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Wisconsin had long been purported to be a bastion of progressive values when, in 2010, it elected the dull-eyed conservative ideologue Scott Walker to be its governor. After sowing disasters for education and public employees, Walker survived a 2012 recall and then won a second term in 2014. In 2015 he signed “right to work” legislation passed by the Republican-dominated state legislature and, a year later, Wisconsin delivered its electoral votes to Donald J. Trump.
Whatever the outcome of the midterms, the last decade has left Wisconsin liberals deeply bruised and searching for answers to a critical question: what went wrong with Wisconsin politics?
In a carefully watched race, Walker is now running for reelection against Democrat Tony Evers, who is polling in a dead heat. With Paul Ryan’s vacated seat also up for grabs, Wisconsin is guaranteed to feature prominently in national midterm coverage. Whatever the outcome of these races, the last decade has undoubtedly left Wisconsin liberals deeply bruised and searching for answers to a perplexing, critical question: what went wrong with Wisconsin politics? Fundamental to their emerging narrative is the idea that, prior to 2010, the state’s political identity grew from a longstanding tradition of enlightened, progressive governance commonly referred to as the Wisconsin Idea.
Originally formulated in the early twentieth century, the Wisconsin Idea referred to the partnership between progressive state officials and University of Wisconsin professors to formulate and enact social welfare policies in a time of immense social and economic change. Reforms produced by this collaboration included workers’ compensation, child labor reforms, a state income tax, and, eventually, social security legislation that served as a national model. For some liberals, the Wisconsin Idea has also come to encompass a broader notion of the state’s progressive traditions, dating back to the state’s founding and abolitionist activism in the period before the Civil War.
The unraveling of the Wisconsin Idea—due to voter disaffection, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the influx of huge sums of money from national conservative special interests—certainly is part of the story of the rise of Walker and the demise of Wisconsin liberalism such as it had been. The coordinated decimation of organized labor also played a role. But the nostalgic longing for a lost liberal past, one to which activists might return their state, is based on a blinkered vision that ignores Wisconsin’s long history of systemic racism and inequity. This history deserves careful examination as Wisconsinites try to figure out what happened in their state. As liberal activists in Wisconsin and around the country pin their hopes on an anticipated “blue wave” of 2018, it is important to remember that any politics of restoration that fails to understand the rise of the right as an extension of the past, rather than its inversion, is both deeply flawed and incredibly dangerous.
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It is assumed that racism did not play a role in the early history of the state due to the small black population, but this absence itself was caused by violent racism.
Dan Kaufman’s recent The Fall of Wisconsin typifies the problems of the liberal interpretation of Wisconsin’s political history. To its credit, the book gets many things right. Kaufman’s central conceit—that the root of Wisconsin’s undoing was its use as a laboratory for new conservative tactics—feels palpably true in 2018, seven years after he began work on the book. As such, parts of his analysis will not seem terribly surprising to observers of contemporary politics. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money (2016) exposed the influence of corporate donors and well-funded foundations on electoral politics in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision. Numerous legal challenges to partisan and discriminatory gerrymandering have made district mapping a national issue. Ari Berman’s detailed journalism on voter suppression, particularly his coverage of the effects of Wisconsin’s voter ID law passed in 2011, has demonstrated how conservatives have rigged the electoral system. Though not groundbreaking, The Fall of Wisconsin weaves these analyses together to provide a compelling portrait of the machinations behind the Republican capture of the key seats of power in the state.
The portraits of Wisconsin’s ruling class and venal politicians are especially enjoyable. Governor Walker is accurately rendered as a petty, self-promoting huckster. Kaufman also effectively discredits the libertarian “up-from-fry-cook” biography of Paul Ryan by pointing to his family’s inherited wealth and the irony that the Speaker, who dreams of destroying Social Security, paid his college bills with survivor benefits. These are not men who ascended to seats of power on their own. Rather, they are pawns whose paths to office were paved by people such as Bradley Foundation president Michael Grebe (whom Ryan calls “virtually my political godfather”), the Koch brothers, and Wisconsin billionaires Diane Hendricks and John Menard, Jr. (Menard, the President and Director of the Midwest hardware chain and richest man in Wisconsin, whose eccentric cruelties are a feature of Dark Money’s account of Wisconsin politics, is notably absent in The Fall of Wisconsin.)
