A conversation about “The Fall Of Wisconsin”

Journalist and musician Dan Kaufman shares his new book on July 25 at A Room of One’s Own.

Journalist and musician Dan Kaufman shares his new book on July 25 at A Room of One’s Own. (Photo by Andrew T. Warman.)

Just about anyone living in Wisconsin would agree on one thing: The state’s political landscape has undergone a drastic transformation since Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011. Walker, who is now seeking a third term, has worked with strong Republican majorities in the state legislature to demolish public-sector unions, weaken private-sector unions through a 2015 right-to-work law, roll back environmental protections, impose new restrictions on voting, secure billions in state subsidies for Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, and draw aggressively gerrymandered legislative maps—to name just a few items on the agenda. In 2016, Donald Trump became the first presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan to win Wisconsin’s electoral votes. Trump in large part won through Walker-like appeals to Middle American grievance (wrecking Walker’s own bid for the GOP nomination in the process), and has exported Walker’s norm-shattering style of governance to the federal level, albeit with his own chaotic and xenophobic stamp.

Madison native, journalist, and musician Dan Kaufman sets out to capture the enormity and broader significance of the state’s political transformation in his new book The Fall Of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest Of A Progressive Bastion And The Future Of American Politics. Drawing in part on reporting he’s done for The New Yorker and The New York Times since 2011, Kaufman offers what he calls “a street-level view” of Walker-era struggles over labor rights, environmental protection, and corporate influence in politics. Even for politically engaged people around the state who’ve been marinating in this stuff non-stop for the past seven years, Kaufman’s deep reporting and his passionate but not idealized portrayal of Wisconsin political history—a history defined as much by Tail-Gunner Joe as by Fighting Bob—should prove refreshing. Ahead of his July 25 book-tour stop at A Room of One’s Own, Kaufman spoke with me about the erosion of the public sphere, the important role of Native American activists in his book, and how Madison has changed.


Tone Madison: Was there any wrestling over the language in the book’s title, and what “the fall” might mean to readers?

Dan Kaufman: Yeah… Nothing can capture it all, and obviously I know some people might think it’s too definitive. I wasn’t saying that this fall was permanent or anything like that. I do think it accurately conveys what has happened to the state over the past seven years from where it was. I haven’t seen that revival—I mean, I think it’s still fallen. The book does chronicle people that do not accept this state of affairs and follows them, and it’s sort of their stories that are at the heart of the book.

So, yes, I’m aware that it might strike certain people in a certain way—myself included!—but I do think it’s accurate and telling about what has happened to the state. And it doesn’t mean just this economic issue or that, but a kind of division among citizens that has settled in, you know, that Kathy Cramer talks about in the book, and part of that division is what drove Donald Trump to win Wisconsin. I think that didn’t come out of nowhere, although the state has always had different moments of division. There’s never been anything quite like this. So I guess the long answer to your question is, the title maybe is provocative but I think it does convey what’s happened to the state. Anything from the university to people’s wages to the public school system to the environment, you can’t really claim that removing half of the hilltops in central Wisconsin [for frac sand mining] is anything but a fall from what the state’s past was, especially regarding the environment, or rewriting a mining law to serve a corporation owned by a billionaire right near the most pristine watershed in the state.

Tone Madison: You do end the book on somewhat of an optimistic note—

Dan Kaufman: Well, I try. And I do feel that way. I think there’s people in the state that care deeply about bringing people back together and back to a Wisconsin that wasn’t so bitterly divided.

Tone Madison: So the bigger point is capturing the scale or totality of what’s happened, basically.

Dan Kaufman: I think so, and it’s not permanent. I didn’t say that there can’t be a revival, but for the moment, I think it’s not in a good place. You still have environmental laws being shredded and labor is very much weakened and there’s an incredible sense of division….so that’s what the book largely follows. But it does it through people that refuse to accept that as a permanent state. I do think that there’s a hopeful note, and their refusal, the memory of what existed before, is still there and still possible to recapture a state that in a bipartisan way, for decades, shared a lot of values that many people admired, not just in Wisconsin but across the country.

Tone Madison: At what point did you realize that the story was bigger than Act 10, or a few specific policies or politicians?

