The Undoing of Progressive Wisconsin: An Excerpt from a Major New Book on the State's Political Transformation.

AuthorKaufman, Dan

At one thirty in the morning on election night in 2016, the networks called Wisconsin, awarding Donald Trump the state's ten electoral college votes and pushing him past the 270-vote threshold needed to win the White House. Wisconsin had just elevated Trump to the presidency. "Wisconsin! Wisconsin. Wisconsin was barely in play!" Megyn Kelly said on Fox News. On CNN, Jake Tapper called the result "stunning."

While Trump's victory may have shocked the media, it merely heralded the final stage of Wisconsin's dramatic transformation from a pioneering beacon of progressive, democratic politics to the embodiment of that legacy's national unraveling. Powerful conservative donors and organizations across the country had Wisconsin in their sights years before the 2016 election, helping Governor Scott Walker and his allies systematically change the state's political culture.

Wisconsin's history made it an especially attractive and important target. In the early twentieth century, icons like the populist senator and governor Robert La Follette, who was known as Fighting Bob, and movements like Milwaukee's pragmatic "sewer socialism" forged an enduring progressive tradition. La Follette instituted numerous reforms--direct primaries, banning corporate donations to political candidates, and civil-service protections.

"Democracy is a life, and involves continual struggle," La Follette wrote in his autobiography. "It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated."

Throughout the twentieth century, Wisconsin led the country in devising pioneering legislation that aided the vast majority of its citizens. In 1911, the state legislature established the nation's first workers' compensation program, a progressive state income tax, and more stringent child-labor laws. The following year, former President Theodore Roosevelt described Wisconsin as a "laboratory for wise, experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole."

The state's progressive spirit continued for generations, influencing the entire country: Wisconsin created the first unemployment-insurance program and was the first state to recognize collective bargaining rights for municipal employees. Indeed, much of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, including the Social Security Act, was drafted by Wisconsinites loyal to what is called the Wisconsin Idea, an ethos that placed a moral obligation on the University of Wisconsin to serve the citizens of the state.

More broadly, the Wisconsin Idea encouraged legislation, informed by the expertise of the university's faculty, aimed at creating a more equitable society. Its humanistic reach extended to Great Society programs like Medicare, designed by another Wisconsinite under its sway decades later. More than any other state, Wisconsin embodied Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's hope that states might become "laboratories of democracy."

But in recent years, Wisconsin has gone from being a widely admired "laboratory of democracy" to a testing ground for national conservatives bent on remaking American politics. Its century-old progressive legacy has been dismantled in virtually every area: labor rights, environmental protection, voting rights, government transparency.

By the time Speaker of the House Paul Ryan declared in April that he would be returning home to Janesville rather than running for reelection, Wisconsin had experienced one of the largest declines of the middle class of any state in the country. Its poverty rate had climbed to a thirty-year high; the state's roads were the second worst in the country; the University of Wisconsin-Madison had fallen, for the first time, out of the rankings of the country's top five research schools. A study estimated that 11 percent of the states population was deterred from voting in the 2016 presidential election by Wisconsin's new voter ID law, one of the strictest in the nation.

Wisconsin's precipitous fall should...

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