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The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics

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For more than a century, Wisconsin has been known nationwide for its progressive ideas and government. It famously served as a "laboratory of democracy," a cradle of the labor and environmental movements, and birthplace of the Wisconsin Idea, which championed expertise in the service of the common good. But following a Republican sweep of the state’s government in 2010, Wi For more than a century, Wisconsin has been known nationwide for its progressive ideas and government. It famously served as a "laboratory of democracy," a cradle of the labor and environmental movements, and birthplace of the Wisconsin Idea, which championed expertise in the service of the common good. But following a Republican sweep of the state’s government in 2010, Wisconsin’s political heritage was overturned, and the state went Republican for the first time in three decades in the 2016 presidential election, elevating Donald J. Trump to the presidency. The Fall of Wisconsin is a deeply reported, searing account of how the state’s progressive tradition was undone and turned into a model for national conservatives bent on remaking the country. Dan Kaufman, a Wisconsin native who has been covering the story for several years, traces the history of progressivism that made Wisconsin so widely admired, from the work of celebrated politicians like Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and Gaylord Nelson, to local traditions like Milwaukee’s “sewer socialism,” to the conservationist ideas of Aldo Leopold and the state’s Native American tribes. Kaufman reveals how the “divide-and-conquer” strategy of Governor Scott Walker and his allies pitted Wisconsin’s citizens against one another so powerful corporations and wealthy donors could effectively take control of state government. As a result, laws protecting voting rights, labor unions, the environment, and public education were rapidly dismantled. Neither sentimental nor despairing, Kaufman also chronicles the remarkable efforts of citizens who are fighting to reclaim Wisconsin’s progressive legacy against tremendous odds: Chris Taylor, a Democratic assemblywoman exposing the national conservative infrastructure, Mike Wiggins, the head of a Chippewa tribe battling an out-of-state mining company, and Randy Bryce, the ironworker whose long-shot challenge to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has galvanized national resistance to Trump.


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For more than a century, Wisconsin has been known nationwide for its progressive ideas and government. It famously served as a "laboratory of democracy," a cradle of the labor and environmental movements, and birthplace of the Wisconsin Idea, which championed expertise in the service of the common good. But following a Republican sweep of the state’s government in 2010, Wi For more than a century, Wisconsin has been known nationwide for its progressive ideas and government. It famously served as a "laboratory of democracy," a cradle of the labor and environmental movements, and birthplace of the Wisconsin Idea, which championed expertise in the service of the common good. But following a Republican sweep of the state’s government in 2010, Wisconsin’s political heritage was overturned, and the state went Republican for the first time in three decades in the 2016 presidential election, elevating Donald J. Trump to the presidency. The Fall of Wisconsin is a deeply reported, searing account of how the state’s progressive tradition was undone and turned into a model for national conservatives bent on remaking the country. Dan Kaufman, a Wisconsin native who has been covering the story for several years, traces the history of progressivism that made Wisconsin so widely admired, from the work of celebrated politicians like Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and Gaylord Nelson, to local traditions like Milwaukee’s “sewer socialism,” to the conservationist ideas of Aldo Leopold and the state’s Native American tribes. Kaufman reveals how the “divide-and-conquer” strategy of Governor Scott Walker and his allies pitted Wisconsin’s citizens against one another so powerful corporations and wealthy donors could effectively take control of state government. As a result, laws protecting voting rights, labor unions, the environment, and public education were rapidly dismantled. Neither sentimental nor despairing, Kaufman also chronicles the remarkable efforts of citizens who are fighting to reclaim Wisconsin’s progressive legacy against tremendous odds: Chris Taylor, a Democratic assemblywoman exposing the national conservative infrastructure, Mike Wiggins, the head of a Chippewa tribe battling an out-of-state mining company, and Randy Bryce, the ironworker whose long-shot challenge to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has galvanized national resistance to Trump.

