One hot July day in 2005 I was among the 4,000 people jammed into the State Capitol to honor a Wisconsin hero, Gaylord Nelson. It was the largest Rotunda memorial service since the one for Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette some 80 years before.
Speakers from both parties celebrated the former Democratic governor and U.S. senator for his early opposition to the Vietnam War, support for civil rights and the founding of Earth Day. I had met Nelson when he was a senator and later interviewed him again at The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C., where he served on the board after leaving the Senate. For all his accomplishments and fame, he was a profoundly humble man.
Nearly a decade after the service, his daughter, Tia Nelson, was at a reception with Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who she said slighted her father’s memory, albeit politely. “Governor Walker couldn’t bring himself to say anything nice about my father,” Nelson told author Dan Kaufman in his soon-to-be-released book on Wisconsin politics. “But he went to the effort of telling me the story of someone that he liked who spoke well of my father, which I thought was very clever.”
Wisconsin Republicans like Walker and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan are disdainful of the state’s proud progressive history.
Kaufman wrote about how Ryan called progressivism a “cancer” in a 2010 radio interview, telling the host that he wanted to “indict the entire vision of progressivism.” Ryan said intellectuals at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted a “centralized, bureaucratic welfare state,” adding that: “I grew up in the orbit of Madison, Wisconsin. I know who these people are. I know what they think. I know what they believe.”
Ryan, who paid for college aided by Social Security payments after his father’s death, grew up wealthy, a friend said in the book, benefiting from a large inheritance. My thought as I read: Born on third, thinks he hit a triple, wants to deny others the chance to even get on base.
To me, these vignettes about two of Wisconsin’s most prominent contemporary Republicans stood out in Kaufman’s book, which is titled: “The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics.”
I have communicated through the years with Kaufman. He lives in New York City, but his childhood home on Madison’s west side is within 100 yards of mine. His late father, Jerry, was a prominent UW-Madison professor of urban and regional planning who encouraged students toward community engagement.
Dan Kaufman has written intermittently about Wisconsin politics in recent years for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. Coincidentally, I finished reading an advance copy of his book the same day that the Wisconsin State Journal published a self-congratulatory column by Walker claiming he deserves a third term for moving the state “forward.”
While Kaufman’s book focuses primarily on the “fall” after Walker’s 2010 election and relentless pursuit of “divide and conquer” politics since, the first part is devoted to describing the Wisconsin that once made so many of us proud to live here.
It celebrates leaders like La Follette, the environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and yes, Gaylord Nelson. For decades, Kaufman wrote, Wisconsin was known as a laboratory of democracy, the birthplace of labor and environmental movements, and home to the cherished Wisconsin Idea, which championed expertise in the service of the public good. (Walker famously tried to remove the term from the UW’s mission statement, then backed down and blamed a “drafting error.”)
As Kaufman focuses on Walker’s impact, two familiar themes emerge as central to his success. First has been his ability to turn so many in Wisconsin against well-meaning middle-class public servants through absurd caricatures trumpeted far and wide thanks to the almost limitless financial backing of far-right zealots.
Second was Walker’s success at dividing labor by telling road builders, iron workers and law enforcement officers that the GOP was targeting the bargaining rights of other workers, not them, only to later pass “right-to-work” legislation disemboweling their union bargaining as well.
Kaufman’s book is carefully organized and thoroughly reported. It features many names prominent in the politics of this decade — former centrist state senators Dale Schultz, a Republican, and Tim Cullen, a Democrat; UW-Madison political scientist Kathy Cramer; environmentalist Tia Nelson; and Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison, who courageously shone a light on the American Legislative Exchange Council and its mission to craft far-right legislation for statehouses nationwide.
The book also catalogs how Republicans have tried to rig the game with scads of untraceable dark money, outrageous gerrymandering, draconian voter identification laws to suppress voter turnout, and so on. The suppressed turnout was a particularly important factor in Trump’s 2016 presidential victory because it helped him win a razor-thin victory in Wisconsin — a pivotal swing state.
But if you read this column regularly, you probably follow the news and will find few big surprises in Kaufman’s book. Even so, the book succeeds, and here’s why.
The rat-a-tat-tat of daily newspaper stories provides roughly equal voices reflecting the warring sides. This episodic, non-contextual approach to “equivalency” journalism creates a white-noise effect around the news. (Walker exploits this these days by pretending to be a friend of public education in Wisconsin when he has in fact been its archenemy for almost all of his tenure. Recent polling apparently suggested he needed to change his election-year tune.)
The greatest power of Kaufman’s book is in offering context, telling the master narrative of how over time the GOP let fat-cat donors write legislation and how Republicans have made Wisconsin politics incredibly petty and vindictive. All along, Walker and the state GOP have answered primarily to the Bradley Foundation, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and not, as they pretend, to the ordinary small-town and rural voter.
Those who already agree with my analysis will likely scoop up Kaufman’s book, which goes on sale next month, and that’s fine, but where it should really be read is in Walker-friendly homes, bars, restaurants, libraries, bowling alleys and coffee shops across the state.
If that somehow happened, Republicans might well try to ban it. After all, stifling democracy is their version of the Wisconsin Idea.