What’s the Matter With Wisconsin?

The state’s motto is “Forward,” but it’s now turning its back on a rich progressive history.

Theo Anderson

(Photo by: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At the turn of the last century, Wisconsin was a critical incubator of early progressivism. In one year alone, 1911, Wisconsin’s legislature passed laws that created the nation’s first compensation fund for injured workers, a state income tax, environmental conservation programs and protections for women and children in the workplace. 

Now, Wisconsin is at the vanguard of a movement that aims to undermine the political tradition it helped to create. The outcome of the 2010 congressional races in Wisconsin suggests sobering challenges for progressives at the national level. Democrats lost two seats in the House races, giving Republicans a 5-3 advantage. It’s the first GOP majority within Wisconsin’s congressional delegation since the mid-1990s. In the Senate, Democrats lost progressive stalwart Russ Feingold to a plastics manufacturer and Tea Party favorite son, Ron Johnson, who has dismissed the science of global warming as lunacy.” Johnson’s campaign focused primarily on job growth, which he believes will be accomplished by lowering taxes and slashing government regulations. 

But it’s in the realm of Wisconsin’s state-level politics that the rising challenge to progressivism comes into stark focus. The GOP took control of both houses of the Wisconsin legislature and also won the governorship – a one-day power shift unparalleled in Wisconsin since 1938. The new governor, Scott Walker, served as the Milwaukee County Executive before the election. As with Sen. Johnson’s, the central themes of Walker’s campaign were fiscal responsibility and the promise of a less regulated, more pro-business” Wisconsin. Walker’s time in office will offer an interesting test of the 19th-century dogma that has defined the GOP for three decades – supply-side economics,” the idea that lowering tax rates actually increases tax revenue by promoting economic growth. On other fronts as well, Wisconsin appears ready to blaze a trail back to the nineteenth century:

Killing public works projects. Walker campaigned aggressively against a proposed high-speed train linking Milwaukee and Madison, calling it a boondoggle” that would saddle the state with unsustainable repair and upkeep costs. In December, the $810 million in federal construction funding that had been awarded to Wisconsin was redirected to several other states. 

Demonizing unions. The percentage of unionized workers in America’s private sector has fallen sharply in recent decades, from about one-third in the late 1970s to the current rate of less than seven percent, according to Labor Department figures. But in the public sector, the trend has gone in the opposite direction: from 11 percent in 1960 to 36 percent today. And that, according to Walker, is one of the major reasons for Wisconsin’s fiscal woes.

. In Wisconsin, as in 43 other states, legislators have free reign in shaping congressional districts. The newly Republican-controlled legislature is certain to draw new boundaries in ways that tighten Republicans’ grip on their current seats while disadvantaging Democrats. And the Republican wave ensured that the same is true across the nation – 19 state legislatures switched from Democratic to Republican control in November, giving the GOP control of 26 legislatures, versus the Democrats’ 17. This state-level tsunami was the most damaging defeat for Democrats in 2010 and the most important political news story of the year.

On January 14, the Republican National Committee elected a new chairman – Reince Priebus, formerly Wisconsin state party chair. The choice reflected both the party’s intensely anti-progressive mood and the Wisconsin GOP’s recent success in convincing the state to reject its greatest political legacy. Joseph McCarthy, of course, is also an important part of the state’s legacy. He was born near Appleton, Wis., where the far-right John Birch Society is now headquartered, and he dominated American political culture in the early 1950s. But when he died in 1957, he was replaced by Democrat William Proxmire, who fit well within the state’s progressive tradition. Whether the recent rightward lurch in Wisconsin is the beginning of a new and transformative era for the state and the nation, or just a McCarthy-like aberration, remains to be seen. The stakes have never been higher.

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Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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