Past Progressive: Dan Kaufman’s “The Fall of Wisconsin”

By Jake WertzAugust 13, 2018

Past Progressive: Dan Kaufman’s “The Fall of Wisconsin”

The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman

WHAT WILL IT TAKE for Democrats to win again in Wisconsin? For starters, a compelling message and clearer understanding of what they’re up against. New York–based writer Dan Kaufman contributes on both accounts in this debut book, which mines Wisconsin’s past for hopeful glimpses of a progressive future.

A Wisconsin native, Kaufman has spent the better part of a decade documenting the state’s politics, examining the rise of the right while profiling pockets of resistance. The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics is his account of how Wisconsinites now explain the stunning turnabout in their state’s politics, which propelled Donald Trump to the White House.

In Kaufman’s words, this is a story of “how the state went from a widely-admired ‘laboratory of democracy’ to a testing ground for national conservatives.” This state-specific story is also “about the direction of America as a whole.” There’s much in here that an audience of coastal liberals will find illuminating and inspiring — although only the masochists will enjoy the book’s opening pages, a recount of the events of November 8, 2016, as experienced by one Wisconsin Democratic assemblywoman.

As election night proceeds and polling results trickle in, Chris Taylor and her friends first discover they are suffering significant losses in both chambers of the state legislature. Then, Russ Feingold, favored by pollsters in his bid to return to the US Senate, concedes a narrow loss. Many party officials and most of the state’s citizens have gone to bed before television news networks call Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes for Trump, vaulting him above the 270-vote threshold needed to claim the presidency. Chris Taylor wins reelection, but spends the night in tears.

How did things go so horribly wrong? Kaufman informs us that ever since the Civil Rights–era realignment, no Democrat has won the presidency after losing Wisconsin’s primary — and Bernie Sanders won Wisconsin’s Democratic primary by 13 points. For Kaufman and the frustrated state party officials he interviews, the Clinton campaign’s peculiar decision to forgo campaigning on Wisconsin soil merely punctuated her incapacity to connect with the state’s mostly white working-class voters. Given her record of support for free trade agreements and union-busting corporations, Clinton’s failure had been all but inevitable.

Nevertheless, the Clinton campaign is not the primary culprit that emerges from this autopsy report. Following along with Assemblywoman Taylor, Kaufman uncovers a much more insidious foe: a “vast infrastructure” of conservative political organizations, philanthropic foundations, and well-coordinated state legislators. “Republicans have a network,” Taylor recalls thinking to herself after a meeting with overconfident Democratic colleagues in the months prior to the election, “they have infrastructure. We don’t.”

Kaufman’s original reporting takes us inside the infrastructure — to small-town conservative legislative workshops hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (commonly known as ALEC), and a Milwaukee lakefront mansion that houses the Bradley Foundation, an arch-conservative entity connected to a host of right-wing figures and causes, ranging from The Bell Curve author Charles Murray to school vouchers and the political career of Governor Scott Walker.

The Bradley Foundation’s history neatly fits Kaufman’s timeline of the progressivism’s fall in the Badger State. In 1903, Brothers Harry and Lynde Bradley founded an electronic-controls manufacturer in Milwaukee, which blossomed into the Allen-Bradley Company, a defense contractor. Harry created the foundation shortly following his brother’s death in 1942, but its portfolio remained modest until 1985, when fellow defense contractor Rockwell International purchased Allen-Bradley for $1.65 billion.

The foundation’s influence soared as its coffers swelled, and new leaders cemented relationships with national conservative groups. Before long, the Bradley Foundation plotted its takeover of state government — positioning Wisconsin as a testing ground for national expansion of state-level conservative policies — and began grooming candidates for elected office. Among these was a young Scott Walker, the future governor who has counted on Bradley Foundation support in every election since his first winning campaign for the State Assembly in 1992.

No summary of the Republicans’ scheming can exceed that offered in a 2010 campaign-trail exchange between Walker and billionaire roofing-supplies magnate Diane Hendricks, surreptitiously recorded by a documentary film crew. She asks the Republican candidate for governor: “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state, and work on these unions?” Walker replies confidently in the affirmative: “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public-employee unions. Because you use divide-and-conquer.”

Divide-and-conquer worked well for Scott Walker. Partly owing to the Tea Party wave, Walker entered the governor’s office with Republican majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. With Bradley’s backing and ALEC’s playbook, Walker’s Republicans parlayed their narrow victories into lasting structural advantages, decimating public unions with a new labor relations regime, instituting strict photo-ID requirements for voters, and enlisting a Madison law firm to draw gerrymandered legislative district maps that scrambled Democrats’ constituencies into oblivion.

