Dan Kaufman, author of The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, and Manuel Pastor, author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, have crafted lengthy subtitles that reveal their books’ basic story lines. Both books chronicle dramatic swings from one side of the political spectrum to the other, and both highlight the ways in which state-level politics can influence policy at the national level. Both authors go behind the scenes to show how elected officials are influenced not only by their constituencies and the political media but also by obscure lobbying groups with names like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the University of California Center for Labor Research and Education, the Bradley Foundation, and the KochPAC. Perhaps the authors’ most significant contribution may be to offer voice to the dozens of local activists of all political stripes who are the connective tissue between the political elites and the voting public.
If your political compass swings toward the left, the portrait Kaufman paints of Wisconsin today is painful. After all, this is the state that brought us the first workers’ comp and unemployment compensation legislation, collective bargaining for public employees, child labor laws, progressive income tax, and the “Wisconsin Idea” of a first-rate university system whose research mission is to serve the public interest. These various initiatives made Wisconsin into a “laboratory for democracy” and served as a model for the federal policymakers who crafted New Deal reforms, including Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Scott Walker, a Milwaukee County executive who rode the Tea Party wave in 2010 to become the state’s governor, has devoted his tenure to dismantling this democratic project. After a few weeks on the job, Walker introduced a “budget repair bill” that demanded “sacrifice” from public employees at the state and local levels. Costs were reduced by forcing workers to surrender half the amount of their pensions while doubling the amount they pay for health care. Collective bargaining was scaled back, and wage increases were capped at the rate of inflation. Union dues were made voluntary, which allowed employees to receive the benefits of union negotiations without paying for them. Employees were required to recertify their unions every year.
Walker’s bill, known as Act 10, provoked spontaneous protests around the state, especially in Madison, where 1,000 protesters, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association, marched on the state capitol. They were joined, the next day, by thousands of others, including hundreds of high school students. The result was an impromptu occupation of the capitol rotunda, as protesters sought to prevent action on the bill until local pressure could be brought to bear on Republican legislators. As the crowds grew day by day, Walker — who needed a quorum of senators to advance the bill — sent police officers to the homes of Democratic senators to arrest them and bring them to Madison for the vote. Fourteen Democrats fled to Illinois to allow more time for public opposition to build. Protesters continued to occupy the capitol for three weeks. Eventually, over objections from Democratic Senator Peter Barca, who had stayed in Wisconsin, the new bargaining bill was advanced to the floor, where it passed both houses within hours. The action closed the door on the “laboratory of democracy” and opened the floodgates to a wave of conservative legislation to dismantle unions, restrict voting rights, move funds from public to private education, and repeal environmental laws.
While Walker’s victory over unions made him a darling of the right and catapulted him onto the national stage and into a run for the presidency in 2016, behind-the-scenes forces sowed the seeds for his success. The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, for example, distributes tens of millions of dollars to right-wing think tanks, litigation centers, and opposition research groups around the country; the organization’s president, Michael Grebe, served as the head of Walker’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010. Then there is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit begun in Chicago by conservative activist Paul Weyrich that specializes in producing model legislation aimed at weakening unions and environmental laws, funding private education with public funds, and restricting voting rights. ALEC counts among its members one-fourth of all state legislators in the nation; the group has deep roots in Wisconsin beginning in the 1980s with former governor Tommy Thompson, who also served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. Another ALEC adjunct, the State Policy Network, provides slanted research and talking points for conservative state legislators. Walker used ALEC’s model bills in shaping his policy toward unions, the environment, public education, and voting rights.
The labor movement and the Democratic Party fought back by launching recall elections against Republican senators in Wisconsin. After having success in two of these recalls, they began a campaign against Walker himself. This was the first election held after the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, in which the conservative majority lifted restrictions on campaign financing. Seeking to protect their new hero, right-wing groups and wealthy individuals pumped huge funds into battling the recall effort. Nearly $140 million flooded into the state during the election, $81 million alone for the Walker recall. In a relatively cheap media market, the Koch Brothers bankrolled a barrage of very effective ads (a man fishing says, “I didn’t vote for Scott Walker, but I’m definitely against this recall”) that gave many Wisconsinites — who had grown weary of the acrimonious arguments that split families, neighbors, and co-workers — a reason to vote no. In the end, Walker survived, 53 to 46 percent.
