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Midwestern Battleground

September 15, 2018  | 

Fourteen years ago the pundit Thomas Frank asked what was the matter with Kansas. Today the question is, who sank Wisconsin? In “The Fall of Wisconsin,” the journalist Dan Kaufman laments the state’s recent trajectory and chronicles “the conservative war” on its political legacy. That legacy in a word is progressivism: seeded by socialist immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, nourished by liberal icons like Robert La Follette and Russ Feingold, and sheltered by institutions like the proudly lefty University of Wisconsin at Madison, where granola crunched underfoot like fall leaves on a campus tour.

No longer. Wisconsin helped deliver the White House to Donald Trump in 2016 and has seen near-unified Republican government since 2011. The state has become a laboratory for conservative policies and a microcosm of the broader populist realignment taking place nationally. Under Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin reduced government spending, sidelined labor, loosened environmental regulations and restricted access to voting. As a result, Kaufman writes, the state’s roads are the second worst in the country, its renowned universities are bleeding talent and poverty rates have reached a 30-year high.

Conservatives in Wisconsin deployed a “divide and conquer” strategy that has pitted traditional Democrats against one another. Walker and his allies targeted organized labor with Act 10, designed to limit the rights of public sector unions to bargain collectively and signed in 2011. (The United States Supreme Court recently approved an Illinois lawweakening public sector unions from a slightly different angle.) Huge protests against Act 10 swelled the state capitol, invigorating some but piquing resentment in others. “Who are these people with all this time on their hands that they can protest during the day?” went a common complaint. Similarly, conservatives attracted blue-collar support for an iron ore mine in Penokee Hills by promising to use equipment made in Milwaukee with union labor. Unions and environmentalists found themselves on opposite sides of the issue.

In structure and tone, “The Fall of Wisconsin” nods to George Packer’s “The Unwinding,” which chronicled disillusionment and malaise in American institutions. Kaufman’s book is full of sharply reported details: One liberal activist packed Luna Bars while infiltrating conservative conferences because she grew tired of eating beef. Kaufman also records some statehouse animosities that make Washington seem downright civil. One state Democratic representative from Milwaukee found that the Republican majority redrew his district to exclude his own house.

Yet tone is part of the Democrats’ problem in Wisconsin as well as nationally. Generations of strategic investments and tactical ruthlessness have given the Republicans control of state governments and a path to a reliably conservative Supreme Court. By contrast, the Democrats mope like marchers in a funeral parade. Kaufman can veer at times into hopelessness, especially when discussing the state’s Native Americans. When he shows enthusiasm, he does so antipragmatically, lauding rabble-rousing challengers to the likes of Walker and Paul Ryan. These candidates may speak truth to power, but you probably won’t find them holding office any time soon.

Walker’s attacks on tenure and funding at the University of Wisconsin should be a potent rallying cry for the state’s liberals. Yet Kaufman will galvanize no one but the far left by lionizing, as he does here, a bearded and ponytailed professor who teaches labor songs, including one that is “a lighthearted homage to transnational solidarity among cranberry pickers.” That is the music of Wisconsin’s past, not its future.

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