Dan Kaufman: Well, I think right from the beginning. I don’t know if you remember in 2011, but [UW-Madison professor] Bill Cronon wrote a blog post about the involvement of ALEC in possibly drafting Act 10 and some other policies that were being quickly introduced. And it was clear from right then and from the infamous phone call of a blogger that impersonated David Koch that there were outside interests trying to shape Wisconsin’s policies. These interests were operating in states across the country. Wisconsin was particularly interesting because it did have this progressive past, and that’s also made it an important target for conservatives. Scott Walker said as much in his—I don’t know if you’d call it a memoir, but in his book Unintimidated he said, “If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.” And in a sense that’s true, and you saw that the resistance to these policies was much greater in Wisconsin than virtually anywhere else. However, when that resistance was overwhelmed, when the recall was defeated—it did seem to effect the national mood. That said, there has been an uprising recently, in Oklahoma and West Virginia and so on, around teachers’ issues and labors. But I think it was clear because Bill Cronon wrote this blog post and the Republicans demanded that the university release his emails, because ostensibly he’s a state employee, although nothing like that had ever happened before, and I think it was clear that these were national influences.

Tone Madison: In the book, you touch on a lot of the events that happened in early 2011 that at the time felt like very Wisconsin-specific things, and unpack them in a greater national context, including the palm-tree footage incident. That’s still an in-joke around Madison but it’s telling in its own way.

Dan Kaufman: [Laughs] I agree, and I mentioned that detail in the book because it really captured Madison, and the humor. And you have to remember that the people who were protesting were from all over the state. The idea that they were just from Madison was ludicrous. It was very different than a lot of the protests in the ’60s. It was people driving five or six hours, simply just to testify for two minutes, from Hayward, Wisconsin, to register their opposition knowing that they weren’t going to be listened to—but doing this nonetheless because they had this, I find touching, belief that this was their government. So I think that was part of it, but there was a lot of humor in there too.

Tone Madison: The book spends a lot of time trying to examine the role of organized labor in Wisconsin politics in a more nuanced way. People forget that there were Republicans who courted union support for a long time, and that even Walker, as you point out, courted unions for support and made promises to them. Were you trying to challenge the conception that the labor movement is an exclusively Democratic Party-aligned force?


Dan Kaufman: I think so, and that was a theme throughout the book, was that Wisconsin was never just a Democratic state. First of all, there was always right-wing populism that had resonance there. I mean, two things stick out: They elected Joe McCarthy twice, and George Wallace actually started his [1964 presidential] campaign there. That said, for decades there was a bipartisan acceptance around certain issues. For example, government transparency, or voting rights, very antithetical to the spirit of the voter-ID law that they passed. And labor rights. Warren Knowles was the one that codified collective bargaining—he was a Republican in the late ’60s—for the state. He put it into law. He was the one that signed it. Fred Risser, I think he’s the longest-serving state legislator in America today living anywhere, he told me that there was never a partisan vote on the public-employee contracts. It was always, in the Assembly, like 98 to 2 or something.

But if you look at Scott Walker’s inaugural address in 2011, he lays it out very clearly. He says, “the time is over for the public employees, they can no longer be the haves and the taxpayers be the have-nots.” I’m quoting it badly, but that’s the gist of it, was that the public employees were the privileged class and everyone else wasn’t. And privately, of course, he laid out his agenda in the remarkable footage captured by Brad Lichtenstein, where he is telling his most important donor probably, Diane Hendricks, a Beloit billionaire, that he’s going to use “divide and conquer” to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, and more than that, make it a red state. That’s what she was referring to. So he was actively trying to change the political culture by attacking labor.

What I was trying to remind people of was that everybody was—well, most everybody accepted it. In the ’50s, 35 percent of the population were in unions. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said that if anybody tried to end the New Deal, that would be the end of them. But that wasn’t always true. Underneath it, what he was responding to, was that there were powerful industrialists—including Harry Bradley, who later set up the Bradley Foundation—who never accepted the New Deal. Two of them were prominent Wisconsin industrialists who were very involved in the John Birch Society, Harry Bradley and William Grede. Part of the book tries to capture the relentlessness of the effort to not have the government do anything like Social Security or Medicare. They basically felt this was tantamount to socialism and the end of freedom. Now, whether they were sincere or just masking greed, I can’t say. But many of these powerful industrialists never accepted the New Deal and they would chip away at it.

