The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman

This week I have been having the interesting experience of simultaneously reading two books about the conservative takeover of Wisconsin politics, and the way that Wisconsin became the model for the following ultra-conservative takeover of the country. We have, sadly, become the workshop for the promotion of bad ideas in government.

One of these,  Unethical by Ed Wall, is highly personal. The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman is more a historical treatment of the fall of the Wisconsin Idea, and how we became the harbinger of things to come in the US.

Kaufman takes us through a quick but interesting tour of Wisconsin history and the peculiar mix of nationalities and personalities that grew the Wisconsin most of us remember. It was a state where fairness was an important value, and where ideas and debate where important. It was also a place where Democratic and Republican politicians debated heatedly in Madison and Washington, but at the end of the day would go out for a beer and would occasionally learn something from the other side. Those days are gone.

Citizens United, the assault of money on the electoral and legislative processes, and the death of congeniality have resulted in the state we now live with. Ideology is more important than practicality. Unions and teachers have been mortally wounded. The environment seemingly suffers a new body blow every day. Somehow many of the values we used to revere have been replaced by greed, corruption, and an economic unease being papered over with campaign promises and rhetoric. The budget of the state reflects the new priorities - lowered investment in education and the environment, but plenty of money for business and the well-off.  I knew things had changed when, in the midst of Act 10, suddenly schoolteachers, who had been considered honorable and respectable, became the enemy in the eyes of many in the state.

Kaufman explores the Walker administration and the ensuing changes. The divide-and-conquer strategy built in Act 10 and carried out since, and largely seen through the eyes of Randy Bryce. Environmental disregard and (sometimes) sabotage, largely seen through Mike Wiggins, Jr., the chairman of the Bad River Band. The rise of ALEC in legislation for the state and the country, largely seen trough the eyes of Chris Taylor and Marc Pocan, legislators and embedded observers of ALEC. And the rest of the history of how we got to where we are today. Along the way we meet many others on both sides of the fall.

Of course, as someone who has observed all of this first-hand (though at a short distance from  the Northwest) much of this is familiar, but it's often useful to have someone else draw a framework.  This book serves that purpose well, and revealed some viewpoints and personal stories I did not know well. For example, though I have been acquainted with Lori Compas for some time, I did not know a lot about her personal story of how she decided to challenge Scott Fitzgerald, at first in general, and then as a candidate. From her viewpoint on the night that Fitzgerald and Peter Barca had their infamous argument on the passing of Act 10:

"Barca's standing there yelling, "This is a violation of the law!" Compas said "I just sat there, and I cried. I've never felt so powerless and so frustrated. Regardless of where you stood on this issue, the complete contempt that Fitzgerald was showing for his legislators was unacceptable. That night I think I tweeted: "I will recall Scott Fitzgerald if I have to crawl on my hands and knees through the snow to every house in  his district". 

There are myriad stories in the state of people who have stood up on many fronts. Quite a few of them are told here. Yet, in the end, Wisconsin is now a very different state despite the resistance. If you want to know more about how we got here, I recommend you read The Fall of Wisconsin." I borrowed my copy from my local library. Consider buying a copy. If you normally buy on Amazon, buy it through this link and help us to keep publishing as well.

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Published on

August 12, 2018

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