The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politicsby Published 10 Jul 2018
|The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics.pdf|
|Publisher||W. W. Norton Company|
For more than a century, Wisconsin has been known nationwide for its progressive ideas and government. It famously served as a "laboratory of democracy," a cradle of the labor and environmental movements, and birthplace of the Wisconsin Idea, which championed expertise in the service of the common good. But following a Republican sweep of the state’s government in 2010, Wisconsin’s political heritage was overturned, and the state went Republican for the first time in three decades in the 2016 presidential election, elevating Donald J. Trump to the presidency.
The Fall of Wisconsin is a deeply reported, searing account of how the state’s progressive tradition was undone and turned into a model for national conservatives bent on remaking the country. Dan Kaufman, a Wisconsin native who has been covering the story for several years, traces the history of progressivism that made Wisconsin so widely admired, from the work of celebrated politicians like Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and Gaylord Nelson, to local traditions like Milwaukee’s “sewer socialism,” to the conservationist ideas of Aldo Leopold and the state’s Native American tribes. Kaufman reveals how the “divide-and-conquer” strategy of Governor Scott Walker and his allies pitted Wisconsin’s citizens against one another so powerful corporations and wealthy donors could effectively take control of state government. As a result, laws protecting voting rights, labor unions, the environment, and public education were rapidly dismantled.
Neither sentimental nor despairing, Kaufman also chronicles the remarkable efforts of citizens who are fighting to reclaim Wisconsin’s progressive legacy against tremendous odds: Chris Taylor, a Democratic assemblywoman exposing the national conservative infrastructure, Mike Wiggins, the head of a Chippewa tribe battling an out-of-state mining company, and Randy Bryce, the ironworker whose long-shot challenge to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has galvanized national resistance to Trump.
"The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics" Reviews
This is the perfect book to give someone trying to understand what exactly happened in Wisconsin over these past thirty-or-so years so that a staunchly progressive and friendly state who looked after their own fell prey to a group who wanted to break that sense of community and, as Scott Walker told the national Republicans, “divide and conquer” the unions. Well, that they did, and a whole lot more and now the state is so heavily gerrymandered even majority Democrats don’t have a chance to elect their preferred candidates.
Kaufman manages to get us up to date on the state of the economy there, the threat of environmental degradation, and the lack of funding for public projects like universities. We learn which candidates who have run in the past and who is running now, including Braveheart Randy Bryce in District #1 who took on the “head of the snake” Paul Ryan and managed to slay Ryan's political future.
Bryce still has a battle with Steil, Ryan’s handpicked successor, but he’s got national support and attention for his fight. What Kaufman does particularly well is the backstory—why certain candidates ended up on the ballot, what they bring, and who supports them.
Norwegians instilled a kind of communitarian ethos in the area southwest of Milwaukee where they settled in the mid-nineteenth century, moving up from Chicago. At the same time northeast of Madison abolitionists gathered and decided to call themselves Republicans after the Latin for “the common good.” How much has changed! in the years since.
Chippewa Indian tribes, also called Ojibwe, who have retained some land rights in Wisconsin, have been strong proponents of environmental conservation and preservation. This has put them at loggerheads with people who call themselves conservatives but who have supported open-pit mining in the headwaters of Indian land, a poor site that had been rejected many times over by previous prospectors looking for good sites.
One of the more heartbreaking stories Kaufman tells is that of the tar-sands pipeline that crosses under the free-flowing Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin. Owned by the Canadian company Enbridge, it was responsible for several hundred spills in the past decade, including one in 2010 that counts as the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in American history.
Like the Keystone pipeline, Enbridge’s pipeline carries tar-sand, which needs to be mixed with chemical solvents so that it will flow. When exposed to air, these chemicals release a toxic gas, and the sticky tar sands sinks in the river & requires dredging to remove it. Here we have proof that tar-sands pipelines invite environmental disasters and we are still hearing about that will not happen with Keystone because of all the protections. We really must place that particular lie where it belongs and expose the damage this absurd refusal to see alternatives is leaving us.
