The Know Nothings are back in force in our state and national politics.
Wisconsin Republicans are triumphant about winning their biggest majorities in the state Legislature since the 1950s. And they seem determined to use their new power to drag the whole state back to that bygone era.
Sounding like former U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, who railed against the "eggheads" and "deluded liberals" at the University of Wisconsin, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) sneered at UW researchers this week.
"Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on ancient mating habits of whatever," Vos declared in a press conference celebrating the Republicans' election victories.
Never mind that our world-class research university already boosts the state economy to the tune of about $1 billion a year.
Vos was scoring points with his bullying, anti-intellectual speech.
The Know Nothings, who came to power in the 1850s with their immigrant-bashing, fear-and-ignorance-based politics, are back in force in our state and national politics.
Get ready for the Assembly Republicans' priorities, which, Vos explained, include expanding a school voucher program that mostly serves as a public subsidy for parents who are already sending their kids to private schools; shoving aside the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board; stopping John Doe proceedings that have led to 15 felony indictments of six of Scott Walker's closest aides and advisers; and -- wait for it -- replacing the Common Core with a curriculum cooked up by conservatives in our state government.
Put your bobby socks on. It's going to be a long trip down memory lane.
Actually, the right-wing attacks on the university go back way before the dreadful red-baiting era Wisconsin helped nurture and inflict on the rest of the United States.
In 1914 the Republican Stalwarts in our Legislature attacked the Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the university and policymakers should work together to serve the interests of the people and that our state government should be a "laboratory for democracy." The Stalwarts, who were the tea partiers of their day, grandstanded by championing legislation to cut state funding for the UW.
Then, as now, the university was generating research that benefited industry in the state. There were innovations like the cheap, easy test for measuring butterfat that was a huge boon to dairies.
And then there was the university's role in creating landmark Progressive-era legislation -- regulating utilities, protecting workers and the environment and expanding university extension services into rural areas of the state -- all of which the current crop of Republicans seem intent on rolling back.
The battle over the Wisconsin Idea has been the defining ideological battle in our state, with deep resonance in national politics, for the last 100 years.
But it's particularly insidious in 2014.
In a column for Channel 3000, William Wineke decried Vos' short-sightedness in trying to turn the University of Wisconsin into a "trade school."
That narrow focus on research and education as strictly useful for making money, and the contempt that goes with it for the humanities and the arts, is part of an insidious national trend. Over the past few years, universities around the country have slashed funding for the humanities, cut general education requirements and pushed a strictly utilitarian view of college.
In his book Anti-Intellectualism in America, which won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize, Richard Hofstadter decried this tendency to minimize and devalue a more expansive view of education and intellectual life.
Today, crushing college debt is contributing to the general move away from the liberal arts, pushing everyone who doesn't have a trust fund onto a utilitarian track.
That's a big loss, and not only for individual young people who yearn to explore a bigger vista in life than a training course in accounting. It's also a major loss for society, and, of course, our government.
McCarthy, when he was conducting his university purge of intellectuals, suggested that the liberal interest in improving society, exploring abstract ideas and creating a better world was leading students down a slippery slope to socialism and sedition.
Vos is not far behind him, with his repeated attacks on the UW.
There is more than a difference of opinion on economic development at stake.
A history of the Wisconsin Idea published (PDF) by the Legislative Reference Bureau opens with a quote from the man most famous for being called an "egghead" in American history, Adlai Stevenson. It is from a speech Stevenson gave in Madison in 1952 when he was the Democratic candidate for president.
The Wisconsin tradition, he said, "meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society. It meant a deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding it could find."
We need those torches more than ever today.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.