If billionaires and their errand boys are the villains of Kaufman’s narrative, the heroes are the good people of Wisconsin organizing against the forces of big business. Foremost among these progressive activists is Randy Bryce, an ironworker and union organizer now campaigning to replace Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s first district. Kaufman also features a few first-time candidates for office who were prompted to enter the world of politics by the upheavals of 2010. These political novices include Lori Compas, a wedding photographer who organized a recall campaign in 2011 for her state senator, majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, when the Wisconsin Democratic Party wouldn’t. Later, Compas announced her candidacy and ran on a protest platform decrying Fitzgerald’s positions on voting rights, collective bargaining, and women’s rights. Compas didn’t win, but she forced Fitzgerald to raise over $700,000 for the campaign and to admit to her, “You ran one heck of a campaign. I would hate to run against you in a fifty-fifty district.” Of course, such districts are by design rare in Wisconsin.
These individual stories are threaded through the book and linked to a history of the Wisconsin Idea. For Kaufman, the Wisconsin Idea is clearly a touchstone to understand the state’s true political identity and a set of values to which the state might return to overcome Governor Walker’s “divide and conquer” politics. However, as with most nostalgic longings, the feeling is based on a distorted perception of the present and misremembered half-truths from the past.
The warped perception of the present stems from Kaufman’s failure to examine Milwaukee, the state’s largest metropolitan area and home to a quarter of its residents. By ignoring the city, the crucial role of racism in Wisconsin politics escapes his analysis.
This is not to say that Kaufman’s reporting completely elides racism. His history of “right to work” legislation emphasizes its origins in white supremacist fears of civil rights unionism in the Jim Crow South. He recounts the race-baiting campaign against socialist mayor Frank Zeidler in 1956 as well as segregationist George Wallace’s strong performance in the 1964 Wisconsin presidential primary, where he garnered a quarter of the state’s votes and nearly a third of the final count in Milwaukee. Kaufman highlights the Bradley Foundation’s role funding Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s pseudoscientific The Bell Curve (1994). He parenthetically acknowledges the abhorrent racist views of economists John Commons and Richard Ely, though he does not consider how these views might have been part of the fabric of Wisconsin progressivism. In passing, Kaufman notes the connection between the John Birch Society and leading Wisconsin businessmen William Grede, Harry Bradley, and Herbert Kohler, Jr. But he doesn’t comment on the John Birch Society’s record of anti–civil rights activism or how this relates to Wisconsin’s history of conservative reaction.
In short, Kaufman’s string of isolated incidents of racism gives readers of The Fall of Wisconsin no sense of the history that has led the state to be one of the worst places to live for people of color, African Americans in particular. The toll that racism takes on Wisconsinites starts at birth. According to a 2014 report from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, black infants were three times more likely than white babies to die before reaching their first birthday (worse than the national average of twice as likely). Racist inequities continue through childhood. One in three of the state’s black families live in poverty. A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that Wisconsin ranked last in the nation in preparing black children for educational and financial success. (In contrast, it ranked tenth for its preparation of white children.) UCLA researchers discovered that black high school students in Wisconsin are suspended at the highest rate in country.
Any politics that fails to understand the rise of the right as an extension of the past, rather than its inversion, is both deeply flawed and dangerous.
As adults, black and Latinx residents of Wisconsin face vastly higher rates of poverty, unemployment, eviction, homelessness, and incarceration. Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond found that the annual average eviction rate in predominantly African American neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most populous city, was 7.4 percent, more than 5 times the rate in predominantly white areas. During this same period, almost 4 percent of households in Hispanic neighborhoods faced eviction in any given year. For Desmond, eviction is one of two twinned processes that are destroying the city. The other process is incarceration. In Wisconsin, one in eight (12.8 percent) African American men were in state prisons and local jails during the 2010 census, the highest rate of black incarceration in the country, a full 3 percent higher than the rate in Oklahoma, the closest contender. According to the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute, in 2012 about half of black male Wisconsinites in their thirties were or had been incarcerated in state correctional facilities. Wisconsin also leads the country in the incarceration of American Indians: the 2010 census found that 1 in 13 (7.6 percent) of Indigenous men in the state were serving time in state prisons and local jails.
Wisconsin also ranks next to last in the nation for its racial disparity in life expectancy. On average, black men in Wisconsin die 6.4 years before their white peers, black women 5.8 years earlier than white women.
