Book Review: The Fall of Wisconsin

W.W. Norton & Co.

The state of Wisconsin looms large in today’s political discourse.

For Donald Trump, Wisconsin holds double importance: It was both a key turning point in the Republican primary, and a supposedly solid part of the blue wall that he won decisively in November 2016. As if to relive these happier moments of his political career, he has regularly visited the state since winning the presidency.

For the newly resurgent left, on the other hand, Trump’s victory in Wisconsin had less to do with his nationalist message and more to do with his opponent’s strategy. Hillary Clinton, we are reminded, chose not to visit the state at all during the presidential election. Wisconsin is the keystone of the argument that Bernie Sanders would have won the general election had he been the Democratic nominee.

For their part, moderate Democrats still seem to be following a strategy articulated by Chuck Schumer in July 2016: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” For centrist Democrats, the path to victory runs through the professional managerial class, especially college-educated white women. For advocates of this strategy, states where that class doesn’t add up to a majority (states like Wisconsin and Iowa) are unimportant casualties of winning national elections.

But the debate over Wisconsin’s meaning often ignores the state’s history in the lead-up to 2016: Scott Walker’s election as governor in 2010, his radical-right agenda as governor, the protests that agenda sparked, and the ultimately unsuccessful recall attempt against Walker in 2012.

This often-forgotten context is the main subject of Dan Kaufman’s new book The Fall of Wisconsin. From the beginning, conservatives saw Wisconsin as an experiment with national implications: As Walker (or his ghostwriter) bragged in his 2013 book Unintimidated, “If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it anywhere — even in the nation’s capital.” Kaufman unpacks exactly what it is Walker “did” in Wisconsin and how he did it.

However, unlike other books in the red-state analysis genre, Kaufman focuses on individual stories rather than grand explanatory theories. Instead of explaining what is the matter with Wisconsin, he quotes on-the-ground participants in Wisconsin politics in their own words. His primary focus is on the anti-Walker side of the spectrum (Randy Bryce, the steelworker now running for Paul Ryan’s congressional seat, probably gets the most ink out of anyone in the book), but Kaufman also gets the opinion of Republicans, former Republicans, and unaffiliated Wisconsites.

This strategy allows the reader to draw their own conclusions from the stories being told, but some major themes do emerge. One is just how much of a disjunction Walker’s agenda represented compared to Wisconsin’s political culture prior to 2011. Interviewees across the political spectrum tell Kaufman about the collegial nature of Wisconsin politics before Walker was elected — the two parties had serious disagreements, but they agreed on basic political and economic principles like worker’s right to collectively bargain, and need for public input on legislation.

All those unspoken norms went out with window with Walker’s victory. And that’s where a second major theme of the book emerges: the Democrats’ continued insistence on playing by those old rules even when the Republicans had clearly moved on to a different, more brutal game. At the outset of the debate over Act 10 (Walker’s successful attempt to decimate Wisconsin’s public-sector unions), the state Democratic Party discouraged disruptive protests at the Capitol.

When those protests erupted anyway, the Democrats and their allies in the state union leadership made sure they never escalated into strike actions. The decision seems to have been based on the fact that Wisconsin law does not allow public employees to strike — even though at that exact moment Republicans were flagrantly violating open meetings law and established legislative process in order to push through Act 10.

In Wisconsin, liberal leadership chose not to fight fire with fire, and ultimately lost, which brings us to the final theme of the book: the relationship between Walker-style corporatism and Trumpist populism. These two tendencies now represent the dominant wings of the Republican Party, having mostly absorbed previous movements like the religious right and libertarianism.

On the face of it, the two wings seem to have major disagreements on subjects as important as trade, electoral strategy, and political style. The 2016 primary bore out this assumption: Walker himself ran against Trump before dropping out and endorsing Ted Cruz, and the Republican establishment watched in horror as Trump ultimately won the nomination. This animosity continued during the first months of the Trump presidency, as he struggled to work with congressional Republicans, who are almost uniformly on the corporatist side of the divide.

But since the failed Obamacare repeal in July 2017, the corporate right has learned how to stop worrying and love Trumpism. Even as Trump continues to alienate swing voters and skirt the line of impeachable activity, corporate Republicans like Walker have built a working relationship with Trump that would have seemed unimaginable during the 2016 primary.

Kaufman’s book implicitly offers an explanation for how the two sides came to this understanding. Judging from his interviews, Republicans have taken two major lessons from Wisconsin: first, that the common wisdom about needing to win swing voters is wrong, and second, that Democrats in public office have an irrational attachment to unspoken norms of political behavior and can therefore be outmaneuvered by simply ignoring those norms.

These two lessons go a long way towards explaining corporate Republicans’ newfound cavalier attitude about Trump. As long as they get their tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, they don’t care about Trump insulting everyone under the sun, and daring Democrats to impeach him. If Wisconsin is any guide, their base will be enough to win in 2018 and 2020, and Democrats aren’t willing to fight Trump on his own terms.

In other words: The right has learned the lessons of Wisconsin, but it’s still an open question whether Democrats will do the same. Kaufman’s book is an opportunity to do just that.

Evan Burger
Evan Burger is a writer and organizer who lives near Ames. He is a graduate of Columbia University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Gadfly, Columbia’s philosophy magazine. He has also written for Jacobin magazine. Evan organized in rural areas with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, on campuses with the United States Student Association, and most recently worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign. He can be reached by email at burgerevan [at] gmail [dot] com.