Sunday, January 10, 2010

Foreword to 'Political Reform in Wisconsin'

Foreward to Political Reform in Wisconsin (1910) by Emanuel L. Philipp (see Introduction and Contents)

At no period in the history of our state has there been so much political agitation as has made the last ten years memorable, and at no time, not excepting the stormy years immediately preceding and during the civil war, has so much bitterness been injected into our politics. To the student of history there is something strange and unaccountable in the story of recent political events in Wisconsin. It is an unusual thing to see a community change its public policy, the habits of a lifetime, and its leaders, almost in a breath; it is an unusual thing also to see a state that always has been regarded as one of the most conservative in the union suddenly, as if by the influence of some magic power, transformed into one of the most advanced, impatient, not to say intemperate "reform" states in the entire sisterhood.

While it may be unduly dignifying the change in the political policy effected in Wisconsin at the beginning of the present decade to call it a bloodless revolution, it certainly was more than a mere change of administration, a substitution of one set of state officers for another of the same party. And it came suddenly, almost without warning. Whatever mutterings of discontent previously had been heard had all disappeared. While a peaceful calm rested upon the state following a campaign in which there had been protestations of harmony and good will on all sides; at a time when citizens were looking forward to real progress under the beneficent influences of peace and prosperity, the alarm was suddenly sounded, signal fires were set blazing upon the hill tops, the dogs of war were loosed and the clans were called out in battle array. For what?

The history of the nations of the world records many revolutionary movements in the past, but usually there was a satisfactory and sufficient cause for them. It is found that people are, as a rule, slow to rebel against the constituted authorities without some well defined and clearly understood reason. They may protest against the enforcement of oppressive laws; they may revolt against corruption in public office; they may refuse to be unjustly taxed; or there may be other sins of omission or commission on the part of the public servants or rulers, as the case may be, which have become intolerable and which explain the citizens' determination to have a political house-cleaning for the general public good.

But that was not the case in Wisconsin. The student of history will look in vain in the records of this state for proof of corruption in public office, for evidence of public scandals of any character worthy of consideration. He will find no statutes that were oppressive; he will find no indications of extravagance or waste of public resources by state officials; he will not find statistics to prove that the people were overburdened by taxation for the support of the state administration, for there had been but one state tax for general purposes for nearly twenty years.

A careful and unprejudiced investigation of the facts of history heads inevitably to the conclusion that there was no public necessity for the political disturbance that accompanied the change of administration in January, 1901. The political issues fought out in this state and which engendered so much bitterness, so much intemperate discussion, so much hatred and malice, did not involve any vital principles of government that must be conserved. The contest was merely a struggle for leadership and political power. The "issues" were the means whereby their inventors hoped to attain their ends. They succeeded.

This assertion is sufficiently justified by the experiences of the state under the laws enacted for the reformation of our statutes during the so-called "progressive" period. Certain laws have been amended and other laws have been replaced by statutes radically differing from the originals. The promises to make changes in the laws have been kept to the letter. But the benefits that were to be derived; the advantages that would, it was promimised, follow the enactment of these "progressive" measures as a necessary and logical effect, following a given cause, have not materialized.

The publication of the outline of recent historical events contained in the following pages is not designed to revive factional disputes, which were too bitter to be pleasant, or to kindle anew the fires of discord. But it is believed the people of the state are now in a condition of mental repose that will enable them to run over again the data relating to that period without danger to themselves or their neighbors. By now printing the truth about certain legislation, its origin, the means employed to secure its enactment. and the effect of the laws in operation, citizens will be enabled to weigh the results of the contest in which they have engaged and learn for themselves whether the "reform" secured has been worth what it cost.

Did it pay to drive from public life prominent servants who had won distinction for themselves and their state?

Did it pay to embitter neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, and friend against friend for the sake of enacting the laws we now have that would not have been passed in the ordinary course of events without a fight?

In preparing this historical review it has been the intention to cover the three important subjects of legislation as fully as was practicable in their proper order. The first subject treated is the primary election law. To the end that the progress made prior to the presentation of the bill abolishing all caucuses and conventions may be understood, the evolutionary movement that led up to the enactment of the Milwaukee primary law and the subsequent extension of that law to the entire state has been traced step by step. The effect of the direct primary law in operation has been analyzed, and the fruitless attempt to strengthen a law that has sorely disappointed its most sincere friends and one that has been repudiated on more than one occasion by its authors and principal champions, are considered.

Following the primary election legislation is a review of the history of taxation legislation which resulted in the creation of the state tax commission, the enactment of important taxation laws and the general reform, so far as was possible in the circumstances, of the taxation system. Great progress has been made in this field of political activity--so much will be shown beyond question. But that progress has not been made on the public platform, at the hustings, or in the columns of the newspapers. The men who are entitled to credit for a greater part of the advance made along tax reform lines are the men who have, with painstaking care, patient effort, deep study and an unselfish devotion to the cause in which they were enlisted, accomplished results. These men have left their marks indelibly on the pages of Wisconsin's history.

The third and last part of the review is devoted to the events which led up to the enactment of laws for the regulation of transportation companies. There is no disposition on the part of the writer of this history to fly to the defense of the transportation companies. This is a history--not an apology or a defense. But there has been so much matter printed about the regulation of corporations; there have been so many extravagant statements concerning public benefits that would be derived from the enactment of laws designed to place the corporations under a more strict supervision by public officers; there have been so many unjust and uncalled for charges laid at the door of public men who did not agree with the radical "progressives" as to the exact form railroad legislation should take; and there have been so many and such extravagant claims of credit supposed to be due for the passage of the laws now on the statute books, it is but just and right to all parties that the facts should be given to the public.

As has been said, this history is not the outgrowth of a desire to revive past disputes. The controversy is ended. The citizens of Wisconsin have now settled down to await the reward of their labors. They have paid the price--will the progressive leaders "deliver the goods?" Have they delivered the goods? If not, why not? There has been time for the primary election law to scatter its blessings over the state: has it done so? There has been ample time for the new taxation system to reduce the taxes of those who were overburdened: have taxes anywhere been reduced? There has been ample time to materialize all or most of time benefits promised as the result of railroad rate regulation by the state: can you find those benefits in your business? These are some of time questions that will be discussed in this review.