This grinding violence of poverty, policing, and incarceration is intermittently punctuated by spectacles of state-sanctioned racist brutality. On the afternoon of April 30, 2014, Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man, was shot 14 times by white police officer Christopher Manney in downtown Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park. Workers at the adjacent Starbucks had twice called police to complain that a vagrant was sleeping in the public park. A pair of officers had already responded to these calls twice before Manney arrived on the scene to question Hamilton for a third time. When Manney attempted to frisk Hamilton—contrary to standing policy—a fight ensued and the police officer opened fire. District Attorney John Chisholm refused to press charges against Manney; following a series of protests, Milwaukee Police Edward Flynn fired Manney for violation of procedure. (Hamilton’s name is absent from The Fall of Wisconsin’s index, as is that of Sylville Smith who was fatally shot by Milwaukee police in August 2016, leading to widespread protests.)
The violent policing of space is also carried out by average citizens. Take the story of Corey Stingley, a 16-year-old black high school student who was killed by a group of white men in the suburb of West Allis. On the evening of December 14, 2012, Stingley entered his neighborhood convenience store and apparently attempted to steal a handful of wine coolers by concealing them in his backpack. When he was confronted by the cashier, the teenager ran for the door before he was restrained by three white customers. Spencer Chumbley’s documentary film The Death of Corey Stingley shows the surveillance tape of three adults wrestling the teenager to the ground and reproduces the self-deputized vigilantes’ call to the police: “We’ve got the perp. Three of us got the perp on the ground right now holding him for you.” By the time that police arrived, Stingley was non-responsive. He never regained consciousness and died two weeks later in the hospital. In a recorded statement to the police, one of the attackers recounted telling Stingley, as the teen was being choked to death, “You picked the wrong store.” No charges were brought against the killers.
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Black Wisconsinites are three times more likely to die in infancy, and those who make it to adulthood die 6.4 years earlier than whites.
The white suburbanite’s declaration that “you picked the wrong store” bespeaks the basic logic of racial segregation and racist violence that is an unforgettable fact of life for people of color in Wisconsin. These fundamental problems with Wisconsin—and with Wisconsin’s sense of itself as a bastion of enlightened liberalism—long predate Scott Walker, though. To understand this longer history, it is necessary to abandon the cherished liberal myth of the Wisconsin Idea.
I am not the first person to make this point. In January 2015, local leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement convened at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to discuss the ways that activism on campus might connect with anti-racist work in the city. Following a comment about the Wisconsin Idea, community organizer Angela Walker stood up in the audience to speak. In a sharp statement, she stressed the need for white Wisconsinites to be honest about the reality of racism in the state: “The Wisconsin I’ve always known is racist. So let’s be willing to be up-front when we’re talking about what this Wisconsin Idea is.” The comment drew applause from some but raised the eyebrows of others as it discredited a beloved idealized image of the state as exceptionally progressive.
For too long, this popular myth has obscured a far more ambivalent political history of Wisconsin and the role of racism in this history, from European dispossession of indigenous land to the assault on welfare and public schools today. In Kaufman’s rehearsal of the historical vision of the Wisconsin Idea, the state’s politics were founded on the liberal ideals of exiled German revolutionaries and a Scandinavian communitarian outlook. This progressive ethos inspired Wisconsin abolitionists in the antebellum period, and later led to the embrace of populism and the rise of Robert La Follette.
A more accurate history could instead begin with the Black Hawk War and the violence of settler colonialism, followed by the public treasury’s underwriting the accumulation of private wealth with investments in railroads and harbor development. As historian Joe Trotter notes in his book Black Milwaukee (1985), “the new state of Wisconsin disfranchised free blacks, barred them from holding public office, and excluded them from service in the state militia.” In a telling contrast, Jacksonian Democrat Edward Ryan appears in The Fall of Wisconsin as a dauntless progressive who, as chief justice of the state supreme court, lambasted powerful railroad presidents who tried to avoid regulation. In Trotter’s history, however, Ryan is presented as a proponent of anti-black migration laws during the Civil War, arguing, “We hold this country to be the possession of the white race, and this government to be instituted by white men for white men.”
This overlap of virulent racism and populist ideals is not surprising. But it is rarely featured in histories of the Wisconsin Idea. Instead, it is assumed that racism did not play a role in the early history of the state due to the relatively small population of African Americans before World War Two. But this absence itself was caused by violent anti-black racism.
