Magazine | July 30, 2018, Issue

Wisconsin Spring

Dan Kaufman
The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, by Dan Kaufman (W. W. Norton, 336 pp., $26.95)

What happened in Wisconsin should be a cautionary tale for the Left in the Age of Trump. But as this book makes clear, the Left declines to be cautioned.

According to the publisher, The Fall of Wisconsin gives “the untold story behind the most shocking political upheaval in the country.” But that story has, in fact, been told repeatedly, and author Dan Kaufman adds little to those accounts. Rather than a thoughtful critique of how progressives in a state with such a rich political tradition squandered their historical advantages, what we get is a work of ideological nostalgia, written with political rage goggles. Kaufman yearns for a return to the days of Scandinavian-style social-democratic politics, which he thinks have been defaced and degraded by a deep-pocketed and malign conservative machine.

The Fall of Wisconsin is packed with the sort of stories that progressives tell one another to account for their multiple defeats. It wasn’t anything we did, they reassure themselves; it was big money, the Koch brothers, Citizens United, voter-ID laws, gerrymandering, and a vast conservative infrastructure.

Kaufman paints a dystopian picture in which conservatives such as Governor Scott Walker (very much the villain of the book) “pitted Wisconsin citizens against one another, paving the way for the decimation of laws protecting labor unions, the environment, voting rights, and public education.” The results of those Republican victories, he writes, have been “disastrous” for just about everyone and everything, from the middle class to the environment, children, and small animals.

How awful — except that I live in Wisconsin and I can testify that, contra the title of this book, it has not “fallen.” Actually, it’s quite nice here, especially during our six weeks or so of summer. Despite his depiction of Wisconsin as a reactionary hellhole, the unemployment rate here is 2.9 percent, well below the national average; both the labor force and wages are growing; everyone in poverty is covered under Medicaid; the state has the ninth-best high-school-graduation rate in the country, and school spending is on the rise; and the state’s GDP has grown faster than that of neighboring Minnesota.

But I can certainly understand why the author and his allies on the left are rending their garments over what has happened here. Few states have flipped more decisively from blue to red, and the transformation of the state’s politics from progressivism to conservative dominance has been traumatic and disorienting.

Kaufman takes great pains to retell the story of Wisconsin’s progressive glory days and its role in pioneering progressive legislation. Wisconsin was the first state to enact an unemployment-
insurance program, the first to grant collective-bargaining rights to municipal employees, and one of the first to enact a progressive income tax. “Indeed,” he recalls, “much of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, including the Social Security Act, was drafted by Wisconsinites loyal to what is called the Wisconsin Idea.”

But his history is truncated and selective, more a morality play than an attempt to chronicle the state’s idiosyncratic political history. Kaufman’s narrative sees Wisconsin locked in a decades-long battle over the question posed by its iconic former governor “Fighting” Bob La Follette: “Who shall rule — wealth or man?” In Kaufman’s telling, progressive Wisconsin Republicanism extended through the 1960s. The turning point, he writes, was the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which removed many limits on campaign spending. From that point on, writes Kaufman, “Wisconsin’s politics started becoming more like the politics of other states.”

This fits into his preferred narrative of wealth versus people, but the result is that he glosses over quite a bit of history, including the career of Wisconsin’s red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy. Similarly, former governor Tommy Thompson, who was elected to four terms and compiled an impressive reformist record, barely rates a mention. Nor does he spend much time analyzing the rise of Walker, suggesting at one point that he “attracted little notice during his time in the state assembly,” when in fact he was a ubiquitous presence in the local media. Kaufman devotes only a single paragraph to Walker’s improbable election as county executive in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee County after a pension scandal that implicated both the unions and local Democratic politicians.

And he has little to say about Walker’s deeply unpopular Democratic predecessor, Jim Doyle, except to blame the bad economy for “forcing” Doyle to ram through massive tax hikes in the midst of the financial crisis after repeatedly promising not to do so.

