[Marxism] How Conservatives Bet Big on Wisconsin and Won
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 12 12:51:42 MDT 2018
NY Times, July 12, 2018
How Conservatives Bet Big on Wisconsin and Won
By Jennifer Szalai
The Fall of Wisconsin
The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of
By Dan Kaufman
319 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.
Hardcore conservatives adore infrastructure, and they’re phenomenally
good at building it. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily committed to
constructing roads and bridges and dams; it’s the infrastructure of
their own movement — the one that has helped Republican politicians
seize power in state legislatures over the past decade — that inspires
their real dedication.
Their efforts have been chronicled in books like Jane Mayer’s “Dark
Money” and Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains.” A conservative donor
class, seeking to protect its agenda from the uncertainties of a
democratic system, has erected a scaffolding of legislative groups and
gerrymandered districts with the care and diligence of a structural
For progressives, Wisconsin has been a demoralizing case in point. In
“The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive
Bastion and the Future of American Politics,” the Brooklyn-based
journalist and Wisconsin native Dan Kaufman shows how the state became a
conservative test case. As the head of the right-wing, Milwaukee-based
Bradley Foundation told him, “Wisconsin is a laboratory for the rest of
The state, which Barack Obama carried over John McCain by 14 points in
2008, was supposed to be part of Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall” in the
2016 election. It instead went to Donald J. Trump, pushing him past the
number of Electoral College votes he needed to win the presidency.
As Kaufman makes clear, though, the notion that Wisconsin in 2016 was
some sort of Democratic stronghold showed just how complacent Clinton
and the liberal establishment had become. Trump, sensing an opportunity,
made an aggressive play for the state. Clinton, in stark contrast, sent
surrogates instead of showing up herself. Kaufman describes her as not
just out of touch but quite literally not there.
True, Wisconsin was long known for its progressive traditions; in the
early 20th century, its state legislature established the nation’s first
workers’ compensation program and a progressive state income tax, among
other measures. The Scandinavian farmers who settled there in the 1800s
had brought with them a communitarian mind-set born of necessity. The
Swedish word folkhemmet, or “the people’s home,” became an affectionate
nickname for the welfare state.
The Wisconsin Idea, as it became known, was a pragmatic philosophy, wary
of revolution but also deeply suspicious of laissez-faire capitalism. In
an 1873 commencement speech, the chief justice of the state Supreme
Court warned of the “new and dark power” emerging in the Gilded Age:
“Which shall rule — wealth or man; which shall lead — money or
intellect; who shall fill public stations — educated and patriotic
freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?”
Whenever you encounter soaring words like these in a book with the word
“fall” in the title, brace yourself for a crash landing. Kaufman invites
us to contrast a century of progressivism with what happened after 1976,
when the United States Supreme Court outlawed limits on campaign spending.
This was also around the time that a 10-year-old Scott Walker moved with
his family to Delavan, Wis., from Iowa. A decade later, as a mediocre
student at Marquette University, Walker was candid about his grand
political ambitions, telling one of his classmates, “God has told me I’m
chosen to cut taxes and stop killing babies.”
Walker appears in Mayer’s “Dark Money” as a “college dropout with no
exceptional charisma or charm” who coasted to victory in Wisconsin’s
2010 gubernatorial election, after wealthy conservative backers
identified him as a Tea Party politician with a simpatico ideology. As
Kaufman details, Walker has given his donors a spectacular return on
their investment, gutting collective bargaining rights for public-sector
unions (exempting firefighters and police officers, who had supported
his campaign) and slashing taxes by $8 billion.
Walker even paid lip service to his state’s past by calling one of his
early pieces of legislation — the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, also
know as Act 10 — “progressive.” But the tax cuts he enacted were so
extreme that they inflated the state’s deficit to $2 billion. Kaufman
describes 2011 and 2012 as a pivotal moment in Wisconsin’s political
transformation, when widespread protests culminated in a recall election
against Walker — which the governor survived.
Conservatives also recognized the powerful symbolism of making the
industrial Midwest hostile to organized labor, and planned accordingly.
“We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin,” the billionaire industrialist
David Koch told a reporter in early 2012. “We’re going to spend more.”
Meanwhile, President Obama, Kaufman writes, “declined to make even a
brief stop in Wisconsin to campaign for Walker’s opponent, Tom Barrett,
despite Barrett’s plea for help.”
You can sense Kaufman’s mounting outrage, even if he’s quiet about it.
His prose is somber and subdued. The most incensed he gets is in an
earnest paragraph about Hillary Clinton and her “negligence of
Wisconsin,” in which any bile could pass as indigestion.
Maybe such understatement testifies to the author’s bona fides as a
native son. During the 2011 demonstrations, he wrote a dispatch for The
New Yorker that mentioned a quintessentially Wisconsinite protest sign:
“Let’s Be Reasonable. Hyperbole Hurts Everyone’s Cause.”
If anything, Kaufman argues, Wisconsin’s historical penchant for balance
and moderation shows how extreme the conservative movement has become.
(He only mentions Sen. Joseph McCarthy once, in passing; if Kaufman
viewed him as an extraordinary aberration, he could have spent at least
a paragraph or two making his case.) In addition to having been
hospitable to labor, Wisconsin was also home to a real tradition of
environmental stewardship, regardless of party affiliation. That changed
too, as jobs were lost to free trade and extractive industries like
mining promised to replace them. Native American elders have been
pleading with Walker to renounce short-term thinking and commit to
acting like the “true conservatives” who value ecological conservation,
generally to no avail.
Kaufman finds some hope in the insurgent Democratic candidacy of Randy
Bryce, a former ironworker and union activist, who ran to unseat
Republican Speaker Paul Ryan from Wisconsin’s First Congressional
District. (Ryan has since surprised voters by announcing he would
retire.) But Kaufman fears that some of Wisconsin’s progressive
traditions have already been crushed beyond repair.
Clean air, clean water, good schools: The public infrastructure that was
considered common sense for Wisconsinites has been attacked by the right
as if it were a red menace — or, in today’s vernacular, the rarefied
purview of urban elites. Kaufman believes that Wisconsin’s extreme
makeover portends something scary for the rest of us. “If conservatives
cannot tolerate a state that offers what Wisconsin once did,” he writes,
“what kind of future is there for the American citizen?”
Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.
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