30 review for The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics

  1. 4 out of 5

    Trish

    This is the perfect book to give someone trying to understand what exactly happened in Wisconsin over these past thirty-or-so years so that a staunchly progressive and friendly state who looked after their own fell prey to a group who wanted to break that sense of community and, as Scott Walker told the national Republicans, “divide and conquer” the unions. Well, that they did, and a whole lot more and now the state is so heavily gerrymandered even majority Democrats don’t have a chance to elect This is the perfect book to give someone trying to understand what exactly happened in Wisconsin over these past thirty-or-so years so that a staunchly progressive and friendly state who looked after their own fell prey to a group who wanted to break that sense of community and, as Scott Walker told the national Republicans, “divide and conquer” the unions. Well, that they did, and a whole lot more and now the state is so heavily gerrymandered even majority Democrats don’t have a chance to elect their preferred candidates. Kaufman manages to get us up to date on the state of the economy there, the threat of environmental degradation, and the lack of funding for public projects like universities. We learn which candidates who have run in the past and who is running now, including Braveheart Randy Bryce in District #1 who took on the “head of the snake” Paul Ryan and managed to slay Ryan's political future. Bryce still has a battle with Steil, Ryan’s handpicked successor, but he’s got national support and attention for his fight. What Kaufman does particularly well is the backstory—why certain candidates ended up on the ballot, what they bring, and who supports them. Norwegians instilled a kind of communitarian ethos in the area southwest of Milwaukee where they settled in the mid-nineteenth century, moving up from Chicago. At the same time northeast of Madison abolitionists gathered and decided to call themselves Republicans after the Latin for “the common good.” How much has changed! in the years since. Chippewa Indian tribes, also called Ojibwe, who have retained some land rights in Wisconsin, have been strong proponents of environmental conservation and preservation. This has put them at loggerheads with people who call themselves conservatives but who have supported open-pit mining in the headwaters of Indian land, a poor site that had been rejected many times over by previous prospectors looking for good sites. One of the more heartbreaking stories Kaufman tells is that of the tar-sands pipeline that crosses under the free-flowing Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin. Owned by the Canadian company Enbridge, it was responsible for several hundred spills in the past decade, including one in 2010 that counts as the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in American history. Like the Keystone pipeline, Enbridge’s pipeline carries tar-sand, which needs to be mixed with chemical solvents so that it will flow. When exposed to air, these chemicals release a toxic gas, and the sticky tar sands sinks in the river & requires dredging to remove it. Here we have proof that tar-sands pipelines invite environmental disasters and we are still hearing about that will not happen with Keystone because of all the protections. We really must place that particular lie where it belongs and expose the damage this absurd refusal to see alternatives is leaving us. Very quickly Kaufman sketches the strong progressive values inculcated in state residents since the earliest days and draws a line to present political incumbents. Despite Paul Ryan being a native son growing up in Janesville, he calls progressivism “a cancer.” Scott Walker’s family moved in from Colorado by way of Iowa. He was a religious crusader who felt God had given him a mission in Wisconsin to break the unions. Randy Bryce, a veteran and cancer survivor, on the other hand, became a strong proponent of the labor movement just at the time Walker was looking to cripple it. For years before Scott Walker came to office, there had been an assault on public institutions in Wisconsin, including universities and public schools. Walker instituted Act10 in 2011, which limited the right of public employees to collectively bargain, and then in 2015 attempted to change the mission statement of the university system from “to educate people and improve the human condition” to “meet the state’s workforce needs,” showing us the limits of his imagination. We do not know why Walker appears to have failed out of Marquette University, but we can see that he appears to fear what comes and so looks backward, to what he learned in childhood--not facts perhaps, but beliefs. No soaring rhetoric for him, by God. The portraits of individuals becoming desperate to put up a fight against the prevailing winds in Wisconsin are both heartening and discouraging. National opposition parties to the GOP, like Democrats, have their national goals wound so tightly around their axle they can barely cast a glance at states not putting up a good fight on their own. Which is why, once Bryce broke a certain level of consciousness nationally, the Democrats were willing to contribute some money and some people. But Bernie Sanders recognized a fellow traveller in Bryce, someone whose values are in line with Wisconsin’s historical Scandinavian ethos of progressivism and in contrast to his states’ current conservative climate. Finding and funding candidates is a huge step towards putting up a good fight in Wisconsin. I used to be disappointed well-trained and -spoken lawyers didn’t make more of an effort to help lead, but no more. Voters in Wisconsin are going to have to fight for what they want, and one of the first steps to effective forward movement is a fire in the belly and an awareness of history. Kaufman does a brilliant job of making key elements of this history come alive with personality and human foible. We can, we must fix this. Wisconsin is not just the heartland, it is our heart.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Excellent mini-view of why American Progressives need to rise up and protect democracy from moneyed interests. We must stop fascism from creeping, ever so slowly, into our government. No one is above the law!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brad Scott

