How the Midwest Was Lost

The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics BY Dan Kaufman. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.

The cover of The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics

The concept that each American state is its own “laboratory of Democracy”—a term coined in 1932 by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis—comes from the Progressive Era. But in recent years, many of these proverbial laboratories, even traditionally liberal ones, have been more like Frankenstein’s basements of conservative experimentation. As a native of Wisconsin, journalist Dan Kaufman is deeply troubled by the stunning rightward shift in the Badger State during the governorship of plasticine Koch Brothers automaton Scott Walker, elected in 2010. This was a transformative moment for a state that had long been, per the subtitle of Kaufman’s The Fall of Wisconsin, “a progressive bastion,” admired for its public investment, labor and environmental protections, and successful public schools.

Walker made a point of symbolically snubbing that legacy by being sworn in for his first term with his back turned to a statue of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the grandfather of Wisconsin liberalism. La Follette, who won 17 percent of the presidential popular vote on the Progressive ticket in 1924, set Wisconsin on the path to enshrining workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance well before the Depression made those measures national necessities. Under Walker, Kaufman writes, “Wisconsin’s century-old progressive legacy has been dismantled in virtually every area: labor rights, environmental protection, voting rights, government transparency.”

Kaufman, who now lives in Brooklyn, has had his boots on the ground back home, filing dispatches for the New Yorker throughout the Walker era. His book’s title brings to mind Thomas Frank’s 2004 state-based hand-wringer, What’s the Matter with Kansas? But unlike Frank, who argued that religious extremism and cultural resentment had blinded low-income voters in rectangle-shaped states to their immiseration at the hands of Republicans, Kaufman is refreshingly unburdened by a big-picture theory of ideological apocalypse. In Frank’s telling, a false consciousness had taken root deep in the heartland; Kaufman thinks the politics have changed, sweepingly—not the folks. From his gumshoe vantage point, he chalks up Wisconsin’s shift to functionaries of moneyed interests, and their strict adherence to a chillingly effective modern GOP playbook. While familiar sad-Springsteen shades of industrial decay sometimes serve as his backdrop, the author doesn’t waste much time hanging around in small-town diners and hardware stores trying to read the soul of #maga America in the jowl lines of balding ex–high school linebackers with a penchant for starting sentences with “I’m not racist, but . . .” This is a book about political power, its seizure, its uses, and its victims—a powerful amassing of tiny stories of struggle and resistance and often defeat against impossible odds.

Scott Walker, Philadelphia, July 28, 2015.
Scott Walker, Philadelphia, July 28, 2015.

As Kaufman makes clear, Wisconsin didn’t go through some voilà moment—a major demographic or economic shift—that made voters more keen to get down and boogie to the Heritage Foundation’s greatest hits. Its populace had voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1984. He points out that in fact, Walker campaigned for the most part as a competent manager eager to put on the green eyeshades and balance the books in tight times. He even courted (and received) some labor support, while brandishing his regular-guy credentials by touring the state on a Harley-Davidson.

Unfortunately for the conservative working-class voters he charmed, Walker bounded out of the gate with the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, or “Act 10,” a proposal to strip away collective-bargaining rights from teachers and other state workers (though not police officers or firefighters), a move he compared in private to his hero Ronald Reagan’s squashing of the air traffic controllers’ union. In response, protesters occupied the state capitol in Madison. Republican legislators had to sneak into work through secret tunnels. Tom Morello, of the band Rage Against the Machine, air-dropped in to play Woody Guthrie. A blogger got through to Walker by posing as his dark-money benefactor David Koch, and got the governor to admit he’d considered sending in phony troublemakers so the demonstrations would look like riots. Right-wing talking heads and politicians (including homegrown House Speaker Paul Ryan) leveraged the Muslim Brotherhood insurrection then roiling the streets of Cairo, insinuating that protesting teachers were violent extremists.

After an attempt to recall Walker in 2012 failed, the dismantling of the state’s progressive framework ramped up in earnest. Kaufman recounts here through solid research and reportage the ensuing two terms of education rollbacks, safety-net slashing, public-land sell-offs to mining and fracking interests, and top-tier tax cuts that eventually totaled $8 billion. Meanwhile, take-home pay for public employees fell by $1 billion annually. To bulletproof their dominance, Wisconsin Republicans also passed redistricting legislation, crafted in secret without Democratic input, that has ensured the opposition’s near-total electoral irrelevance, while also implementing voter ID laws that may have been a deciding factor in tipping the state to Donald Trump in 2016.

The Fall of Wisconsin introduces us to frustrated public servants such asTia Nelson, daughter of iconic environmentalist Gaylord Nelson, who represented Wisconsin in the Senate from 1963 to 1981. Four and a half decades after her father founded Earth Day, she resigned from her job at the state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands when a Republican state treasurer officially forbade her and her staff to use the term “climate change” during work hours. We meet Lori Compas, a wedding photographer who attempted a quixotic recall bid against the state senate majority leader, Walker’s right-hand man, in a comically gerrymandered district. Kaufman’s people are sweet, stouthearted people, People’s History people—an Ojibwe activist waging a twilight struggle against a mining conglomerate with the governor in its hip pocket, a seventy-eight-year-old state assemblyman attempting a court challenge against Republican redistricting laws, a ponytailed University of Wisconsin folk-lorist performing the ancient songs of Native and immigrant laborers at small-town gatherings.