Very quickly Kaufman sketches the strong progressive values inculcated in state residents since the earliest days and draws a line to present political incumbents. Despite Paul Ryan being a native son growing up in Janesville, he calls progressivism “a cancer.” Scott Walker’s family moved in from Colorado by way of Iowa. He was a religious crusader who felt God had given him a mission in Wisconsin to break the unions. Randy Bryce, a veteran and cancer survivor, on the other hand, became a strong proponent of the labor movement just at the time Walker was looking to cripple it.
For years before Scott Walker came to office, there had been an assault on public institutions in Wisconsin, including universities and public schools. Walker instituted Act10 in 2011, which limited the right of public employees to collectively bargain, and then in 2015 attempted to change the mission statement of the university system from “to educate people and improve the human condition” to “meet the state’s workforce needs,” showing us the limits of his imagination. We do not know why Walker appears to have failed out of Marquette University, but we can see that he appears to fear what comes and so looks backward, to what he learned in childhood--not facts perhaps, but beliefs. No soaring rhetoric for him, by God.
The portraits of individuals becoming desperate to put up a fight against the prevailing winds in Wisconsin are both heartening and discouraging. National opposition parties to the GOP, like Democrats, have their national goals wound so tightly around their axle they can barely cast a glance at states not putting up a good fight on their own.
Which is why, once Bryce broke a certain level of consciousness nationally, the Democrats were willing to contribute some money and some people. But Bernie Sanders recognized a fellow traveller in Bryce, someone whose values are in line with Wisconsin’s historical Scandinavian ethos of progressivism and in contrast to his states’ current conservative climate.
Finding and funding candidates is a huge step towards putting up a good fight in Wisconsin. I used to be disappointed well-trained and -spoken lawyers didn’t make more of an effort to help lead, but no more. Voters in Wisconsin are going to have to fight for what they want, and one of the first steps to effective forward movement is a fire in the belly and an awareness of history. Kaufman does a brilliant job of making key elements of this history come alive with personality and human foible. We can, we must fix this. Wisconsin is not just the heartland, it is our heart.
Didn’t really acknowledge race like at all, except to quickly sweep it under the rug. Thought that was a major disservice considering Milwaukee is one of most segregated cities in America. And huge part of “divide and conquer” strategy. The labor and environment analysis as well as Wisconsin dark money was well worth the read. Though, again, some race analysis needed all over that.
Excellent mini-view of why American Progressives need to rise up and protect democracy from moneyed interests. We must stop fascism from creeping, ever so slowly, into our government. No one is above the law!
If you didn’t live through it, Kaufman gives a good recounting of how Walker et al used ALEC, the Koch brothers, attacks on unions, gerrymandering and voter ID laws to turn a state with a proud progressive tradition crimson red. What it leaves out, and I would love to learn about, is how the state’s progressives fell asleep in the lead up to the 2010 elections.
Having just moved to Wisconsin I felt like this book was the perfect crash course in Wisconsin politics. I had seen the protests around Act 10 in the national news, but not having an understanding of Wisconsin's history I didn't fully appreciate how big of a turnaround it was. Kaufman gives a brief history of Wisconsin's role as a progressive force in national politics and then explains how it was all turned around starting with Act 10 on up to flipping Wisconsin for Trump.
There has been a lot of ink spilled about how Russian interference and deceptive social media ads gave us Trump, but in Kaufman's view these are relegated to the backseat. Kaufman puts the blame squarely on unlimited political money from outside interests and conquer and divide attacks on unions.
Kaufman's thesis is a compelling explanation for much of the rightward shift that has happened in the past few years, but it doesn't fully account for the partisan venom and denial of facts that dominate the national conversation. Kaufman leaves the anti-immigrant racist incidents out until his final chapter. The Koch brothers and union busting may be a big part of why things went wrong, but we really do need to understand why some people seem to have totally gone off the deep end.