[Marxism] How Conservatives Bet Big on Wisconsin and Won

Louis Proyect 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 
American Politics
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 country.”

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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