The Fall of Wisconsin
The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics
By Dan Kaufman
W.W. Norton. 319 pp. $26.95.
Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler
“I’m worried about Trump versus Hillary,” Dan Poklinkoski, the president of IBEW Local 2304 in Wisconsin, declared early in 2016. “If you have a right-wing populist,” he said, “you can beat a corporate Democrat.”
Poklinkoski was right. Despite the assurances of pundits and pollsters that Wisconsin, which had not gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, was part of Clinton’s impregnable blue wall, Donald Trump carried the state.
In The Fall of Wisconsin, Dan Kaufman, a political journalist, explains how conservatives have dismantled the institutions promoting and protecting labor and voting rights, the environment, and government transparency in his home state, the birthplace of progressivism.
Kaufman documents the hollowing out of Wisconsin’s economy and one of the largest reductions in the middle class of any state in the United States. At the end of World War II, he indicates, Wisconsin had about 150,000 dairy farms; these days fewer than 9,000 are in operation. Once a bastion of the labor movement, Wisconsin also witnessed a dramatic decline in union membership, to just 8 percent of the workforce.
Enabled by a combination of dark money (provided by the Bradley Foundation), gerrymandering, weak Democratic opposition, and a potent infrastructure (with bills drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council), Kaufman argues, Wisconsin’s conservatives exploited the frustration and anger of citizens to enact policies favoring corporations and rich people. Designed, ostensibly, to avoid deficits and layoffs, Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, officially called Wisconsin’s Budget Repair Bill, compelled public employees to pay more for health-care benefits and pensions (reducing their pay by about $1 billion a year) and eviscerated their collective-bargaining rights.
Not coincidentally, Kaufman points out, labor unions in Wisconsin had provided essential financial support, ground troops, and organizational power to the Democratic Party. He cites a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2018, which concluded that right-to-work laws cut the share of Democratic votes by 3.5 percent, a decline far greater than the gap between Clinton and Trump in Wisconsin. If a dozen more states enact such laws, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax ideologue predicts, “the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.”
Kaufman intends his book to be a “wake-up call” for progressives. The individuals he interviewed in depth to put a human face on the fall of Wisconsin, Kaufman emphasizes, refuse to give up, even after seven years of seemingly “endless defeats.” As long as they do, he concludes, with determination and a will to believe, and as long as they remember the heritage of “Fighting Bob” La Follette, “sewer socialism,” and Sen. Gaylord Nelson (the godfather of Earth Day), they just might “reclaim the state they knew and loved.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.