How progressivism was defeated in its birthplace

Wisconsin is arguably the birthplace of progressivism in the United States.  At the dawn of the 20th century, that state enacted the nation’s first workers’ compensation law, its first unemployment insurance program, and the first recognition of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Under the leadership of the great Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state established direct primary elections, banned corporate contributions to political candidates and regulated railroad rates.

He forged a powerful political coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners, defending their interests against corporate monopoly.  In 1910, running for re-election as senator, he won 78 percent of the vote and carried all but one of Wisconsin’s then 71 counties.  After his death in 1926, his two sons carried on his legacy.  From 1901 until 1946, a La Follette was either senator from Wisconsin or governor of the state.

Wisconsin became known for the quality of its public schools, state university and public services.  Much of what was done there became the model for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The La Follette legacy was very much a living memory when I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-56.

Later Wisconsin became known as a leader in protection of the environment.  The state was the home of Aldo Leopold, the noted writer and advocate of soil and wildlife conservation, and Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, who was both governor and senator.

But in 2010, the voters of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker, an extreme right-winter as governor.  He pretty much wiped La Follette’s legacy off the blackboard.  And then, in 2016, Wisconsin’s choice for President was Donald Trump.

I read THE FALL OF WISCONSIN: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics by Dan Kaufman to try to understand what happened.

What I learned from the book is that Wisconsin’s rich and interesting political tradition is irrelevant to what happened.  Scott Walker is not a product of Wisconsin politics.  He was the product of a national right-wing movement that has been building for 40 years.

This movement consists of an interlocking network of corporate donors, tax-exempt foundations and think tanks whose agenda is restore corporate business to a position of dominance.  Their specific goals are tax cuts, budget cuts, reduced pubic services, no public welfare, deregulation of business and regulation of labor unions.  Their claim is that all these things will attract business investment and promote prosperity, but this didn’t happen in Wisconsin or anywhere else it was tried.

The key right-wing institutions mentioned in the book are (1) Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy arm of the billionaire Koch brothers, which among other things funded the Tea Party movement; (2) the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose “weaponized philanthropy” funds conservative think tanks, public interest law firms and opposition research firms; and (3) the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes model legislation to advance the corporate cause.

For them, winning elections is not a goal, but a means of enacting their agenda.  Leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell do not try to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, because the broader the appeal, the more their program would have to be diluted.

They prefer a narrow majority and an extreme program, which includes measures to lock in their power.  They recognize that, inevitably, the tide will turn against them.  Their calculation is that the tide will never go all the way back to where it was before, and meanwhile they will have left things in place that will help them make a comeback.

The problem is that there is no equivalent force to stand in their way.  There is no La Follette coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners left to defend the La Follette legacy..

All three groups have been losing ground, economically and politically, for decades.  None has a powerful voice in Madison (Wisconsin’s state capital) or Washington.  None of the three groups regards either of the other two as an ally or potential ally.


Scott Walker served in the Wisconsin state assembly for 10 years and as Milwaukee County executive for eight years before running for governor in 2010.  He toured the state on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle (which are manufactured in Wisconsin), presenting himself as friend to blue-collar workers.

Scott Walker

He won the endorsement of some construction trades unions by promising a more ambitious road construction program than the Democratic incumbent.  He promised to negotiate with the unions representing Wisconsin’s public employee unions.

Once he was elected, his Budget Repair Act—known as Act 10—basically stripped public employee unions of their power.  They were required to get recertification every year and forbidden to negotiate anything except wage increases below the rate of inflation.

More than 100,000 protesters descended on the state capitol.  Protests continued for weeks.  But Walker stood his ground.  He won a recall election and the scheduled 2014 election.

He succeeded, as Kaufman explained, by appealing to non-union workers’ resentment of the good benefits, wages and vacations enjoyed by public service workers, including school teachers.  This was how he justified cuts in state aid to public schools, the state university system and other public services.

