When Democrats picked Milwaukee as the site for their national convention, it was for a very specific reason—as native Wisconsinite and journalist Dan Kaufman says, “a symbol that the Democratic Party was trying to atone for its sin of ignoring Wisconsin in 2016.” After all, Hillary Clinton didn’t visit Wisconsin even once that election cycle. And Donald Trump took the state by about 23,000 votes. As Kaufman sees it, this had a lot to do with the state’s so-called Driftless Area, the southwestern region known for its dairy farmers that’s seen a stark number of family farm bankruptcies and personal tragedies. These farmers had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and then came out strong for Trump eight years later. But this time, they might go blue again. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Kaufman about how Democrats lost the Driftless Area and Wisconsin, and how these farmers’ anger could now cost Trump the presidency. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ray Suarez: To understand the political earthquake that shook the Driftless Area back in 2016, you first need to look at how agriculture in America has changed in recent decades.
Dan Kaufman: I think there’s a lot of frustration with both parties, who have presided over a real erosion of rural America, particularly since the early 1970s. Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, encouraged consolidation of farms. He said, basically, to get big or get out, to adapt or die. He didn’t see much room for the small agrarian farm and small family farmer. Both parties have since encouraged that consolidation to various degrees. I think this anger sometimes doesn’t know how to be channeled. There’s still a lot of support for Trump in these rural areas, but it’s also eroded to a significant degree. And I think the Driftless Area will be key as far as which way Wisconsin will go.
It’s a much different operation to survive as a farmer in today’s world. Market forces are encouraging consolidation and there’s no government policy to mitigate that. So farmers are really struggling and it just keeps getting worse.
Unlike in 2016, Trump is running with a record. What has he done in the past three years that’s changed farmers’ lives? Do they perceive him as having made their lives better or worse?
I think, like everything, it’s a mixed bag. Overall there’s a lot of frustration because he’s basically continued the agricultural policy that has existed for the past 40 or 50 years. His trade wars with China, Mexico, the European Union, and Canada have worsened the conditions of a lot of farmers and caused export markets to dry up. Trump is somewhat cognizant that he needs these rural voters. He has offered substantial amounts of federal aid for farmers. But most of this aid is going to the largest farms, big factory corporate farms. So it’s not helping these small family farmers at all. There’s a sense of frustration and profound hopelessness in a lot of rural Wisconsin that there’s little that can or will be done to help them.
On a lot of Midwestern family farms, workers will tell you their own kids don’t want farm life, or some of them will say they don’t want it for their kids. And a lot of the work day to day is being done by Mexicans and Central Americans. Is immigration much of an issue in Wisconsin farm country?
Dairy is one of the most labor-intensive forms of farming, and almost every farm I’ve visited had many immigrant farmworkers. I think it’s a huge issue, and it’s a source of friction between the Trump Republican Party wing and some of the more traditional elements. The agricultural needs of the United States depend on foreign labor, Mexican immigrants particularly.
You’re right to say that most of the younger people don’t want farm life. I think they see that it’s almost hopeless to keep small farms going. There’s so much pressure.
You are describing the steady decline in rural areas, but if you go to a state like Wisconsin, it’s not like the urban areas are going great either. Cities have seen their factories close and their plants be bought and sold and then closed. It sounds like the Democrats have their virtual convention in a place that feels like the 21st century has a lot to answer for.
I think you’re right. And I’m really glad you said that. There are a lot of similarities between the deindustrialized towns and cities of the Rust Belt and some of these rural areas. I was shocked. I’ve done a lot of reporting in Michigan and Ohio also and you see the same dynamic: people left behind, victims of a lack of public investment and concern. American trade policies have sent a lot of those jobs overseas.
Trump actually linked, in 2016, the fate of family farmers to that of steelworkers and coal miners. He seized upon a decadeslong erosion by both parties of these kinds of jobs and the idea that you could make a decent living. It definitely helped him win very narrowly in these states, particularly Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
After Republicans took control of Wisconsin’s statehouse and governor’s mansion, Democrats fought back and sought to win support by exploiting the difference between the president’s rhetoric and his policies. At a local level, it seems to have worked.
I think there’s a growing frustration with Trump. And Democrats have become more tactically skillful since 2016, when Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign there. That became a kind of national emblem of how out of touch the Democrats were with some of those who had been their core constituents.
Now there’s a recognition on the Democratic side that the battle for Wisconsin represents much more than just the state itself—it’s a kind of national proxy. They’e been more organized at turning out their voters. Most significantly, they defeated Scott Walker in 2018 narrowly. A lot of that was also a shifting of the rural vote: Tony Evers did significantly better in the Driftless Area, campaigned heavily in rural areas, and was able to win back some of these voters.
One more recent example of Democratic statewide success came in the form of a state Supreme Court race this past April. The election itself was hotly debated, as the Republican Legislature overturned the governor’s stay-at-home orders and forced Wisconsin to move ahead with in-person voting in the early weeks of this pandemic, while at the same time closing almost all polling places in Milwaukee. Conservatives might have felt moving forward with the election and in-person voting could help secure the seat for their preferred candidate. But voters didn’t see it that way.
Ironically, it backfired. I think it drew a lot of angry progressives to the polls. Jill Karofsky, the Supreme Court justice who won, got 55 percent of the vote. I think there’s been some fatigue with the hyperextreme politics Republicans have been pushing. You saw it play out in her victory, and particularly the size and breadth of her victory, which occurred in areas all over the state, including some areas where Democrats traditionally struggle.
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