In his history of the rise and fall of sundown towns—municipalities that purposefully excluded African Americans—writer James Loewen documents the drive to push black migrants out of Wisconsin. He notes that between 1890 and 1930, the number of Wisconsin counties with no African American residents doubled from 8 to 16. In fact, by 1930, more than half of Wisconsin counties counted fewer than 10 African Americans, a result of intimidation, job discrimination, and refusals to sell land. Sundown towns included booming larger cities such as Appleton (pop. 60,000) and Sheboygan (pop. 45,000) where, according to one resident, police officers met African Americans at the train station to encourage them to move on. In Fond du Lac, the number of African Americans plummeted from 178 to 5 between 1880 and 1940. Even in Milwaukee, where the state’s small black population was increasingly concentrated, African Americans faced new restrictions; retail jobs that had been open to black applicants in the late nineteenth century, for instance, were closed to them in the first half of the twentieth century. Racial covenants and discrimination forced the vast majority of the city’s black residents to rent overpriced inferior housing in a limited area on the north side commonly referred to today as the “inner core.”
In short, the whiteness of Wisconsin before World War II was not happenstance, but the result of systematic, organized campaigns to restrict the size of and opportunities for the state’s African American population. These campaigns notably occurred in the same years that the Wisconsin Idea was first being implemented.
Following World War II, Milwaukee experienced a massive industrial boom, drawing thousands of new migrants to fill the demand for labor. These numbers included many African Americans, and the black population increased sevenfold in the 25 years after the war to over 100,000 residents. This population of recently arrived workers intensified an existing housing crisis. The struggle over how to solve this problem has in many ways defined the city ever since. On one side, left, labor, and civil rights groups advanced the cause of affordable housing (including demands for public housing) for the city’s growing working class. They were opposed by conservatives who believed that public investment in the common good would increase workers’ opportunities for collective action and threaten a system of free enterprise. The conservatives made their case in a language that combined Cold War anticommunism with racist fears of a growing black population, urban blight, and crime. The conservatives won, creating a metropolitan area split between suburbs inhabited by wealthier white residents who favored limited government and low taxes, and an impoverished and increasingly African American city. Industrial decline later in the twentieth century only exacerbated this division. Today, Milwaukee is among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.
‘The Wisconsin I’ve always known is racist. So let’s be willing to be up-front when we’re talking about what this Wisconsin Idea is.’
This fact is not incidental to the rise of Scott Walker and the GOP in Wisconsin. Over the course of his political career, Walker has helped expand the scope of this divide, pitting Milwaukee and Madison against the rest of the state. Walker entered Wisconsin politics in 1990 when he ran for Milwaukee’s seventh district seat in the state assembly, losing by a landslide to African American incumbent Gwen Moore. Three years later, he made another run at the assembly, this time seeking to represent the suburban and overwhelmingly white fourteenth district. With a platform that combined a “tough” approach to urban crime, support for Governor Tommy Thompson’s welfare reforms, and the slashing of municipal budgets, Walker handily won the district. During his four terms in the assembly, the young politician made good on his platform, supporting the “Wisconsin Works” (W2) welfare reform, pushing for “truth in sentencing” reforms (which essentially ended parole in the state), and cutting funding for the city of Milwaukee.
Elected Milwaukee County executive from 2002 to 2010, Walker refined his ability to play the racialized urban–suburban spatial divide, gutting programs that served the city’s population, including funding for alcohol and drug addiction treatment, medical care for the uninsured, AIDS prevention, and the county transit system. Under Walker’s stewardship, the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex fell into such disrepair that inspectors found twenty-six violations in 2006, the same year that thirty-three-year-old patient Cindy Anczak died from neglect when her doctors permitted her to go without food for nearly a month. At the same time, Walker garnered attention from the state Elections Board for not disclosing campaign expenditures. Despite a track record of mismanagement and campaign scandals, Walker ran successful reelection campaigns in 2004 and 2008, benefiting from low voter turnout in springtime elections that results in a disproportionately white, suburban electorate.