Kaufman is at his best when introducing us to the local activists and legislators who won’t be heard on CNN or Fox or quoted in The New York Times. I was particularly taken with the story of Chris Taylor, a state legislator who infiltrated ALEC and reported on its doings. Randy Bryce, the union ironworker whose campaign for Paul Ryan’s seat helped push the GOP Speaker into early retirement, also has a compelling story. And it was a personal pleasure to read quotes from legislators I knew from my lobbying days in Madison more than 25 years ago. Even more arresting were the sage comments of one of my former history students at the University of Wisconsin, David Poklinkoski, who went on to become president of the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at Madison Gas and Electric.
What’s missing from The Fall of Wisconsin is a strategic sense of how progressives can build alliances and coalitions capable of creating a new majority to overcome the formidable obstacles erected by Walker and his crew. How can the people in Wisconsin who voted for Trump be lured back to the Democratic column? How can progressives win in rural districts? How can unions that have been forced to become voluntary organizations find a path to power in the workplace? These are big, hard questions, of course, but Kaufman largely ducks them. Kaufman does demonstrate, in depressing detail, how the constellation of conservative think tanks, political action committees, and politicians have reshaped Wisconsin society in a way that conforms to their political ideology: weaker unions, no wage growth, rising child poverty, a smaller middle class, deep cuts in K–12 and university education, and voting restrictions that exclude an estimated 11 percent of the electorate. The former “laboratory of democracy” is now the harbinger of a new and very different United States of America.
Manuel Pastor, in his book on politics in California, State of Resistance, provides a very different perspective. After World War II, California offered the world a new version of the American Dream, with plentiful jobs, affordable homes, a vibrant education system extending from kindergarten to graduate school, an expansive infrastructure of superhighways and state parks, and a relatively tolerant attitude toward ethnic and cultural diversity. Then came a new set of problems that slowly turned the California dream into a nightmare: racial unrest, tax revolts, unstable state finances, political gridlock, the loss of millions of jobs (including “nearly half of the nation’s net job loss” during the recession of the early 1990s), and a sharp rise in anti-immigrant attitudes. Pastor chronicles the historical signposts of this “dizzying descent”: police violence, the Watts riots, and white flight to the suburbs; Governor Reagan’s campaign against student protesters and state spending on higher education; Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which lured whites away from the Democratic Party; decisions by the California Supreme Court that disconnected local spending on schools from local property taxes, angering white voters who felt that “their” taxes were not funding schools for “their” children; “Immigrant Shock” as the percentage of foreign-born people residing in California grew from 13 percent of the United States’s total foreign-born population in 1960 to 33 percent in 1990; and ballot initiatives, beginning with Prop 13 in 1978, that required a supermajority vote in the state legislature to raise taxes, creating a never-ending fiscal crisis.
These ballot initiatives — direct up-or-down votes by the electorate — began as progressive measures meant to ensure the peoples’ will against an unresponsive legislature, but they turned into something quite different during this period. It was simple arithmetic: limit the ability of the legislature to raise revenue, putting the matter in the hands of older, predominately white voters, who were more likely to vote in off-year elections. As Pastor notes, “Nearly the same number of initiatives were passed in the eighteen years between 1978 and 1996 as in the sixty-seven years between 1911 and 1978.” The blizzard of ballot initiatives that began with Prop 13 continued with Prop 165, which would have reduced state welfare payments, although it failed; next came Prop 187, a measure to deny all public benefits to undocumented workers. Running for governor in 1994, then-Governor Pete Wilson trailed his Democratic opponent by 23 points; he shifted his position to support Prop 187 and sailed to victory. Prop 184 was the famous “three strikes” initiative designed to get tough on criminals; it won by a mile. Prop 209 outlawed affirmative action in state hiring and university admissions, while Prop 227 banned bilingual education in public schools. Prop 226 would have limited the power of unions, but it was defeated.
The sweeping victory of the anti-immigrant Prop 187 that sent Pete Wilson back to the governor’s office cemented the conservative stamp on California’s politics and provided think tanks and political operatives across the country with a new tool to use against Democrats. But other realities lay buried beneath Wilson’s win that may have turned it into a pyrrhic victory. For one thing, it was Wilson who, as a US senator, was partly responsible for a large influx of Mexican immigration through his work to craft and pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. I learned this after I relocated from Wisconsin to Los Angeles in 1991 and began research on the North American Free Trade Agreement; looking through congressional reports, I learned that, just prior to the final passage of IRCA, Senator Wilson, acting on behalf of agricultural interests in the Central Valley, inserted language into the bill establishing a Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program that allowed immigrants who performed agricultural work for 90 days to become legal residents. According to Philip Martin, professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and other researchers, 433,000 SAW applications had been filed in California by August 1988, 54 percent of all SAW applications in the nation. He estimated that more than a million SAW applications were filed in California by the time the program ended in November 1988. The vast majority of these immigrants did not remain in agricultural work for very long; most of them sought jobs in Los Angeles.
