Q&A: So, What's the Matter with Wisconsin?

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One of the dramatic moments on election night 2016 was when Donald Trump carried Wisconsin, taking a 10 electoral-vote brick out of Hillary Clinton’s mythical Midwestern blue wall.  For many Americans, it showed for the first time just how far Wisconsin had drifted from the progressive traditions it has long been known for.  In his new book The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, Dan Kaufman, a Wisconsin-born journalist puts the state under the microscope to examine how the state of Fighting Bob La Follette became Trump country. Kaufman answered questions about the book, his home state, and the future of Trumpism from The National's Jim Swearingen.

Q: Dan Kaufman, thank you for taking the time to talk with The National. For starters, with all the political turmoil going on right now, why did you pick Wisconsin as your focus?

I grew up in Wisconsin and have always loved my home state. When the protests erupted in 2011, in opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s bill that stripped public employees of collective bargaining rights, I was immediately drawn to the story. As I delved deeper, I saw how the collective bargaining measure was part of a larger effort to change Wisconsin’s political character. It was also part of a much larger national effort to remake the country in a conservative model by transforming the states. The story seemed to embody the collective tragedy of contemporary politics in the United States: wealthy and powerful corporations and individuals determining policy, the pitting of certain groups against others against a backdrop of declining living standards, and the dismantling of long-settled environmental protections at the behest powerful corporations. It was a story I could not resist.

Q: You trace the origins of some of the big, conservative think tank money in Wisconsin to corporate founding families who resisted the rise of labor unions in their industries early in the last century. Are we seeing just the latest chapter in a generations-old conflict between labor and management, or is something new happening here?

I think it is a continuation. Harry Bradley and William Grede, two Wisconsin industrialists that I mention in the book, held militantly anti-union stances since the Great Depression. They never really accepted the New Deal, which included the Wagner Act that guaranteed workers the right to form a union—and the right to strike. Harry Bradley went on to form the Bradley Foundation, which became, after his death, a central pillar in the national conservative infrastructure that has remade Wisconsin and much of the country. The foundation, whose assets are now worth $850 million, doles out an enormous number of grants to think tanks and other organizations intensely hostile to organized labor.

But this effort also has new facets. For decades, the principle of collective bargaining rights for public employees was an accepted bipartisan tradition, in Wisconsin at least. The new wave of national attacks on unions, which was spearheaded by Act 10, is really a political attack. Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, admitted as much in a 2017 essay. “Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 did not lay the groundwork for Republican political dominance,” Norquist wrote. “But the March 2011 signing of Act 10, a dramatic reform of public-sector labor laws, by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker certainly did. To understate it: If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics. It’s that big a deal.”

Q: Several times in the book you allude to the historical and cultural similarities between Wisconsin and Minnesota. In 2010 both Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker and Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton were elected governors of their respective states and, as you point out, their two terms have taken those states in completely opposite trajectories. Why have two states that were so similar gone in such different directions over the past 8 years?

One of the biggest factors is the continuation of public investment in Minnesota. Governor Dayton, who, like Scott Walker was elected in 2010, pushed through a large tax hike on the state’s wealthiest citizens, which was used to fund things like all-day kindergarten, early childhood education programs and improvements in water quality. Under Governor Walker, Wisconsin has slashed K-12 education and funding for the university system, as well as slashing the budgets of important state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources. Minnesota has also not attacked its labor unions, which helps raise wages for union members and non-union members alike. I think both continued public investment and the protection of labor rights have helped make Minnesota’s economy better than Wisconsin’s for middle and working-class people.

Q: Among Scott Walker’s many targets has been public education, especially the University of Wisconsin, which has traditionally had the progress of the state as part of its mission. A conspiratorial interpretation of events might suggest that conservatives want education to suffer because people with less education are more easily bamboozled. One of the labor leaders you interviewed says as much in your Epilogue. Is there any truth to that?

It’s very hard for me to judge motives, but I did find the theory suggested by David Poklinkoski, the labor leader you mention, to be worth contemplating. The ability for people to think critically is vitally important for a healthy democracy and it’s hard to see that as possible without a strong, well-funded public-school system. Public education has been deeply undermined in Wisconsin and across the country by national organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has crafted and disseminated many model bills that have weakened public education. It’s unclear what the long-term goal is, but in 2006 the libertarian economist Milton Friedman gave a speech at an ALEC conference in which he stated that the ideal would be to “abolish the public-school system.”

Q: There is a certain fatalism to the book, particularly from the mouths of some of the labor and tribal leaders you interview. Are we destined to lose all of accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society before this “conservative” period is over?

It’s certainly possible. When you look at the Supreme Court now, assuming Brett Kavanaugh gets confirmed, which seems almost certain, I think one can expect some profound, unexpected changes to long settled law. A faction of the conservative movement has been eager to take the country back to before the New Deal for decades. Some never accepted it in the first place; FDR had to threaten to pack the Supreme Court to enact some of his New Deal agenda. When you look at how narrowly Obamacare survived, it’s hard to imagine that important pillars of the New Deal and Great Society aren’t vulnerable. How far back in time the court will take the country is unknowable, but I think the changes will be significant. That said, programs like Social Security, which are universalist are more politically difficult to destroy. But either through the Supreme Court, or by attritional legislative measures, there will be a continued effort to dismantle the legacies of the New Deal and Great Society.

Q: Now that Paul Ryan has decided to retire from Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District what do you think will happen to his seat? You spend a great deal of time on Democratic challenger Randy Bryce in the book. What are his chances of winning with Ryan out of the picture?

Randy Bryce has galvanized a portion of the movement that had risen up to oppose Act 10, but had become dormant. That energy can be a powerful force -- for example, it contributed to Senator Bernie Sanders' 13 percentage point victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Party and Sanders’s winning all but one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. I don’t feel comfortable being a prognosticator, but I believe that a progressive outsider, like Bryce or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, can have a real chance. Bryce has already far outstripped any expectations for his campaign and in doing so energized a portion of the progressive grassroots who are seeking a more robust opposition to the increasingly dominant Republican Party.