    This book is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand some of the what has been happening around the country politically in terms of the dismantling of worker's rights and the complete and utter attack on the working class by the GOP. Being from Wisconsin, it was wonderful seeing stories of brave social justice fighters from my home state such as Randy Bryce, and environmentalists like Mike Wiggins working to try to retake and retain the things that make not just Wisconsin great, but A This book is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand some of the what has been happening around the country politically in terms of the dismantling of worker's rights and the complete and utter attack on the working class by the GOP. Being from Wisconsin, it was wonderful seeing stories of brave social justice fighters from my home state such as Randy Bryce, and environmentalists like Mike Wiggins working to try to retake and retain the things that make not just Wisconsin great, but America great, we need clean water, we need clean air, we need people to stand united and pick each other up, we are all connected, we are all in this together, a leaking oil pipeline through pristine forests hurts us all, hunting wolves to extinction hurts us all, stripping pay and benefits from teachers and hardworking folk hurts everyone. This book has lit a fire in me to fight harder than I'd been fighting, to do more than I'd been doing, because inaction only serves to let the greedy and the powerful run roughshod over us all.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Christine Anderson

    Such a lot of good information. I wanted to post on Facebook many of the quotes and other information in the book. I also want to buy a copy to read again, highlight sections and do more research to better understand my history, being born and raised in Wisconsin. I was finally able to understand much of my own ideas and feelings and where they came from. I do wish I would have understood this in high school and better realized my own identity. I’m recommending it to everyone, including the Norw Such a lot of good information. I wanted to post on Facebook many of the quotes and other information in the book. I also want to buy a copy to read again, highlight sections and do more research to better understand my history, being born and raised in Wisconsin. I was finally able to understand much of my own ideas and feelings and where they came from. I do wish I would have understood this in high school and better realized my own identity. I’m recommending it to everyone, including the Norwegians, and Swedes, and Germans and Native Americans and even black Americans. This book touched on the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin, why weren’t we taught this in school? Fascinating, absolutely fascinating!

  5. 5 out of 5

    DJ Cheek

    A great analysis of the historical and political trends that made Wisconsin the laboratory for the conservative movement. Kaufman writes in a clear, readable style that illuminates the corrosive effect of right-to-work laws and Act 10 on working people and families. This book also serves as a searing indictment of the failures of the Democratic Party to act decisively against the onslaught perpetuated by Walker, AFP, ALEC, and big industry. I really enjoyed reading this book!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Evan