Walker interpreted his successes in majority-Democratic Milwaukee County as evidence of the broad appeal of tax and budget cuts that could propel him from his position as a municipal bureaucrat to the Governor’s Mansion. With promises of job creation and fiscal austerity, Walker launched a gubernatorial campaign in 2010, taking on Democratic Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. The selection of Barrett as Walker’s opponent helped to set up an electoral dynamic that pitted the city against the suburbs and the rest of the state. If Walker was to remedy the state’s budget deficit and maintain his pledge to cut taxes, someone would have to pay. For the lifelong Reaganite, the targets were obvious: organized labor and the so-called “entitlements” of the social wage, both of which were linked to the city and the opposing candidate. Scholar George Lipsitz summarizes this common strategy of neoliberal politicians: “By making public spaces and public institutions synonymous with communities of color, neoliberals seek to taint them in the eyes of white working-class and middle-class people, who then become more receptive to privatization schemes. . . . Oppositions between public and private, between producer and parasite, between freedom and dependency function as racialized metaphors.” Walker’s deployment of these racialized metaphors and the enactment of punitive racist policies have been essential to his rule.
Immediately following his election, Walker ordered his attorney general to challenge Obama’s Affordable Care Act and announced his rejection of $810 million in federal stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line that would have connected Milwaukee and Madison. These actions proclaimed his politics: anti-Obama, anti-labor, and anti-city. The high-speed rail project would have employed thousands of workers, including the creation of skilled manufacturing positions in Milwaukee, helping Walker achieve his campaign promise of 250,000 new jobs in his first term. Yet Walker’s disdain for public transportation and his will to punish the city took precedence over economic recovery. The subjugation of practical goals for ideological fealty is a hallmark of Walker’s administration.
Regular appeals to racist and patriarchal values are another. As scholars and activists noted, Walker’s crushing of the public sector collective bargaining in Act 10 disproportionately affected women and people of color, who were more likely to be employed by the state. The exemptions for fire fighters and police officers rewarded professions traditionally dominated by white men. While the budget bill was making its way through the legislature in spring 2011, Walker signaled to a conservative base with additional amendments and new legislation that eliminated in-state tuition for undocumented students (overturning the achievement of a decade-long struggle by immigrant activists), cut Planned Parenthood funding, and imposed a restrictive voter ID law. Meanwhile, local talk radio host Charlie Sykes primed Walker’s white suburban supporters with a stream of racist hate on the airwaves. In a shrewd analysis of post-2008 U.S. politics, historian Mike Davis notes that right-wing politicians such as Walker have produced a movement that more closely resembles the racist “massive resistance” campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s than it does the anti-tax politics of the ’70s and ’80s. As Walker faced huge protests over Act 10, his viciousness built. Harsh policies were no longer just the “strong medicine” of austerity’s organized abandonment. Cruelty became a credential unto itself.
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The subjugation of practical goals for ideological fealty is a hallmark of Walker’s administration.
So far, callous revanchism has kept Walker in office. One might also speculate that it laid the ideological groundwork for Trump’s racist appeals to suburban Wisconsin voters in 2016, while voter suppression, the assassination of organized labor, and campaign finance established procedural advantages. In the conclusion to The Fall of Wisconsin, Kaufman ponders whether anti-elite resentment (which he does not characterize in racialized terms) has permanently conquered Wisconsin’s progressive ideals and destined “the state to be a conservative bastion for the foreseeable future.” He identifies one way back: solidarity. And about this he is surely correct. But what is solidarity without a reckoning with the racism that has divided the state from its establishment?
At times while reading The Fall of Wisconsin, I imagined Kaufman as a frustrated choir director desperately pleading, “Once more, with feeling!” At some point, one has to ask if the song just doesn’t move. The ideals of the Wisconsin Idea did not inoculate the state against the domination of corporate capitalism and, premised on racial exclusion, they failed to provide a bulwark against racial oppression. Combined with Walker’s self-defeating, moribund policies, they might be just enough to unseat the governor and a handful of GOP cronies in 2018—but then what?
There are useful building blocks from Wisconsin’s past that can help in imagining a different future, including valuable lessons from the state’s progressives and socialists. But drawing on these histories demands an honest appraisal of their failures. Wisconsin has long been subject to conservative attacks, and for just as long these attacks have spurred creative responses from the left. Instead of leaning exclusively on the Wisconsin Idea, one might instead ask what kinds of solidarity are suggested by the histories of welfare rights organizing, or the struggles for public housing and education? What political solutions are proposed by Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, and fair wage activists today? How can a broad-based movement organize such visions across the state?
These are not easy questions. There is a hard road ahead, in Wisconsin as elsewhere. But it is surely better to take this road forward than to repeat the mistakes of the past.
S. Ani Mukherji is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He is currently working on his first book, The Anticolonial Imagination: Race, Empire, and Migrant Radicalism before World War II.
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