That effort had a second wind in the early 1970s when ALEC and the Heritage Foundation and all these groups were founded, galvanized by the secret memo from Lewis Powell. Wisconsin for a long time was not really part of that, but then even there, it wasn’t just Scott Walker. Tommy Thompson would go to ALEC meetings, and in fact he famously was quoted at one saying, “I like to come to ALEC meetings because I get ideas here, I disguise them a little bit, and I say that they’re mine.” Well, he launched the first charter school program in the country in Milwaukee. It succeeded because the African-American community was terribly ill-served by the schools. Some leaders signed onto it, understandably, but ALEC’s real goal has always been to privatize education, and they’re willing to do it piecemeal, and now they’re getting very far in that effort. They’re really fighting a sort of attritional war on things that had been well-settled in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Tone Madison: It’s interesting that you mention Thompson, because people often see him as a remnant of a time when there was more consensus and cooperation in state politics. And in hindsight, he has more of a connection to what’s happening now than his public image suggests.

Dan Kaufman: That’s right, and it’s attritional. And relatively speaking, he was that way, and he did sometimes listen to the other side, and he won reelection by two-thirds of the vote partly because he did govern that way. But at the same time, he was undermining it, and I would say the same of many Democrats too. For example, Jim Doyle, as he was leaving in 2010, after Walker had won, he bragged about making more cuts to state employees than any governor’s ever made. Well, that sends a very powerful signal that those people’s work and what they do is not really valued. Bill Clinton did a similar thing on the national scale. He appropriated Thompson’s model both for welfare reform and for school choice. Wisconsin has been a laboratory for conservatives for quite some time as well, even though its previous history was as a laboratory for progressives.

Tone Madison: UW-Madison political scientist Kathy Cramer and her book The Politics Of Resentment are a big part of the public discussion in Wisconsin right now, and you touch on that in The Fall Of Wisconsin. As you were growing up in Madison, were you aware of this tension that Cramer talks about between Madison and the rest of the state?

Dan Kaufman: I think I was probably less aware of it than I should have been. That effort goes back a long time. [Republican Governor] Lee Dreyfus famously said that Madison was 30 square miles surrounded by reality. Not to get pedantic, but it’s 50 square miles. [Editor’s note: The figure is higher now.] We were all aware of it, and there were proud Madison T-shirts that said “30 square miles surrounded by reality,” or something. But at the same time, I think that was always present, and Kathy talked about it. And one thing where, I’m not sure if I differ with her, but this is more my focus, is that I don’t think these things come out of nowhere. I think that they are very appealing in times of scarcity. And certainly the Vietnam War was a big part of it, but what has often been the fuel of it I think is that it’s a time of real economic insecurity for a lot of people. If someone presents a narrative like “these people are to blame,” it’s very easy to be convinced, especially when the other side isn’t saying, “No no no, we need to lift everyone up. These people have good health insurance and you should, too.” That message I don’t think was very clear.

When you go into these rural communities, oftentimes a schoolteacher is the only person who has health insurance. It’s become very unaffordable, whereas previously farmers might have been able to buy it for themselves. And that’s a big part of the book, too—the depletion of these rural communities. I think about it as something that’s also been stoked by people like Walker, and also people like Jim Doyle. If rhetorically you’re undermining the idea that people are serving the community and doing a really good job—and often their wages are less than they would make in the private sector, even though they have better benefits—there’s also a cost to that. That wasn’t very clear from the Democratic side, and I think especially when Walker announced Act 10, that was still right in the financial crisis and people’s livelihoods were slipping away. When somebody says, “these people have something that you don’t”—and in fact Walker ran an ad about his brother, about how he would like to have health insurance and a pension—but his solution was to take it away from people, essentially. He didn’t totally take it away, but he made them pay a lot more for it and took away their right to have a unified voice in the conditions of their employment.

Tone Madison: The book focuses quite a bit on the role of Native American activists, who often get overshadowed in the state and national conversation. Why did you place so much emphasis on those communities and their stories?