    I received an advance reading copy of this book, for free, through Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for my honest review. Let me preface my review by stating that Wisconsin is one of my favorite places. I often spend part of my summer there, and I am seriously considering moving to Wisconsin, as I hope someday to permanently return home to the Midwest. Let me also state that politically, I lean to the right. That said, I realized I was not going to agree with the author’s viewpoints. How I received an advance reading copy of this book, for free, through Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for my honest review. Let me preface my review by stating that Wisconsin is one of my favorite places. I often spend part of my summer there, and I am seriously considering moving to Wisconsin, as I hope someday to permanently return home to the Midwest. Let me also state that politically, I lean to the right. That said, I realized I was not going to agree with the author’s viewpoints. However, I was hoping this book would at least provide an interesting and thought-provoking look at Wisconsin politics. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Dan Kaufman’s The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics (Whew! That was a mouthful of hyperbole) could just as easily have been titled, Some Cheese To Go With Your Whine. The Democratic Party in Wisconsin has fallen on hard times. Republican Scott Walker was elected governor. They didn’t like it, so they tried to recall him. He not only survived the recall, he was also re-elected. There can only be one explanation, right? Gerrymandering! * insert eye roll here * Unions, schools, the environment… You name the topic, Kaufman complains about Walker’s handling of it. Each chapter reads like a magazine article. However, instead of being five paragraphs long, these articles/chapters are forty to fifty pages long. They go on, and on, and on, and on. And on, and on, and on. Solutions are rarely offered. Instead, the author simply complains and longs for the “good old days” of Bob La Follette and Milwaukee’s socialist mayors. “Actually it’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que’, which is Algonquin for, ‘the good land’. I think one of the most interesting aspects of Milwaukee is the fact that it’s the only major American city to have ever elected three socialist mayors.” “Does this guy know how to party or what!” Okay, so that quote is from Wayne’s World and NOT from The Fall of Wisconsin, but Kaufman does introduce readers to some, ahem… “interesting” characters. There’s a state assembly member who infiltrates conservative political meetings. There’s also an ironworker who sneaks into a speech by the President of the United States… just so he can walk out on him. And they wonder why they’re not winning any elections. That’s about all there is to say about this book. As expected, it is biased, but it also repetitive, dry, and overly long. Residents of Wisconsin, who did not vote for Scott Walker, perhaps may enjoy this book. Everyone else, I would recommend skipping The Fall of Wisconsin.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Carl Williams

    I received a copy of this book, free, through Goodread Giveaways. Wisconsin has a long, often bipartisan, history of progressive legislation and mindset. People like Robert La Follette being supported by large European immigrant communities that had suffered at the hands of authoritarianism and the acceptance, and the embracing, of unions as positive structures of working communities. Wisconsin had all that. But the skull duggery of moneyed interests and their long range plans, seen here mostly, I received a copy of this book, free, through Goodread Giveaways. Wisconsin has a long, often bipartisan, history of progressive legislation and mindset. People like Robert La Follette being supported by large European immigrant communities that had suffered at the hands of authoritarianism and the acceptance, and the embracing, of unions as positive structures of working communities. Wisconsin had all that. But the skull duggery of moneyed interests and their long range plans, seen here mostly, though not only, in the figure of Scott Walker. Kaufman offers a measured account of the use of divide and conquer, gerrymandering, and jumping on the bandwagon of the right wing populism that lead to the Trump win. This success in Wisconsin, and in the nation is an important lesson. Is Kaufman biased? Absolutely. (Beware those books on history and politics that purport not be carry a bias. “Thare be dragons.”) He makes his case through clear research and the weaving of facts. I read an “advance reading copy” of the book with a request not to quote from it until it was in its final form. Alas, there were a plethora of good quotes to share—on the accumulation of individual wealth, egalitarianism, the right ward swing of the Democratic Party, the Ojibwe story of the windigo. I guess you’ll need to read it and find them for yourselves.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

    A Wisconsin native, the first half of this book repeatedly made me cry (and, occasionally) scream with frustration. Kaufman wonderfully ties together the history of our great state with the reality of the looting that has happened in the last decade. However, there were points where I wanted to say, "okay, yes, feeling left behind or like they weren't heard was a major factor in rural residents voting for Trump, but also it was a lot of racism and sexism and homophobia and bigotry that produced A Wisconsin native, the first half of this book repeatedly made me cry (and, occasionally) scream with frustration. Kaufman wonderfully ties together the history of our great state with the reality of the looting that has happened in the last decade. However, there were points where I wanted to say, "okay, yes, feeling left behind or like they weren't heard was a major factor in rural residents voting for Trump, but also it was a lot of racism and sexism and homophobia and bigotry that produced the environment where people can vote against someone who says 'I'll help you by doing the thing you want me to do,' and instead vote for the person who has actively taken the opposite stance because they 'hope' that the latter will change their mind. This is a valuable book - and also clearly aimed at being Randy Bryce's big write-up in the lead-up to the election. For that reason alone, I'm in. But it could have used a deeper analysis of some important social issues.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kate Cronin

