The Battle for Wisconsin’s Dairy Farmers

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S1: No balloon drops, no funny hats, no spontaneous conga line snaking through a packed convention floor. Instead, this week, a choreographed zoom handoff will be how Democrats officially nominate Joe Biden to be their presidential candidate. Let it suffice to say this is a long way from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a place Democrats thought they’d be celebrating the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Just a few months ago, a location journalist Dan Kaufman says was picked for a very specific reason.

S2: Obviously holding the convention, there was a symbol that the Democratic Party was trying to atone for its sin of ignoring Wisconsin in 2016.

S1: Dan Kaufman is a native Wisconsinite and has written at length about Wisconsin politics for The New Yorker.

S2: And in his book, The Fall of Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton was the first candidate of either party to not campaign in Wisconsin during the general election since Richard Nixon in 1972.

S1: When you say he didn’t campaign, then the Democratic nominee for president didn’t set foot in the state of Wisconsin.

S3: Not during the general election, no. Now, not once.

S1: Dan traveled to Wisconsin over the last year to talk to the people who helped Donald Trump win the state that calls itself America’s Dairyland by a whisker in 2016.

S2: Trump won Wisconsin by about 23000 votes that year. So I think there was a recognition that they needed to pay attention to not just Wisconsin, but to the Rust Belt states in general. You know, Wisconsin had not voted for a Republican for president since 1984, Ronald Reagan’s 49 state triumph.

S1: During his travels, Dan spent a lot of time in what’s called the Driftless Area, the rural southwestern part of Wisconsin, home to family farms and tragedy.

S3: Wisconsin led the country and family farm bankruptcies for the past three years. Wow.

S2: That has led to really significant and serious social costs, including, most importantly, the dramatic rise in suicides that Wisconsin had a statewide record of suicides in 2017. And a lot of this was tied to the family farm crisis.

S4: This Driftless region voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008, but came out strongly for Donald Trump just eight years later. Today on the show, how the Democrats lost Wisconsin’s dairy farmers and why four years later, their discontent could end up costing Trump the presidency. I’m Ray Suarez subbing for Mary Harris. And you’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: 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.

S3: I think there’s a lot of frustration with both parties who have presided over a real there’s been a real erosion of rural America, particularly since the early 1970s when a man named Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, really started changing agricultural policy in a profound way. He basically encouraged consolidation of farms. And he said, in fact, that basically to get go get big or get out, and he encouraged farmers to adapt or die. This was these were his words. And he wanted he didn’t see much room for the small. Agrarian farm and small family farmer, and that is happened, and both parties have encouraged it to various degrees and 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.

S1: For Dan Kaufman, the Driftless Area was a good barometer for how rural Wisconsin felt about the Trump presidency and the Democrats, the dairy farmers who live and work there have been challenged by the consolidation of family owned farms. And Dan says the frustration was one of the driving forces behind their support for Trump.

S3: There’s three kind of main protagonists in my article. One is a guy named Jerry Vanik who had voted for Obama twice. He voted for Trump, but not with any kind of passion, or he wasn’t really even paying close attention to politics, but he was discontent with the status quo. Like Jerry says at the beginning, you know, I’m working harder now than I did when I started full time farming 25 years ago, and I’m making much less money.

S5: You know, Jerry’s grandfather was able to survive milking a herd of 16 cows. Now, Jerry, as he calls it, is the biggest of the small guys and he has three hundred thirty cows. It’s a much different operation to survive in today’s world.

S3: And the market forces are really encouraging consolidation and there’s no government policy to mitigate that. So they are really struggling and it just keeps getting worse.

S1: Well, unlike in 2016, President Trump is running with a record. What has he done in the last three years that’s changed Farmers’ lives. Do they perceive him as having made their lives better or worse?

S5: You know, I think that there is like everything, it’s a mixed bag. I think overall there’s a lot of frustration because he’s basically continued the agricultural policy that has existed for the past 50 years, 40 or 50 years. His trade wars have worsened the condition of a lot of farmers. And he has launched trade wars with China, Mexico, the European Union and Canada. And that has caused export markets to dry up and increasing pain. And he’s 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 really helping the small family farmer at all. And there’s a sense of frustration and a sense of profound hopelessness in a lot of rural Wisconsin, a sense that there’s little that can or will be done to to help them on a lot of Midwestern family farms, farmers will tell you they’re their own kids don’t want farm life or some of them will say they don’t want it for their kids.

S1: And a lot of the work day to day is being done by Mexicans and Central Americans. Is immigration much of an issue in farm country in Wisconsin?