The ruthlessness and efficiency of Wisconsin’s transformation was by design, Kaufman suggests, and was rolled out according to a template that’s often way out of step with public opinion. Indeed, in a moment of utopian zeal, Walker himself crowed that if his revolution could happen in liberal Wisconsin, it could happen “anywhere,” forecasting a kind of right-wing bizarre-world New Deal, oozing blob-like from state to state. And so it has, sort of: a radical anti-collective-bargaining law also passed in Iowa, and one nearly did in Ohio; in Maine, Governor Paul LePage is defying a statewide referendum to expand Medicaid, saying he’d rather go to jail than accept “pure welfare”; and in Michigan overzealous budget-cutting has been shown to have played a role in the Flint water crisis.

To explore how far this “revolution” has reached, Kaufman travels to Indiana with a dogged Democratic assemblywoman named Chris Taylor for a national meeting of the blandly named but darkly influential American Legislative Exchange Council, a think tank where Republican electeds get their marching orders in the form of draft legislation. He notes that a “right to work” bill that passed in Wisconsin had language that is identical to one that passed in Michigan, which was itself a word-for-word copy of an ALEC model.

The suffering and stagnation brought on by all this has been tangible. Kaufman compares the results of the Walker program with those in neighboring Minnesota, which elected moderate liberal Democrat Mark Dayton governor in 2010. “Minnesota has experienced higher wage growth, higher labor force participation, a lower unemployment rate, and better job growth in higher-wage occupations.” If the metaphor of the Progressive Era of La Follette was an America that looked like Wisconsin, the recent past may portend an Upper Midwest that looks like Mississippi.

Kaufman’s post-Walker vignettes are movingly contrasted with flashbacks to Wisconsin’s left-leaning golden age. He opens the book with a vivid evocation of German and Nordic immigrants importing their egalitarian and communitarian ideals to the frozen farm country. This is a state that, in the run-up to the Civil War, became a bulwark of abolitionist activism, invoking states’ rights arguments to resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Decades later, when the New Deal was in full swing, University of Wisconsin economists traveled to Washington to help draft the Social Security Act of 1935, itself based on Wisconsin’s own 1932 law. And as Alice Cooper famously informed Wayne and Garth in Wayne’s World, Milwaukee is the only major American city ever to elect three socialist mayors. Party on, Emil Seidel.

The fall of Wisconsin didn’t happen overnight, and Kaufman acknowledges the state’s not-insignificant reactionary historical touchstones. La Follette’s son, Robert La Follette Jr., held his dad’s seat until 1946, when he was replaced by pioneering maniac Joe McCarthy; a chapter titled “Worker Against Worker” outlines the state’s fraught history of racial and class resentment within its labor politics, describing the warm reception Alabama segregationist governor George Wallace received at a Milwaukee rally during a 1964 campaign that netted him a horrifying 34 percent of the state’s Democratic-primary vote. The author also pays a visit to Brewtown’s right-wing Bradley Foundation, an $850-million enterprise that was instrumental in establishing a statewide school-voucher program that became a nationwide model during the 1990s.

Evil portents notwithstanding, this isn’t a wholly defeatist book. Its great mustached hope is Randy Bryce, the liberal cause célèbre ironworker who went from Act 10 protest organizer (Kaufman recounts an episode in which a protesting Bryce is dramatically dragged out of the capitol building by security) to legit candidate vying to take down now-retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, a race he has a decent shot of winning if the “blue wave” that experts are eyeing for the 2018 midterms materializes. Kaufman hopes his meteoric success is a “sign of a broader awakening.”

Kaufman is at times more on his game as a reporter and historian than as a political analyst. But a lack of pundit omniscience lends his prose an empathically openhearted vibe. He seeks to avoid the “hubris” of attempting to pinpoint a single reason for what exactly fueled Donald Trump’s sweep through the Rust Belt, but he does offer a thought or two. As a Bernie Sanders fan, he lays blame on the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton in particular, reaching back to her stint on the board of directors of Walmart to underscore her disconnect from white union voters, many of whom, in Wisconsin, flipped from Obama to Trump.

It’s certainly true that Obama and Trump (and Sanders) catered to deep, long-standing resentments that Clinton never factored into her vaguely guilting Strong Together message. The benighted snow angels of the Upper Middle West want their bitterness stroked a little, from whichever side. Fortunately, their displeasure with the Trump regime (his reelect numbers are abysmal in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan) and Walker’s low approval ratings suggest today’s progressives might get another shot sooner than they’d expected, voting shenanigans notwithstanding. But once progressive models are dismantled, and budgets brought low, how long will it take to rebuild the humane structures of yore? “Whatever happens in Wisconsin’s elections in the coming years, it will likely prove more difficult to rebuild the state’s progressive traditions than it was to destroy them,” writes Kaufman. In other words, watch your back, all you Minnesotas out there. If you fall, putting Hubert Humphrey back together again is not going to be easy.

Jon Dolan is the reviews editor for Rolling Stone. He’s from Minnesota.