The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics By Dan Kaufman • W.W. Norton • 2018 • 336 pages • $26.95
It is not an understatement to say that this past November represented an election of existential proportions. Of course, readers knew the importance of the midterm congressional elections. If possible, however, the stakes in my adopted state of Wisconsin were even higher, because, before Governor Scott Walker’s defeat by Democrat Tony Evers, we had been under assault from vicious reactionary Republicans since 2011. Those of us who have spent any significant part of the last decade in the Badger State know the extent to which Walker and the Republican Party have dedicated themselves to remaking Wisconsin in order to suit the ideology of billionaires like the Koch brothers instead of creating a commonwealth responsive to all of its citizens. Dan Kaufman’s The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, however, documents the story—in painstaking and painful detail—for the rest of the country.
Kaufman seeks to place the last decade of changes in the broader scope of the history of Wisconsin and of the United States, arguing that the “state went from a widely admired ‘laboratory of democracy’ to a testing ground for national conservatives bent on remaking American politics.” The Fall of Wisconsin is more than just a declension story, however. Kaufman also ably chronicles the activists motivated by “a shared conviction that they might one day reclaim Wisconsin’s progressive heritage” who have fought back against Walker’s agenda. Published, of course, before the recent pivotal gubernatorial election, the book ends with a future in the balance, with the question of whether “the state’s democratic ideals can persist in an era of increasing division and inequality,” which is left unanswered.
Kaufman’s captivating, down-to-earth prose weaves two stories. Beginning with the state’s 1848 founding—intimately entwined, he argues, with Scandinavian and German immigrants who brought their ideals of “egalitarian values” and commitment to democratic reforms, respectively—he charts the emergence of a veritable social democracy over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second story takes place in just the past eight years, as, like the Visigoths did to Rome or as Trump has done to Washington, D.C., Republicans in Wisconsin sacked the “progressive bastion” and undermined the decades of work that constructed it.
Throughout, Kaufman uses key figures in the state’s past and present to help us understand the rise and fall of progressive policy. He tells the story of Robert La Follette, for instance, a Republican who served as governor and U.S. senator in the late nineteenth century and was integral in highlighting the forces pushing for democratic reforms (not unlike the law that established citizens’ right to recall officeholders that threatened Walker in 2012) and checks on growing corporate power. Kaufman explains that La Follette, the state’s most important progressive figure, was “driven by an uncompromising moral vision: The purpose of government, he believed, was to alleviate economic suffering, foster equality, and encourage active citizenship to preserve American democracy.” The Fall of Wisconsin also uses Aldo Leopold, conservationist and author of the widely read A Sand County Almanac, to document the emergence of the notion that the state should play a role in the stewardship of public lands. Another governor and senator, Democrat Gaylord Nelson, founded Earth Day in 1970 and helped to establish the state’s widespread support for environmentalism.
Walker, a college dropout who rose from the Milwaukee suburbs to the shortlist of 2016 GOP presidential favorites, also represents a major figure. Kaufman recounts the governor’s uncompromising actions in 2011, when he shepherded Act 10 through the legislature. For readers outside Wisconsin, the staggering nature of the law bears recounting: Act 10 excluded police and firefighters, but forced all other state employees to contribute significantly more to health care and pensions, effectively mandating an enormous pay cut. Worse than that, however, it stripped public employees of meaningful collective bargaining rights. Workers can still unionize, but in order to formally negotiate, a union must recertify with an election every year, and 51 percent of all the workers in a bargaining unit (rather than a majority of those who cast ballots) must vote for the union.
If unions meet this threshold (and many still do), the law forbids state, county, and local governments from negotiating over anything but wages, which cannot increase by more than the rate of inflation. Agency fees or fair share arrangements, recently deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME, were outlawed in Wisconsin seven years ago with Act 10. Finally, the law forbade employers from withholding voluntarily contributed union dues from paychecks. This last point makes it crystal clear that, far from seeking to rectify a budget crisis through this bill, as he claimed, Walker’s ultimate goal was to weaken political opposition.
Another prominent Republican in the state, of course, is Paul Ryan. A son of privilege, Ryan serves as the bridge between state-level and national efforts to undermine the welfare state. His attempts to privatize Social Security while representing the Badger State appear particularly demoralizing and outrageous after reading Kaufman’s explanation of the important role political economist John Commons and other Wisconsinites played in the construction of the 1935 Social Security Act. Currently serving his last term representing Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, Ryan also represents a foil for Randy Bryce, a union ironworker who gained a national following as a progressive Democrat and unsuccessfully attempted to wrest away the Ayn Rand acolyte’s seat from the GOP.