While Wilson’s role in bringing a million Mexican workers to California remained largely unknown during his anti-immigration campaign for governor, a small group of labor leaders and union activists in Los Angeles saw the potential for organizing this growing population of immigrant workers. According to Maria Elena Durazo, the leader of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, whom I interviewed in 1992:
Prop 187 was a big factor in reminding us that we had to do something on the electoral level that was different, and it helped to radicalize the immigrant community in a broad, broad way. Way beyond the labor movement, way beyond the workers we were organizing in the unions.
In a nutshell, L.A. union officials (Pastor includes comments from many of them) broadened their focus from organizing workers on the job to organizing entire communities, at the street and neighborhood level. Leaders of organized labor like David Sickler, the AFL-CIO regional director for California, Nevada, and Hawaii, provided funding and strategic assistance to rank-and-file activists. On the one hand, Sickler helped facilitate the systematic registration of thousands of new voters who were able to become citizens under the terms of IRCA and the SAW program; on the other hand, Sickler — who is not mentioned in Pastor’s book, though he should have been — waged a behind-the-scenes battle with the leaders of the national AFL-CIO to modify their long-standing opposition to immigration into a more enlightened and realistic posture.
The upshot of all this activity — involving thousands of people organizing unions and communities, conducting voter registration drives, campaigning for progressive candidates at all levels — was a revitalized movement that changed the political complexion of California. The names of these activists, most of whom began as rank-and-file organizers, reads like a Who’s Who of the California Comeback: Antonio Villaraigosa, Kevin de León, Karen Bass, Xavier Becerra, Gil Cedillo, Stewart Kwoh, Fabian Nuñez, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Hilda Solis, Anthony Thigpenn, and others. Pastor sees the rise, fall, and rise of California as a lesson for the United States, a path that can be taken by other states in search of a better future. His initial title for the book, he says, was “California: America Fast-Forward” because of the “demographic shifts, economic transformations, and political disruptions” that have hit California first. Social upheaval and dissension have been replaced by “a sort of ‘new deal’ for the twenty-first century, one that promises renewed and more inclusive investments in physical and social infrastructure.”
He may be too optimistic. After all, the California dream of the 1950s went sour in the ’60s and ’70s, so why couldn’t this happen again? Some of the problems facing California today, as Pastor notes, are quite serious. The housing shortage — and its related homeless crisis — seems intractable. Even when voters agree to allocate funds to address the problem, elected officials don’t seem to know what to do. Developers and housing advocates blame each other. Homeowners and businesses want to move homeless people off the streets but not into their own neighborhoods. NIMBYs argue with YIMBYs. The housing shortage drives up prices in the cities, pushing people to the outlying areas, and there is evidence that younger people, unable to enter the overpriced market, are looking out-of-state. In San Francisco, “low income” is now defined at $117,000 per year.
And is another tax revolt around the corner? With the passage of Prop 30, the so-called “millionaires’ tax,” in 2012 and Prop 55 in 2016, which continued the tax for another 12 years over the opposition of Governor Jerry Brown, we have a situation where one percent of the population provides 50 percent of the tax revenue. While this may be popular, it seems rather shortsighted. Once the next recession hits, which could be soon, incomes will fall and tax revenue will decline accordingly — at the very time it is most needed. Meanwhile, the elimination of full deductions for state taxes in the new GOP tax bill will have a significant impact on middle- and upper-class Californians, broadening support for a new ballot initiative to roll back Props 30 and 55. If voters opt for the ballot initiative to repeal the gas tax in November, it could be the prelude to a new tax revolt.
But if Pastor is right that California is a harbinger for the nation, then one might conclude that Wisconsin and other states could somehow follow its lead toward a new future, one that reintroduces elements of the “laboratory of democracy.” Minnesota, for instance, has, under Governor Mark Dayton and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, used a tax hike to fund all-day kindergarten, expand early childhood education, and increase funding for the University of Minnesota. By comparison with its eastern neighbor, Minnesota has higher wage and job growth, lower unemployment, and higher labor-force participation. Wisconsin has handed out more than $8 billion in tax cuts under Walker, but it has a deficit of $2 billion. Minnesota has a surplus. Why can’t Wisconsin be more like Minnesota?