Dan Kaufman: I was really captivated by what they were doing. The issue of the mine, the GTAC mine in northern Wisconsin, became very emblematic of how policy was written, who it was written for, and their fight against it was probably the most compelling fight. For a lot of labor activists it was too, but [for Native Americans] it really is a life-or-death issue. They survive on the bounty of the land still, the walleye they catch, the very sensitive wild rice beds. Their connection to the land, particularly in Lake Superior, is a religious experience, and I was very moved by it. They were very welcoming to it. I became particularly close to Mike Wiggins but also to Joe Rose. They helped me and led me into the story. It was captivating to me because I’ve always been interested in their culture and particularly their environmental ethos. Several thousand years before Aldo Leopold, they operated on a kind of land-ethic mentality, their own version. It’s very profound and very moving, and they’re willing to fight. This is their home. I mean, it’s everyone else’s home in Wisconsin too, but it’s their home in a very profound way. The lake is their home as well. And I just felt that there’s so much wisdom here, particularly in the era of climate change, this idea of the seventh generation, and thinking things beyond this short-term mentality.

For example, the GTAC press releases would tout that there would probably be jobs for 50 years. Well, that’s, like, two generations. Nothing. I mean, so to deplete a whole area without any kind of long-term consideration, one of the most pristine watersheds in the state, feeding Lake Superior with 10 percent of its freshwater surface? It just made little sense from their point of view, and their point of view, sadly, was written out from most of the discussion. There were some incredibly racist things said about them in the state legislature. I mean, basically, this is what [retired Republican State Senator] Dale [Schultz] would tell me, [that legislators would say] “Oh, we don’t have to listen to them.” It was heartbreaking. Where I come from, I’m always attracted to the underdog a little bit, or the person that doesn’t have a voice. That’s why I feel compelled to write journalism. There were a lot of victims of these policies in Wisconsin, but [Native American communities] were some of the most compelling to me. And I enjoyed spending time with them and learning from them. I have a profound respect for them and was very grateful that they were so open with me, because they obviously haven’t been treated well, and often haven’t been treated well by the media, so it was an honor to spend time with them and get their story out to a national audience.

Tone Madison: Not to spend too much time on this, but the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a story earlier this month about some things Randy Bryce says about unions in the book, and the story presents it as Bryce basically disparaging the role of unions in politics. There’s been some debate over whether it’s been taken out of context. What do you make of that?

Dan Kaufman: I think it was taken out of context, yeah. Randy wasn’t saying that the unions precipitated Act 10, but that there was a passivity in the unions that allowed this to happen. What he was saying is that we have to really get our act together, the labor movement, and it was more of a call to arms. The headline in particular was taken out of context. The quotes themselves were actually published three years earlier. Portions of the book had been published in different articles that I had written, which is acknowledged in the front of the book. Those particular quotes were from that. That article was a 6,000 word article and that book was 80,000 words.

If you can take from that book that Randy Bryce is somehow undermining the labor movement, it just doesn’t make any sense. I just encourage people to read the whole thing. And I understand that nothing is perfect. Newspapers are trying to attract readers. I don’t want to get into a sparring war with anyone, but it’s hard in this day and age to get more than just quick sound bytes to everybody’s social media and so on. But that’s one of the joys and pleasures of a book, or a long magazine piece—it can make things make sense. When you read the whole piece, you can see exactly what Randy is saying. I don’t think he was saying anything that many labor leaders weren’t saying, and I don’t think he was saying that they propagated Act 10 or that they themselves were dinosaurs. [Editor’s note: The direct quote is: “People think that unions are useless today, that we’re dinosaurs.”] Well, how did that happen? And he was saying, we haven’t been active enough and we need to get away from our bubble. They need to reach out to the community. One thing Randy started doing was going to marches for Black Lives Matter, for immigrants’ rights. That was the labor movement’s role historically. I mean, the labor movement was instrumental in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. said as much.

Tone Madison: On your book tour, you’re stopping in Madison and Milwaukee, but also Oconomowoc and Spring Green—places where not necessarily everyone that shows up is going to be receptive to the message of your book. What kind of conversations are you hoping to have?

Dan Kaufman: I hope to have the same kind of conversation I’m having with you, and like I said, I think there’s a lot of Republicans that sort of have the view of Dale Schultz as well. I think there used to be certain areas that were agreed upon by both sides. I spoke to Eric O’Keefe [a right-wing political activist based in Spring Green], Scott Fitzgerald [the Wisconsin State Senate’s Republican majority leader], I love talking to anybody as a journalist to uncover what really happened. So I’m anxious and excited to talk to anyone, people that disagree with me, too.