Bryce is the leading figure in a new, third group whom Kaufman sees as the torchbearers capable of rekindling Wisconsin’s progressive past. We also learn about Chris Taylor, a reproductive rights activist serving in the state legislature who attends American Legislative Exchange Council meetings to illuminate its agenda to restrict democracy in America. Kaufman also tells us about Mike Wiggins, Jr., chairman of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians who leads the fight against an open pit iron mine threatening the tribe’s water supply, and about Jesse Barnes, retired union autoworker and father of the state’s new Democratic Lieutenant Governor and rising star, Mandela Barnes. These are the faces of the Wisconsin “resistance” against Walker, and Bryce, in particular, “an ordinary citizen” engaged “in every lost fight since Act 10,” gives Kaufman hope for turning the tide.
The Fall of Wisconsin is essential reading for anyone trying to understand—or shift—the current trajectory of American politics. As Kaufman concludes in his introduction, “If conservatives cannot tolerate a state that offers what Wisconsin once did, what kind of future is there for the American citizen?” Indeed, understanding how conservatives could so quickly undermine a progressive past as deeply rooted as Wisconsin’s highlights how fragile any effort at moving social democracy forward is—and just how long that path will be. There are two main areas, however, with which more reckoning is necessary to restore and deepen the social democracy Kaufman clearly values yet does not fully lay out.
First, the author never entirely explains why today’s Republican leaders so loathe Wisconsin’s progressive past. This is because his analysis of conservatism misses a fundamental reality of American politics. Kaufman documents the formation of the Republican Party in Wisconsin in the 1850s—the very first organizing meeting of the party was held in the state, in the town of Ripon. The book then employs Dale Schultz, the lone Republican in the state Senate to vote against Act 10 and an opponent of Walker’s efforts to relax environmental regulations, to show how far the party has departed from the state’s past. Declaring his affinity for Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, Schultz says, “One thing I know for certain is what [Republicans now] say is conservative is not conservative at all.”
But this characterization of the GOP as having lost its “true” conservative principles obscures why Walker, and Republicans elsewhere, have run roughshod over social democracy. Conservatism, as Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind argues, is and has always been an ideology devoted to maintaining social hierarchies. It cannot coexist with progressivism because, unlike progressivism, it is fundamentally anti-democratic: The ideology is based on the notion that more power for those without it threatens those with it. In that sense, Lincoln’s Republican Party was far from conservative. In fact, it was formed with the goal of stanching the expansion of the Slave Power, a force that Lincoln and other Republicans believed would corrupt democracy and limit economic opportunity for ordinary Americans. Though the Republicans who vanquished slavery during the Civil War often abetted big business (legislation providing massive land grants to railroad corporations is one famous example), they also sought, in important ways, to democratize American society. The Homestead Act, for instance, offered 160 acre plots of land at low prices to farmers, and the Morrill Act provided federal resources for states to expand access to “liberal and practical” public higher education. For much of the late nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, there were conservative Democrats, particularly in the white supremacist South, just as there were progressive Republicans (like La Follette!). But now, the conservative reactionaries are concentrated in the GOP, and there is no longer space for anyone with a vision like Lincoln’s, La Follette’s, or even Eisenhower’s. In short, it’s a completely different party, not just from the one it was in 1860, but even from the one it was in 1960.
When we think about the trajectory of conservatism, rather than simply that of the GOP, we find that the former is a constraining constant in American history. And if conservatism is largely an ideology built on maintaining and strengthening hierarchies, the question is not how to soften it, but how to develop a democratic counterforce. Republicans in the 1850s feared conservative slaveholders because of the absolute power they wielded on their plantations and in Southern legislatures, and they feared what would happen to democracy if that power continued its exponential growth. So they took action to weaken it.
The destruction of slavery and, later, the shift left in American politics in the twentieth century limited conservatives’ agency. Indeed, from the 1930s to the 1960s, labor unions, liberal policymakers, and civil rights activists fought successfully for major democratic advances. The recalcitrance of some Americans to dismantle white supremacy and patriarchy, combined with the economic crisis in the 1970s, worked to embolden conservatives, who emerged triumphant in the GOP following the ascendance of Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan conservatism admired by Schultz empowered the already powerful by stifling unions, cutting social programs, and reducing taxes for the wealthy. What Reagan, Walker’s political hero, did in the 1980s to enhance the power of the rich and reduce that of working people is no different in character from what Walker did over the past eight years; it differs only in degree. Thus, a less reckless group of conservatives is unlikely to emerge to rein in the Republican Party, particularly as billionaires like the Kochs amass ever-greater power. Conservatism can be limited only if the left—probably the Democratic Party—advances a clear and compelling alternative to what conservatives have done to the nation.