The state legislature redrew congressional and legislative districts to Republican advantage and removed state limits on campaign spending.  But Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax activist, said Act 10 was Walker’s most significant political action.  If enacted in a dozen more states, he said, it would eliminate the Democratic Party as a power in U.S. national politics.

Walker had the full backing of the Republican Party and the right-wing network.  He raised $30 million in the recall election, while his opponent, Tom Barrett, raised $4 million.

The Democratic National Committee did not support Barrett.  President Obama refused all help, except a Twitter endorsement the night before the election.  Walker taunted his opponents with President Obama’s apparent indifference to their cause.

After winning re-election to a full term in 2014, Walker put through legislation to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state—that is, a labor in which labor unions could not make exclusive contracts.  Under the law, the union has no power to compel a worker to join a union, even though the worker enjoys all the benefits of the union contract.


The Fall of Wisconsin is a bit hard to follow.  It skips back and forth between the story of the Walker administration, the historic roots of policies and controversies and the efforts of grass-roots resisters of Walker’s policy.

The resisters include Randy Bryce of Iron Workers Local 8, a labor union activist; Mike Wiggins Jr., chairman of the Bad River Band of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) nation; and Democratic Assemblywoman Chris Taylor, who investigated ALEC and other parts of the national conservative infrastructure.

Randy Bryce

What strikes me about Kaufman’s account is how little these individuals had to do with each other.  Chris Taylor was focused on defending public education against drastic budget cuts and privatization.

Mike Wiggins was fighting a proposal to build an open-pit iron ore mine upstream from Bad River that would have contaminated groundwater and allowed over-burden to fill streams.

But Randy Bryce supported his union’s endorsement of the mine, in return for a promise to have the mining equipment manufactured in Wisconsin.  Historically wage-earners have put preservation of their livelihoods ahead of preservation of the environment or even preservation of their own health and safety.

Bryce did campaign for immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter and the Fight for Fifteen minimum wage increase.  But in general, the separateness of these campaigns contrasts with the unified nature of the opposition.  As the late Tony Mazzocchi and the Rev. William Barber might have told them, they might have separate goals, but they have common enemies.


Donald Trump was never a part of the unified pro-corporate movement.  He had been a Democrat and a social friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.  In the campaign, he promised to defend Social Security and Medicare.  Walker and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was from Wisconsin, both opposed Trump’s nomination.

Walker endorsed Ted Cruz, and he won the Wisconsin primary, with 36 delegates to Trump’s six.   Bernie Sanders meanwhile won the Democratic Wisconsin primary, carrying every county but one.

Kathy Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, interviewed voters, mostly in rural areas, during the summer of 2016, and wrote a book entitled The Politics of Resentment, which I haven’t read, but which Kaufman quotes.

She found that Walker and Trump voters both were motivated primarily by resentment.  These voters, she found, had no expectation that Walker or Trump would make their own better.

Some of her subjects liked Bernie Sanders.  Many union locals endorsed Sanders, who’d come to Wisconsin in 2011 to support the protests against Act 10, and later to support Randy Bryce in a campaign to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan.  Sanders won the 2016 Wisconsin Democratic primary by a margin of 13 percentage points, carrying every county except one.

Hillary Clinton did not campaign in Wisconsin in the general election, and Trump narrowly carried the state.  Once in office, he made his peace with Walker and the other corporatist Republicans


Dan Kaufman wrote The Fall of Wisconsin in the summer of 2018.  In that fall’s election, Democrats won every statewide office.  They also won solid majorities of the total state vote for Congress and the state assembly, but because of the way district lines were drawn, Republicans kept their majorities in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation and state legislature.

Ryan resigned, but his replacement candidate defeated Bryce.

Before leaving office, Walker and the lame-duck state legislature passed new laws to limit the powers of the incoming Democratic administration.  So far the new Democratic administration has not rolled back any of the Walker legislation.


The Fall of Wisconsin and the Rise of Randy Bryce by Dan Kaufman for The New Yorker (July 2018)

What Happened to Wisconsin? by John B. Judis for The Nation.

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