Autocracy in the Upper Midwest

At protests on Dec. 14 over Viktor Orban’s labor ‘reforms’ in front of Budapest’s parliament. The author with Zoltán Tibori Szabó, Director of the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca.

by Jeffrey Sommers

Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Global Studies

UW-Milwaukee

Dear Chancellor Mone, Provost Britz, and Colleagues, 

I could not attend this week’s Faculty Senate meeting as I was in Riga, where I ran an event designed to thwart corruption, in cooperation with the US Ambassador and the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Incidentally, while I was there, everyone from the US Ambassador on down asked me (in astonishment), “What is happening to Wisconsin?” I am in Budapest this weekend. The purpose of this travel is to convene a meeting of an event at Hungary’s Central European University, funded by the Open Society Foundations, for a project I co-direct on threats posed to democracy by authoritarian governments. Such governments have increased their reach in recent years and typically have used (and abused) constitutional procedures to advance and ensconce their power.

As you might know, this week Wisconsin was described as “Hungary on the Great Lakes” by one of the New York Times’ s top columnists. Moreover, Wisconsin billionaire ‘job creator’ Sheldon Lubar (with whom I have corresponded this past week) wrote Governor Scott Walker to decry the “conniving” (his word) of the Wisconsin GOP and the Governor’s cooperation with them as they abuse their power in acting against the public will by trying to hamstring the state’s newly elected Democratic governor, Tony Evers. Wisconsin is presently the most gerrymandered state in our republic. And here too, in Budapest, people are asking in disbelief, “What is happening in Wisconsin?” Today, as Governor Walker (against Mr. Sheldon Lubar’s counsel) signed our gerrymandered state legislature’s bills to limit democracy, I received emails from around the world from figures of note asking, “What is happening in Wisconsin?”

The work of academics historically has been to pose difficult, sometimes uncomfortable questions, not in a gratuitous, but in a serious, fashion. The search for “truth” and “improving the human condition” as articulated by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1905 are central to UW’s mission, and extend back to the Greek philosophers of antiquity. My uncomfortable question is: “Might it be incumbent upon us to review all UW policies comingfrom the System level or higher given what has been revealed as the undemocratic character of our current state government?” It’s not only UWM that is watching how we answer our current crisis of democracy, but the nation and the world. How will we respond? Make no mistake, this is a historic juncture.

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