There is also a second point of reckoning. Anyone seeking to advance such an alternative must also deal more squarely with a little-discussed but ever-present factor in Wisconsin politics: the state’s history of racial inequality. It is apt that Kaufman characterizes Wisconsin’s social democratic tradition as the product of Nordic immigrants, because the American welfare state has disproportionately helped white Americans since those days, and Wisconsin is no exception. Though Kaufman sees Native Americans like Wiggins as vital in safeguarding the state’s environment, there is little recognition of the fact that those Nordic immigrants of the 1800s were able to bring their egalitarian values to Wisconsin only because Native Americans—such as the Ojibwe, Menominee, and Oneida—were dispossessed of their lands. Further, while Kaufman clearly shows that the Republican Party worked to destroy slavery, that opposition was borne primarily from a desire to protect white families from the Slave Power, not from a commitment to racial equality.
Kaufman does explain how opponents of Frank Zeidler, Milwaukee’s last socialist mayor, race-baited him when he supported public housing for African Americans. He also recounts white ethnic Milwaukeeans’ support in 1964 for Alabama Governor George Wallace. But the commitment to white supremacy in Milwaukee grew truly dangerous in 1968, with violence against blacks becoming on par with any place in Mississippi or Alabama. Indeed, the very title of Patrick Jones’s excellent 2009 book on the civil rights movement in Milwaukee—The Selma of the North—drives home this point. Recent history highlights grievous injustices perpetrated on African Americans, and the trends began before the advent of Walker conservatism. An analysis of the 2010 census by John Logan and Brian Stults, for example, shows that the city is now tied with Detroit as the most segregated in the nation. Capital flight hit much of the country hard in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, but the black working class of Milwaukee has been hit harder than that of perhaps any other city. A recent study by economist Marc Levine shows that the employment rate for African-American men between the ages of 25 and 64 in Milwaukee is the lowest in the country. Further, according to the Sentencing Project, the state of Wisconsin currently incarcerates a greater percentage of blacks than any other except Oklahoma.
While Walker, Ryan, and other Republicans have inveighed against public employee unions and protestors in Madison, African Americans in Milwaukee represent another “other” against which to define conservatism’s appeal. Moreover, it is clear that Wisconsin Democrats are failing abysmally at reaching African Americans in Milwaukee. The right’s voter suppression has played a major role in reducing the black vote, but so has a lack of confidence in the idea that any state Democrat has serious ideas to enhance the rights or opportunities of African Americans. Though black turnout in Wisconsin was high in 2008 and 2012, it was 30 points lower than for whites in Walker’s initial election in 2010, and turnout was 20 points lower in 2016 than in 2012. Mandela Barnes, briefly mentioned as Jesse’s son by Kaufman, worked hard to rectify that in this most recent election. Yet Wisconsin Democrats still have a long way to go.
Finally, though Kaufman documents how rural white Wisconsinites face declining economic opportunities, there is a more complicated dynamic with which progressives must also grapple: For one, jobs in the dairy industry are diminishing, and many of the jobs that still exist are now worked by Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The state’s Latino population has grown dramatically in recent years, in Milwaukee, Green Bay, and other cities, but also in rural Wisconsin. Any progressive future must incorporate Latinos in the process of reversing the decline—caused largely by conservative policies—in working people’s standards of living.
Evers, who had been the state superintendent of education, stands poised to usher in a new era when he becomes governor of Wisconsin in January 2019. We should note, however, that the rejection of Walker was hardly overwhelming: The margin of victory for Evers was only 30,000 votes, less than 2 percent. Because of partisan gerrymandering, the GOP still enjoys large majorities in both houses of the legislature. Evers will be forced to compromise with Republicans to accomplish anything, and Walker’s damage will not be undone in just four years. Any social democratic resurgence must take place over the long term.
And that challenge is more immense even than the one with which Kaufman’s important book leaves us. Indeed, the left must reckon with the true nature of the marauders who dealt such a lasting blow to the “progressive bastion.” Further, anyone seeking to rekindle progressivism should realize that the state’s motto of “Forward” has never been more important. Wisconsinites—and all Americans—must forge a social democracy different than that of the past. One that truly includes everyone.