S5: I think it is. And the dairy industry is is massively dependent on a dairy is one of the most labor intensive forms of farming. And almost every farm I visited had many immigrant farm workers doing much of the work. I think it’s a huge issue and it’s a source of friction between sort of some of the elements in the Trump Republican Party wing and some of the more traditional elements. The the absolutely the agricultural needs of the United States depends on, you know, foreign labor, Mexican immigrants particularly. And that is that is an issue. And you’re right to say that most of the younger people don’t want it. I think they see that it’s it’s almost essentially. Hopeless to keep the small farms going, I mean, there is a you either have to get big or get out. There’s so much pressure on that. So and they see how hard their parents work. And in fact, Jerry in the piece says, you know, that he will essentially be the last farmer for his family. He doesn’t want his daughters to farm because it is it is so it is so hard. And he’s he’s barely, as he says, and basically paying myself living expenses now. So he’s not getting ahead. In fact, he’s falling behind.

S1: But here you are describing this decline, this steady decline in the rural areas. And if you go to a state like Wisconsin, it’s not like the urban areas are going great guns either. I mean, if you go to Kenosha or Racine or Sheboygan or Green Bay, not to mention Milwaukee, all of those places have seen their factories close and their plants be bought and sold and then closed. And it sounds like the Democrats will be beginning their virtual convention in a place that’s. That feels like the twenty first century has a lot to answer for.

S5: I think you’re right and actually I’m really glad you said that. There’s 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 and Wisconsin as well, that southeastern corridor. And you see in some of the same dynamic, these people left behind, again, victims also of a lack of public investment and concern that American trade policies have really sent a lot of those jobs, you know, overseas. But you’re right, most of southeastern Wisconsin and also the Fox River Valley, Green Bay, the paper companies are struggling. You’re seeing a lot of these problems and they’re similar. And Trump actually linked in 2016, the fate of family farmers to steelworkers and coal miners and so on. And I think, you know, he seized upon a decades long erosion by both parties in these kinds of jobs. And the idea that you could make a decent living and it definitely helped him win very narrowly.

S1: But when these states, particularly Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, after Republicans took control of Wisconsin state house and governor’s mansion, the Democrats fought back and sought to win support by exploiting the difference between the president’s rhetoric and his policies. And at a local level, it seemed to have worked.

S5: When you look at the elections since Trump has won, conservatives have won just one of nine statewide elections. I think there’s a growing frustration with Donald Trump and Democrats have, I think, become more tactically skillful since, you know, since. 2016, when Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign there, that became a kind of national sort of emblem of how out of touch the Democrats were with some of what had been their core constituents. But now there’s a recognition on the Democratic side that the battle for Wisconsin represents much more than just the state itself, but a kind of national proxy. And I think they have been more organized at turning out their voters. And most significantly, they defeated Scott Walker in twenty eighteen narrowly. But a lot of that was also a shifting of the rural vote. And Tony Evers, the man who defeated him, did do significantly better in the Driftless Area and campaigned heavily in rural areas and was able to win back some of these voters.

S1: 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 Democratic governor stay at home orders and forced Wisconsin to move ahead with in-person voting in the early weeks of the 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 the voters didn’t see it that way.

S5: Ironically, it backfired. And I think it drew a lot of angry progressives to the polls. And Jill Karaszewski, the Supreme Court justice, that one won 55 percent of the vote and including in all over the state. So I think there’s been some fatigue with this kind of hyper extreme politics that the Republicans have been pushing. And I think you’re seeing that, you know, play out and you saw it play out in her victory. And it’s particularly in the size and breadth of her victory, which occurred in areas all over the state, including some areas where Democrats traditionally struggle.

S1: Well, then the convention, that’s not quite a convention will soon gavel into order. You won’t be heading to packed hospitality suites. You won’t be glad handing with state politicians. You won’t be getting the free meals that reporters can often count on at convention time. Are you going to miss it?

S5: Well, that’s the free meals are a bit of a mixed blessing, right? I have to say. But yeah, I’ll miss more. I love Milwaukee. I think it’s an incredible city. And I was anxious to visit some old friends and yes, to see this incredible, you know, pageantry and display of American politics in a city that I know really well. And I’m sad that I’m sad for the city, all of its residents, because it would have been a great economic boon, you know, for the area. But but obviously we’re living in unprecedented times. And that was clearly not the right decision to hold any kind of gathering like that now. But it’ll be interesting to see in the months leading forward, you know, how Wisconsin is paid attention to by both of the major candidates and the parties. It could go either way, clearly. But at the moment, it seems like there’s. A sense that the Democrats, the ones that I talked to, seem to feel they have a bit of momentum, although they are not by any means taking it for granted.

S6: Dan, great to talk to you. Great to talk to you. I really appreciate this. Wonderful. Dan Kaufman is a contributing writer at The New Yorker and author of The Fall of Wisconsin. That’s the show What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewitt with help from Daniel Avis, where led by Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedicte.

S4: Find me on Twitter. I’m at Ray Suarez News. Thanks for listening. I’m Ray Suarez.