Today, in this historically left-leaning state, Republicans control every branch of government and boast a nearly two-thirds majority in the State Assembly.

Kaufman suggests that if Democrats are to recover from this deficit, they must learn from their past. He knows it won’t be easy. Noting that it had taken three decades of labor activism in the early 20th century for the state to recognize the collective bargaining rights of state employees that Scott Walker’s 2010 budget bill wiped away in an instant, Kaufman grimly concludes that “whatever happens in Wisconsin’s elections in the coming years, it will likely prove more difficult to rebuild the state’s progressive traditions than it was to destroy them.”

From a writer’s perch in Brooklyn, Kaufman is in no position to help Wisconsin Democrats rebuild their badly needed infrastructure, but he is keen to offer inspiration and insight from Wisconsin’s progressive past. He introduces readers to Daniel Hoan and the “sewer socialists” who ran Milwaukee’s city hall from 1916 to 1940, profiling them as “idealistic pragmatists” who bequeathed the city a higher minimum wage, fine public schools, and an extensive parks system that sparkles still. If today’s Democratic Socialists of America — the rapidly growing political movement that recently hoisted 28-year-old political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory over incumbent Joe Crowley — wish to transform their socialist ideology into popular politics that can last a generation, Milwaukee might provide the blueprint.

Hoan is famous in Milwaukee (the graceful tied-arch bridge spanning the city’s harbor bears his name) and Wisconsinites will be familiar with many of the other heroic figures Kaufman introduces: Robert La Follette, Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson, John Bascom, and Sherman Booth. But for the uninitiated, Kaufman’s taut primer on Wisconsin progressivism hits his mark, leaving readers with an inspired impression of the Badger State that matches Teddy Roosevelt’s: “[A] laboratory for wise, experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.”

Duly compelled by Wisconsin’s past, Kaufman now invites us to look toward its future. Will there be a second coming of Wisconsin progressives? What rough beast slouches toward Madison to be born?

Kaufman nominates Randy Bryce: the blue-collar, Bernie-embracing bearer of an “iron ’stache” mounting an underdog campaign for the Wisconsin congressional district presently occupied by Speaker Paul Ryan.

Kaufman (whose 2015 New York Times Magazine article first introduced Bryce to a national audience) is clearly enamored with this ironworker. In remarks on style and substance, Bryce enjoys an unstated but unmistakable comparison with “Fighting Bob” La Follette, whose career in politics spanned five decades, during which he served Wisconsin as governor, US representative, and senator. La Follette once won 78 percent of the state’s vote in a US Senate race, and mounted two formidable campaigns for president. Bryce has only lost elections for state legislature and school board.

Voters will soon decide what the future holds for Randy Bryce, but if Democrats are to make a broad comeback in Wisconsin, they will also need to look toward a cast of candidates who are largely ignored in The Fall of Wisconsin.

Democrat Tammy Baldwin faces a tough battle this November to hold her seat as Wisconsin’s junior US Senator. Kaufman gives her only a passing glance as he summarizes the 2012 campaign. Tomorrow, Democratic primary voters will select a new challenger to take on Scott Walker. Candidates include Kelda Roys, a tech entrepreneur and pro-choice activist; Kathleen Vinehout, a state senator who moonlights as a dairy farmer; and Mahlon Mitchell, a fireman who leads the state fire fighters’ union. They are a tremendously diverse group. None are profiled here.

These omissions reflect a major unresolved challenge for Kaufman’s thesis. He urges us to look toward Wisconsin’s past for a roadmap to the future, but all the heroes he identifies were white males. Baldwin is the nation’s first openly gay Senator. Two women and one African-American man are among the frontrunners in the Democratic primary for governor. A progressive movement led by these voices is bound to have some new and different priorities. With these changes, Democrats must forge a new path to electoral victory. What will it be?

That’s a very complicated question, which is why only time and the messy process of elections can ever provide the answer. But in the meantime, for as long as white working-class voters maintain their power to swing elections, Kaufman’s The Fall of Wisconsin will be an indispensable guide for activists who wish to have any hope of taking on the vast Republican infrastructure.


Jake Wertz is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Prior to graduate school, he helped establish and grow charter schools in Los Angeles and Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Jake Wertz is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Prior to graduate school, he helped establish and grow charter schools in Los Angeles and Chicago.


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