Wisconsin Used to Be Progressive. What Happened?

The author of The Fall of Wisconsin on how the state went from celebrating unions to vilifying public servants.

President Donald Trump holds a hat reading, “Make the Bucks Great Again,” given to him by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker upon arrival at Snap-On Tools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 18, 2017.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

As much as any noncoastal state, Wisconsin was long known for its progressive traditions and liberal activism, which stretched back all the way to the birth of the (slightly different) Republican Party. But in The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, Dan Kaufman examines how it came crashing down. Wisconsin, now known for voting Republican in the 2016 election and for the governorship of Scott Walker, has become a laboratory of right-wing, anti–organized labor politics. The book examines how and why Wisconsin changed and whether progressives are likely to take back power in the state.

I recently spoke by phone with Kaufman, a journalist and Wisconsin native. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what Wisconsin can teach us about the rise of conservatism over the past several decades, the ways in which the state highlights the need for progressives to pursue structural reforms of politics, and the Wisconsin legacies of Scott Walker and Paul Ryan.

Isaac Chotiner: What was it that gave Wisconsin this reputation as a progressive bastion, and how long does it go back?

Dan Kaufman: The foundations for it were laid in the 1840s and ’50s. The Republican Party was founded in a little one-room schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854. Part of the reason for that was that abolitionism was very strong in Wisconsin. There were waves of Scandinavian and German immigrants. They came for different reasons, but the Scandinavians were fleeing a very harsh environment, and they had a communitarian ethos. They formed agricultural cooperatives and would go on to disproportionately support the trade-union movement. The Germans were coming because they were fleeing a failed revolution in 1848. They settled mainly in Milwaukee, but they really gravitated strongly to the abolitionist principles of the Republican Party.


There was another movement called the Grange, which was an agricultural agrarian populist movement that rose up in opposition to the railroad companies, which were gouging farmers on shipping their crops. This movement really influenced this guy named Robert La Follette, who’s the spearhead of Wisconsin’s progressive movement. He was a governor, senator, district attorney, congressman, and ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1924. He forged a strong relationship with the University of Wisconsin to develop both idealistic and pragmatic legislation that would benefit the citizens of the state. He was very adamant that democracy could only be preserved by active citizenship, so he wanted to limit corporate contributions to candidates. The Wisconsin state Legislature had been very corrupted because basically the railroad companies and the timber companies dominated who was chosen for the parties and so on. La Follette just kept persisting. When he was governor, he instituted a lot of reforms—not only progressive legislation like the workers-compensation law, but for clean government. That allowed for a lot of these things to happen because these outside forces weren’t influencing policy really anymore. Citizens were very involved.

There’s been a conservative revolution in this country over the last 40 years or so. How did it happen in Wisconsin specifically?


Like in a lot of places, money was being injected into Wisconsin politics since 1976, with Buckley v. Valeo, and then it kept increasing with Citizens United, but the real proximate cause was the Tea Party wave in 2010 that swept Scott Walker into office as well as gave Republicans complete control over both houses of the state Legislature. Scott Walker was somebody who was very ambitious and had cultivated as Milwaukee County executive a lot of conservative national political organizations, including Americans for Prosperity, which is the Charles and David Koch political arm, and a very important component of the conservative national infrastructure, called the Bradley Foundation, which is actually based in Milwaukee but has almost $1 billion in assets and gives grants across the country.

He picked a fight with the public employees’ union as Milwaukee County executive, and when he was elected governor, he immediately launched what became known as Act 10. You can see it telegraphed in his inaugural address, where he says, essentially, that the public employees can no longer be the haves and the taxpayer the have-nots. So it’s the politics of resentment. You’re looking at it in the context of the financial crisis. People are really hurting. A lot of places in Wisconsin, particularly in the rural areas, have been hollowed out for decades, so you might have places where some of the few people with health insurance are the people who work for the school or the state.


It was almost like an audition for him. He clearly had national aspirations and was trying to curry favor with people like David Koch. He wouldn’t take interviews with local reporters, but when a blogger impersonated David Koch, he took the call.

How would you describe his political style or appeal?

I think he sold himself with a form of right-wing populism. People forget, but he always emphasized that he took a brown-bag lunch. Every year, he would take a Harley-Davidson tour around the state, which a lot of people just thought was for his gubernatorial ambitions. This is when he was Milwaukee County executive. I think what’s lost with Scott Walker is that he was, on the one hand, cultivating these billionaire donors, but also managed to present himself as something of an angry common person, although he doesn’t have an angry demeanor, but a sense of outrage that the taxpayer was being abused and taken advantage of by these profligate public employees, who have, heaven forbid, health insurance and decent pensions. What was forgotten is their wages weren’t that great and Wisconsin had a long tradition of exemplary public servants and civil servants. This goes back to La Follette. And people for many generations venerated these people. It was a very admirable thing to work for the state of Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources, these agencies that were seen as doing the common good. That was undermined, and it was partly undermined because he could stoke this resentment in a time of really profound economic insecurity.