    I almost didn't read this book, because I couldn't make it through the prologue (which recounts election night 2016 in Wisconsin) without feeling like I had PTSD. I'm glad I did read it, but it was incredibly hard to see in black and white how much damage to our educational system, our environment and our long history of supporting labor has been inflicted onto our great state since 2010. My hope is that the amazing women and men who have put themselves out there onto ballots all across this sta I almost didn't read this book, because I couldn't make it through the prologue (which recounts election night 2016 in Wisconsin) without feeling like I had PTSD. I'm glad I did read it, but it was incredibly hard to see in black and white how much damage to our educational system, our environment and our long history of supporting labor has been inflicted onto our great state since 2010. My hope is that the amazing women and men who have put themselves out there onto ballots all across this state in 2018 (myself included) will get the chance to return Wisconsin to its former glory.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dayna

    Thorough & informative, this book traces how Wisconsin's political shift had been effected by shady special interests. It even seems to be showing a very possible future for the country. In the 60s, there were 2 beacons of progressivism: Berkeley & Madison, both now a shadow of what they once were & promised to be. On a brighter note, I really liked the flow of the writing. Though full of heavy info, the book read like a good novel. I received a Kindle edition from a Goodreads giveaw Thorough & informative, this book traces how Wisconsin's political shift had been effected by shady special interests. It even seems to be showing a very possible future for the country. In the 60s, there were 2 beacons of progressivism: Berkeley & Madison, both now a shadow of what they once were & promised to be. On a brighter note, I really liked the flow of the writing. Though full of heavy info, the book read like a good novel. I received a Kindle edition from a Goodreads giveaway.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    I grew up in blue state WI, moved to CO 20 yes ago, and have watched and felt WI’s transition to a red state. This book stressed me out- the presence of ALEC, gerrymandering and voter ID laws will ensure that the liberal WI I knew won’t be back anytime soon. Interestingly, the attack on unions did such damage to workers rights, and affected elections. It just made me so sad to read this one.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ross

    If you didn’t live through it, Kaufman gives a good recounting of how Walker et al used ALEC, the Koch brothers, attacks on unions, gerrymandering and voter ID laws to turn a state with a proud progressive tradition crimson red. What it leaves out, and I would love to learn about, is how the state’s progressives fell asleep in the lead up to the 2010 elections.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Interesting book, very timely. As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, it was interesting to read some of the history of the founding of the University. And very interesting to learn more about the Scandinavian (largely Norwegian) immigrants who made such an impact on the progressivism of the state. Until they didn't. Of course, very depressing to read of the rise of Walker and Ryan.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Roger Smitter

    Kaufman describes the power of inside state politics. His target is Wisconsin, the one-time jewel of progressive politics. The major theme is quite good. On the down side, the details make it a difficult read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Kaufman explores why Wisconsin has politically moved to the right, the rise of Scott Walker, and how this led to Wisconsin going for Trump in 2016. Very interesting and should be taken as a cautionary tale.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Andy N

    Informative—though entirely depressing.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    It was tough to read this book. A lot of old wounds were opened but the insight reflected in this book can hopefully help Wisconsin regain what it once had.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tena

    I won an ARC in a GOODREADS giveaway!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    Reading this book made me so sad for my home state and so worried about our country.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    Astonishing that we have allowed this to happen in our great state. Very disappointed in myself not to fight harder. Thank you to the author for his ten-year odyssey, watching and recording the spiral.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jerry

    Enlightening and depressing; demonstrates how the "conservative infrastructure" has transformed the birthplace of progressivism (and one of the cradles of environmentalism) into a plutocracy by pitting worker against worker and citizen against citizen.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Art

    NPR, Fresh Air, author interview. How Dark Money, Gerrymandering And Democratic Complacency Altered Wisconsin Politics. https://www.npr.org/2018/07/17/629718... NPR book review. https://www.npr.org/2018/07/11/627988... I swore off political books a year ago. But this one strikes home. The conversation includes Wisconsin’s influential and innovative role creating the common good.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Chris Pomeroy

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michae

  25. 5 out of 5

    Cailin

  26. 5 out of 5

    terry strobel

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dennis Deery

  28. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Cheresnick

  29. 5 out of 5

    Emily Campbell

  30. 5 out of 5

    John Curd

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