But Kaufman does have a great deal to say about the reactionary forces that conspired to “decimate” Wisconsin. Much of his book is devoted to documenting the “vast infrastructure conservatives [have] created over the past forty-five years,” including groups such as the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. At the center of that conspiracy in Wisconsin sat the Bradley Foundation, which “distributes tens of millions of dollars in grants to think tanks, litigation centers, opposition research firms and other organizations promoting a spectrum of conservative causes such as Voter ID laws, school vouchers, the curtailing of safety net programs, and anti-union measures like right-to-work laws.” (Full disclosure: My wife formerly worked at the Bradley Foundation as director of community programs.)

Kaufman is especially troubled by the network of conservative think tanks clustered around the State Policy Network and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which allowed conservatives to share ideas and model legislation with legislators around the country. Kaufman struggles to portray the policy initiatives as sinister, highlighting, for example, the group’s support for a “Special Needs Scholarship Program Act,” which gave children with disabilities scholarships to attend schools of their choice. He quotes one Wisconsin legislator describing the ALEC-backed legislation that created education-savings accounts as “the death of public education.” You get the idea.

Not surprisingly, much of Kaufman’s account centers on the battles over Act 10, Walker’s proposal to limit the collective-bargaining powers of public employees. His account of the mass protests is nothing if not romantic, quoting speculation that the mass protests were a sign that Wisconsin was becoming the “Tunisia of collective bargaining rights” (a reference to the Arab Spring, which was then breaking out in the Middle East).

In his telling, the protesters were passionate, idealistic, and not at all to blame for their failure or subsequent electoral defeats. Reading Kaufman’s book, one would have no idea that in fact the protests backfired by alienating voters across the state.

Early polling suggested that support for Walker’s reform was soft, at best. But public opinion began to turn as the protests escalated. Demonstrators occupied and trashed the state capitol and marched on Walker’s family home in Wauwatosa, where his elderly parents lived. Others, dressed as zombies, disrupted a ceremony to honor participants in the Special Olympics. Death threats and obscene letters became commonplace, and the language of Walker’s critics was especially toxic. During one of the protests in Madison in 2011, a video captured one demonstrator repeatedly shouting the F-word at a 14-year-old girl who was speaking at a pro-Walker rally. On the floor of the state assembly a Democratic state representative turned to a female Republican colleague and shouted, “You are f***ing dead!” A progressive talk-show host mocked the state’s female lieutenant governor for having colon cancer and suggested she had gotten elected only because she had performed oral sex on talk-show hosts.

Readers won’t find any of that in Kaufman’s sanitized account and, as a result, will probably have a hard time understanding why Walker went on to be reelected twice while the GOP strengthened its hold on the legislature.

But perhaps the most revealing aspect of The Fall of Wisconsin is Kaufman’s choice of Randy Bryce as the hero. Often known as the “Iron Stache,” Bryce is an ironworker and union activist who has become something of a media/Hollywood/progressive celebrity for launching a bid to unseat U.S. House speaker Paul Ryan before Ryan announced his retirement. As it happens, even though Bryce is locally known as something of an Internet troll, perennial losing candidate, and deadbeat, Kaufman has been touting the Stache for years, including a long article featuring him in The New York Times Magazine in 2015. Even on the left, there have been growing misgivings about Bryce, for example a piece in Vice titled: “Democrats Bet Big on ‘Iron Stache.’ They May Have Made a Mistake.”

The article noted that “Bryce is perhaps more politically vulnerable than his liberal fans realize,” citing a series of failed previous campaigns and a tangled personal backstory that includes unpaid debts and multiple arrests, including a DUI. Despite that, he loaned his failed state-senate campaign $5,000 and, according to the New York Times, bought Twitter followers in 2015. He’s been dogged by reports about his offensive tweets (“If you look up the word succubus, you’ll see Ivanka Trump”) and was caught claiming nonexistent endorsements.

But Dan Kaufman has seen the future, and it is more social democracy and more Stache. “The support for Bryce,” Kaufman enthuses, “was a sign of a broader awakening.”

Perhaps not.

Charles J. Sykes — Mr. Sykes was a longtime conservative talk-radio host in Wisconsin and is the author, most recently, of How the Right Lost Its Mind.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Wisconsin Spring

Charles J. Sykes reviews The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, by Dan Kaufman.


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