of characters—some famous, most not—who came together to protest. By the summer two Republican state senators had been recalled, and by the end of the year a successful recall petition drive was launched against Walker. Sometime in the next few months Walker will face that recall election. The eyes of the world will be on Wisconsin because a lot rides on the outcome.
Nichols also weaves in his rich understanding of American political history and democratic theory to make a strong case for the uprising as the embodiment of what Jefferson and Madison famously termed the “spirit of ’76.” There is also much fresh reporting, like Nichols’s participation in the exposure of the activities of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was spearheaded by Madison’s Center for Media and Democracy.
The book provides a necessary corrective to the generally atrocious news media coverage of the events in Wisconsin which left even sympathetic observers mostly in the dark. Nichols discuses this at some length in Uprising, as well as chronicling the “next media,” how social media and independent media came to play a crucial role in the demonstrations.
There is much more on the book we will talk about during the session. Nichols can also update us on the status of the recall campaign.