I do think that at a fundamental level, most everybody would like a connection as a citizen between themselves and their representatives. I feel like given Citizens United and previous rulings, that’s very difficult to have. Money in my view really does make that kind of politics difficult, when you have to spend a million dollars for a state assembly race. It’s challenging to maintain your integrity, to maintain your access to your constituents without too much in between that…you used to be able to run for State Assembly for $8,000, and you used to have more dairy farmers in the State Assembly, just working citizens. I think that’s one thing that’s captivating about, say, Randy Bryce—or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—just citizens. It isn’t necessarily a job that has to be for a professional class. Originally it was supposed to be citizen representatives, and it’s gotten far from that, partly because of the difficulty of doing that. But in Wisconsin, that tradition lasted a long time. And one of the most admirable traditions, and I think a lot of Republicans agreed with this, is that there was very little money in Wisconsin politics. That was something that Bob LaFollette really emphasized, was trying to limit that money in the public sphere. And you can have conservative views within that. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be a progressive.

Tone Madison: What’s next on your plate?

Dan Kaufman: I’m following politics, of course. I wouldn’t mind a very brief break when my travels around the book are finished. A little vacation with my family—it’s been a pretty intense period. But I hope to keep following the characters that I followed, but also I feel like it is a decisive moment in the country, and a lot of what happened in Wisconsin is very relevant to that and in fact emblematic of it. So I plan to keep writing and I plan  to keep playing music. I’m going to be in Spain and Portugal for a couple of days for a very quick trip for a couple of shows later this month. And I’m looking forward to talking about the book in Wisconsin, particularly. But also in Minneapolis and Chicago.

I’ve been in New York for a long time but the Midwest is still in my heart. What motivated me to write this book and to write all my articles was a real passion for this state and a sense of gratitude, I suppose, for what it provided for me. And I covered a lot that I didn’t know, a lot of this remarkable history around Milwaukee socialism and Fighting Bob, things that I knew something about but not enough. It’s a really incredible state that still has so much to offer, and I think you see that these questions are not settled. You can see a resurgence of some of the movement around Act 10 in things like Randy Bryce’s campaign and other aspects. I don’t think people want to let go of those previous ideals. That said, the state has changed a lot too—every place has. That’s not just Scott Walker. I mean, even by the early ’90s, Madison became a fair bit fancier than I remembered it. It just changed. And that maybe also contributed to some of the resentment. When I was growing up, in some ways I didn’t feel like Madison was as different from the rest of the state as it is now. It was kind of sleepy, honestly. I mean, there was always the ’60s movements and remnants of that, but it didn’t feel quite as—you know, restaurants and so on—the culture changed. There were good things with that and less-good things. It became more alien to maybe some people from rural areas. We used to have lunch at Walgreen’s—well, it was called Rennebohm’s. The Square, nothing was happening there. It was failing business or shuttered businesses, largely. It was just a very different place, and maybe that is part of the story as well. There’s been a lot of money in Madison, Epic and so on, and it’s gotten a little bit more distant. And some of these rural places are struggling even more than they were. There were 150,000 dairy farms in 1945, and there’s less than 9,000 today. You’re talking about an incredible depletion of rural life and these communities. And you go to some of them and there’s a lot of shuttered businesses, Main Streets that you don’t see a car going down. That was a part of the anger that fueled both Walker’s ascent and Trump’s.

Tone Madison: What do you make of the Governor’s race so far?

Dan Kaufman: Not sure what to make of it! It seems like a bit of a free-for-all stage. I’ve paid attention a bit. I know Paul Soglin’s running, Kelda Roys. I know most of the names but it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear path. I’m as baffled as you. What the book is trying to do is look at politics from a different perspective. The reason I got interested in Randy Bryce has nothing to do with his Congressional race, it had to do with him as a labor organizer. I follow politics very intensely, but less so electoral politics. It’s not the focus of my work journalistically. I’m looking for a little bit more of the unseen perspective, less-noted stuff like the battle against the mine and what that did. [Madison State Representative] Chris Taylor is a politician and somebody who figures prominently in the book, and I was interested in her role in ALEC as a member trying to go there to expose what they were doing, rather than her as an elected official.


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