Home / News / University of Wisconsin professor criticizes Wisconsin Republicans–and finds himself in the middle of a McCarthy-like investigation of his emails

University of Wisconsin professor criticizes Wisconsin Republicans–and finds himself in the middle of a McCarthy-like investigation of his emails

There is a new schoolmaster in town, and they carry a big whip.  Lesson number one:  When Republicans take over your state and start arbitrarily making laws the mass majority of state residents don't want, then university professors shouldn't criticize the party in power.  At least that's the worldview of Governor Scott Walker and his God's Own Party, who filed a Freedom of Information Act against University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon for daring to criticize Wisconsin Republicans in his blog Scholar as Citizen. Like a bunch of neighborhood bullies nobody wants to punish, Wisconsin Republicans are using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to all of Cronon's emails sent from his university account, particularly looking for words like "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," and "Republican" in them.  These McCarthy-like tactics are well learned in a similar political environment today that was also faced in the 1950's–a party scared of Commies, Socialists, Obama, Muslims, you name it, while politicians get to ruin and scare the American public with invasive laws like the Patriot Act  and FOIA while the ghost of Joe McCarthy looks benignly on.

What did Cronon say that the Wisconsin Republicans are cracking down on him for?

I’ll start by saying–a professorial impulse I just can’t resist–that it’s well worth taking some time to familiarize yourself with the history of the conservative movement in the United States since the 1950s if you haven’t already studied the subject. Whatever you think of its politics, I don’t think there can be any question that the rise of modern conservatism is one of the great turnaround stories in twentieth-century American history. It’s quite a fascinating series of events, in which a deeply marginalized political movement–tainted by widespread public reaction against Senator Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and the massively defeated Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964–managed quite brilliantly to remake itself (and American politics) in the decades that followed.

I provide a brief reading list at the end of this note because many people from other parts of the political spectrum often seem not to take the intellectual roots of American conservatism very seriously. I believe this is a serious mistake. One key insight you should take from this history is that after the Goldwater defeat in 1964, visionary conservative leaders began to build a series of organizations and networks designed to promote their values and construct systematic strategies for sympathetic politicians. Some of these organizations are reasonably well known–for instance, the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a Racine native and UW-Madison alumnus who also started the Moral Majority and whose importance to the movement is almost impossible to overestimate–but many of these groups remain largely invisible.

That’s why events like the ones we’ve just experienced in Wisconsin can seem to come out of nowhere. Few outside the conservative movement have been paying much attention, and that is ill-advised.  (I would, by the way, say the same thing about people on the right who don’t make a serious effort to understand the left in this country.)

It’s also important to understand that events at the state level don’t always originate in the state where they occur. Far from it.

He also teaches people how to educate themselves about conservative groups, where their funding is coming from (ALEC), where to go for information, and who to watch out for.  That's it.  He doesn't call anybody names, he doesn't say anything terribly objectionable. Apparently Wisconsin Republicans don't like his commentary and academic inquisitiveness.

And why not? Wisconsin Republicans say.  They have discovered over the Bush years that fear works.  The party that believes that God is behind them, and that Jesus tells their governor what to do is clearly omniscient, omnipresent and nothing they do can be perceived as wrong as long as God is on their side.   The current invasion into the privacy of an intellectual is only the beginning for this newly fascist organization.   Remember the lessons of history:  the first people that any dictatorship goes for are the gays, the academics, the labor unions, and finally, anyone who doesn't agree with them.  If Wisconsin Republicans can pull the Freedom of Information Act on a university professor for inquiring into where they get their money or inquiring into anything having to do with the way the party is run, they are sending out a clear signal that they can do it to you, too.

Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin confirmed what has just been said above–how dare we, the people question his motives?

Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said that he would not detail why the records request was filed and said it was inappropriate for Professor Cronon to question his motives. “I find this troubling,” Mr. Jefferson said. “Like anyone else filing a public records request, I don’t have to give a reason.”

Cronon concludes:

In my heart of hearts, I keep hoping that even Republicans who learn about my situation will respond by saying to themselves that this is not what their party should stand for.  Indeed, in my own understanding of the history of the GOP, leaving aside dangerous aberrations like Joseph McCarthy, what I am experiencing is not what the Republican Party claims to stand for. It is time at last for “the angels of our better nature,” in the words of another great Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to reassert themselves.


Like the McCarthy years, nobody knows what's in the figurative envelope that is being used to persecute and accuse professor William Cronon.  No one has seen anything.  And no one in the Wisconsin Republican Party is talking.  Should we be ready to hear that Cronon is a dirty Commie now?   Will he be blacklisted for airing his views as any citizen of this country has a right to do? And if that happens, who is next?  Who is safe?  Nobody.

Something is grossly wrong with the Republican party these days, and if this is said, the person who says it is automatically labeled a "socialist," a "hater" or worse, a "liberal," which seems to be the only thing necessary to shut down the conversation.  These are dangerous times we are living in, and people need to wake up and take a look around at what is happening, and start inquiring as to the history of this party, because the social issues the Republicans are against today are not new issues. And what's going on that seems so surprising really isn't, for those who are not afraid to watch and learn.   We have a Constitution defending our freedom of speech whether we agree with it or not–the Supreme Court even agreed with this in its case featuring the Westboro Baptist Church.    And if the Freedom of Information Act is going to be used as a tool to crucify people who don't agree with Wisconsin Republicans, the national party will soon pick up on it and no one will be safe from the attentions of people like Michele Bachman, Scott Walker, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee (who recently said we should all be subject to listening to conservative anti-separation of church and state history revisionist David Barton at gunpoint).


I am reminded of the words of Edward R. Murrow, one of the greatest journalists to grace CBS during the McCarthy years:

“We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular…. There is no way for a citizen of the republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom where ever it still exists in the world. But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

Dakota O'Leary

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About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
  • Jo

    where is the freedom for speech, where is the oppportunity to enage

  • What a magnificent point you just made … We acknowledge the Westboro Baptist Church's freedom of speech when acting in the most vile of ways toward the families who have served this country; then, just daring to question lands this professor will have all his emails sniffed? Back in the day, elected officials were referred to as "public servants." Seems that's long gone…

    A lesson for all: Employees should never be using their workplace emails for private communication.

    Remember the lessons of history: the first people that any dictatorship goes for are the gays, the academics, the labor unions, and finally, anyone who doesn't agree with them. — Good reminder. Looks like it is happening before our eyes.

    Fantastic and eye opening article, Dakota. Thanks for writing it! Was a great way to spend my 10 minute lunch break!


  • Muther Mayhem

    We know that unions vote heavily democratic, but so do students at university. So while Mr. Jefferson is technically correct about his request, we really don't need him to tell us why he's making it, do we? We know that acts like this send a clear message to other faculty who might speak out.

    Cronon is doing the right thing by coming out about this. It provides opportunity for others to rally against it, visibly. The tactic loses its power when public opinion about it is made obvious. Great job hounding this, Dakota. I got your mail a full day before I see this in the mainstream.

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