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin were settled by Scandinavian and German pioneers who brought a communitarian approach to politics — cf. Milwaukee’s famous “Sewer Socialists.” But Wisconsin has long revealed a deeply conservative streak that has produced politicians like Joe McCarthy and right-wing policy groups like the Bradley Foundation. In the early 1980s, when labor unions were celebrating Anthony Earl’s victory in the governor’s race and the Democratic capture of both houses of the state legislature, my friend and colleague Joanne Ricca, a staff representative for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, warned about conservative think tanks and shadowy policy outfits that were organizing in our backyard. She gathered materials and became an expert on the topic, more than willing to expound on the subject to anyone who would listen. What Joanne said could happen did in fact happen, and it started much more quickly than we imagined. Tony Earl turned out to be a one-term governor, crushed in a bruising election by ALEC member Tommy Thompson, the state assembly’s minority leader, who ran on a promise to “clean up the welfare system.” Around the same time, prefiguring the Tea Party by 25 years, local right-wing groups in rural and suburban Wisconsin launched vitriolic attacks against Republican incumbents as “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only). Soon, moderate Republicans, some of whom had quite decent voting records when it came to labor issues, were hounded out of office or “primaried” into retirement. Today’s political polarization has long and deep roots in Wisconsin.
In California, labor unions, local activists, and the Democratic Party benefited from immigration by organizing immigrant communities, electing their candidates from the bottom to the top of the ticket, and advancing a progressive agenda. They have maintained their power despite — or perhaps because of — being identified as leaders of the “State of Resistance” against the Trump agenda. Could this approach work in Wisconsin? Despite the increased immigrant presence in the state, Wisconsin will, unlike California, remain a predominately white state for many years. In California, union membership grew in the last two decades but declined in most other states (Nevada was another exception). No longer protected by the collective bargaining system created in the New Deal era, most of the public-sector unions in Wisconsin have become voluntary associations, with huge losses in membership and very little political power. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, founded in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1932 and (until Walker) the largest union in the state, saw its membership plunge from 63,000 to less than 10,000. Recent activism by teachers in West Virginia and Arizona might provide some hope for Wisconsin teachers, but these battles will be fought in the streets and not at the bargaining table.
Indeed, it is in the streets where the future of union politics will be determined, not just in Wisconsin but across the country — even in the “State of Resistance,” despite Pastor’s glowing assessment of the California revival. Even before the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in the recent Janus case, which allows public-sector employees to receive union benefits without paying for them, the State Policy Network (SPN), anticipating the court’s support for Janus and bankrolled by the Bradley Foundation, had trained canvassers to knock on the doors of 127,000 union members in California, Oregon, and Washington, to convince them to opt out of union membership. Similar campaigns are being conducted from state to state to “defund and defang” the labor movement and reduce the Democratic Party to a permanent minority status. The ultimate goal, already announced in SPN literature, is to enact legislation that allows employers to offer bonuses to employees who are not union members. From reading Pastor’s State of Resistance, we know that union activists, progressives, and Democrats will push back against such an offensive, though things will likely get much worse before they get better.
The collective bargaining system established under the New Deal did not come easily. In 1934, after nearly five years of a crushing depression, tens of thousands of desperate workers joined union activists and radicals to wage violent strikes, job actions, and demonstrations in industries and cities from one end of the country to the other. Threatened by industrial chaos in the middle of a crippled economy, Congress sent the National Labor Relations Act to President Roosevelt in 1935. The new law allowed workers to organize free of interference by employers and substituted a system of collective bargaining for industrial conflict and violence. Most conservatives have consistently opposed unions ever since and have dreamed of eliminating them entirely. Wisconsin shows how this dream can be realized.
Both Kaufman and Pastor use the term “future” in their books’ titles. For ALEC, the SPN, the Bradley Foundation, Trump, Fox News, and a majority in Congress, the Wisconsin model has become the American future. Many Californians, including public-employee union organizers who are mobilizing their members against the threat of extinction, can visualize another, more promising future. It remains to be seen which future will prevail in the Trump era and beyond.
Darryl Holter is a historian, entrepreneur, musician, and owner of an independent bookstore. He has taught history at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA and is an adjunct professor at USC.