The Wisconsin Idea sure has fallen on hard times. Long forgotten is how intertwined this signature principle of our great state university system was with the Progressive movement. The UW Extension, one of the earliest manifestations of the Wisconsin Idea and one of the chief ways the university was extended to the boundaries of the state, is itself a Progressive Era reform.
Oh, how the UW has strayed from its roots. Today it is as owned as our politicians.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with those who teach about government. Wisconsin used to be known from coast to coast for clean, open and honest government. We can no longer lay claim to such a reputation, at least not with a straight face. But instead of challenging the status quo and engineering new reforms and working with public officials to make those reforms a reality, most of the political scientists on campus are missing in action. Some of the most prominent among them are apologists for the way things are and throw their weight around on behalf of the very forces that have corrupted our politics and sullied Wisconsin's once-proud reputation.
Professor Ken Goldstein, for example, is fond of calling negative political TV ads a "multivitamin for democracy." Then just recently he sold the UW's soul, climbing in bed with a corporate-funded rightwing think tank and even cooking how polling numbers were reported at the group's request.
Today Professor John Coleman was in the newspaper arguing against a campaign finance disclosure bill that was recently passed by the state Senate, claiming that "more spending and more communication produce better informed voters." Never mind that all the spending addressed by the legislation is done by an incredibly small number of extremely wealthy interest groups. And never mind that the source of money used to pay for the spending is kept a secret, leaving voters entirely in the dark about who is really behind all those multivitamins, er. . . ads. Yep, sounds like a recipe for happy, well-informed voters to Dr. Coleman.
There was a time when real giants at the University of Wisconsin played a major role in making Wisconsin a beacon of honorable politics and good government. The reforms they thought up lasted for the better part of a century. Unfortunately for us, their place has been taken by far smaller figures who at best look the other way at the corruption of our times and at worst are tools used to dismantle the inspired work of their predecessors.