Did he sell his populism in noneconomic ways, or was there also a large cultural and racial element?

Nothing is ever clearly one thing—since 2016, since Trump’s election, much more of the same racialized right-wing populism. There’s a wonderful political-science professor, Kathy Cramer, who wrote the book The Politics of Resentment. I interviewed her. She mentions that for years she was going out to these small, rural communities, and no one would mention immigration. She wouldn’t prompt people; it just never came up. But then, recently, there was a really disturbing incident in Beloit, Wisconsin, when the Beloit soccer team, which had a lot of Latino and African American soccer players, were playing a largely white team, or I think entirely white team, and some of the fans started chanting, “Build that wall.” This was new to her. That said, Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America.

How much success has the left had in the last couple years fighting Walker?

Not so much success. But I think Walker’s popularity is down. I think people are a bit fatigued. He has restored some school funding, particularly for rural schools, because those were a lot of his supporters, and he was cutting very deeply into K–12 public education. But the state Democratic Party has not been very effective as a force at all, with some exceptions.


Wisconsin’s an unusual state, and I think most of the state’s Democrats, particularly after the Act 10 protest, are probably to the left of the national party. You saw that Bernie Sanders won by 13 points. His campaign really resonated with the La Follette tradition. It was a very strong message of too much money in politics and railing against economic elites, and for social programs, and even in rural conservative areas, he was quite popular. A Republican state senator whom I talked to, Dale Schultz, he’s retired now, but he said he’d never seen anything like the Sanders campaign in his district. Once that energy vanished, once Sanders is out of the race, the anti-establishment ceiling went toward Trump, who, people forget, was defending Social Security and Medicare in most of his rallies. It was a kind of welfare chauvinism, but some of his message was a standard Democratic message. Also, his attacks on free trade agreements resonated. Milwaukee has been hollowed out. A lot of the southeastern part of the state—it’s heavily industrial, and they’ve lost a lot of jobs from NAFTA and China’s admittance to the WTO. I think it resonated.

What do you think progressives need to do to be more successful? Is it just, in your mind, a more economically progressive message?


One thing, I think, is a long-term plan. I talk about in the book, and Jane Mayer talks about this incredibly well in Dark Money: This is a 40-year, 50-year war of attrition going back to Paul Weyrich and Lewis Powell, a galvanizing, building up of this conservative infrastructure. Conservatives are willing to accept short-term losses or piecemeal gains, but they have a very clear long-term vision. There is not equivalent infrastructure on the progressive left side at all. I don’t think there’s anything close to it. That is one thing where they are different. I honestly think sometimes Republicans are willing to lose on principle for a longer-term gain, whereas somebody like Bill Clinton was willing to triangulate and appropriate certain Republican messages that then undermined the party long-term.

I’ll give you a Wisconsin-centric example that I think is really important and little known. In 2010, the outgoing governor was a Democrat named Jim Doyle. After Walker had won in December, he gave an interview where he said, “I’ve cut more state workers than any governor in history.” He doesn’t do Act 10, but rhetorically, he’s kind of paving the way for that. Nobody is defending the principle that these people are dedicated public servants, they’re doing good things, and it’s not costing us, actually, that much money, and everyone should have health insurance. It’s not a very proactive, positive message. I think all those things factor in.


Paul Ryan’s retiring. Does he have any legacy, either symbolically or actually in Wisconsin politics, or is his legacy at the national level, and pushing the GOP, at least before Trump, in one certain direction?

I think he had a part of the same legacy that Walker did, which is basically uprooting what had been a native, indigenous progressivism to the state. They both have this intense belief in a radical libertarianism in the sense that the state should do nothing to alleviate people’s economic conditions, suffering, and so on. I think they’re birds of a feather, in a way. I think Ryan spoke more, in a way, honestly. Walker has claimed that Act 10 was progressive, and he’s appropriated some of that history in an unusual way because the word has a real resonance in Wisconsin still, and not just among Democrats. You know, a Republican governor was the first one to make collective-bargaining rights for public workers. That was in the 1960s. So there was a bipartisan tradition of this. I think Ryan was very clear. He was like, “I don’t believe in this at all.” He gave an interview to Glenn Beck in which he said, I want to uproot Wisconsin progressivism completely. I’m just paraphrasing, but it was quite clear that he thought it was antithetical. I think they’ve succeeded to some degree, but I also feel like there’s the people, whom I chronicle in the book, who are trying to re-establish it. It’s unknown yet, but you have people who refuse to give up on the Wisconsin that they knew and loved. That’s kind of the heart of the book.

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