How Dark Money, Gerrymandering And Democratic Complacency Altered Wisconsin Politics
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton was so confident of carrying Wisconsin that she never made a single campaign appearance in the state. But our guest, journalist and Wisconsin native Dan Kaufman, talked to labor leaders at the time who were worried she could lose the state to Donald Trump. Kaufman says Trump's narrow win in Wisconsin marked the completion of a dramatic change in the political culture of the state, which had a long tradition of progressive leadership dating back to the 19th century. Six years before Trump's win, the state's voters elected conservative populist Scott Walker governor. With the help of a Republican-controlled legislature, Walker waged an unprecedented assault on public employee unions in the state and later signed a right to work bill, which undermined private-sector unions.
Dan Kaufman has written for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. He spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book, "The Fall Of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest Of A Progressive Bastion And The Future Of American Politics."
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Dan Kaufman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we often think of cities as the centers of progressive, democratic politics, but Wisconsin was a leader going way back, you remind us. What did that have to do with those who settled Wisconsin in the first place? This is interesting.
DAN KAUFMAN: In the 1840s, waves of Scandinavian immigrants started settling in Wisconsin. They brought with them a kind of communitarian ethos, many of them. They were fleeing a very harsh environment in Norway. For example, only 3 percent of the land is arable. So they had to bond together, and this forged a kind of egalitarianism, communitarianism that impacted the state's politics.
DAVIES: Robert La Follette was perhaps the most influential figure in state politics, at least historically. Tell us about him.
KAUFMAN: He was a very interesting man. He grew up on a farm, partly, in Dane County, which is where Madison is located. And he was surrounded by Norwegian immigrants. There was a movement at the time in the 1860s called the Grange - 1860s and 1870s. And they were battling the railroad interests, which were dominating Wisconsin politics, along with the timber interests. The railroad and timber interests controlled - effectively controlled the Wisconsin state legislature, and they would gouge the farmers on the - shipping their crops. So there was a kind of agrarian populist movement that rose up against them.
La Follette was influenced by this movement, and there was another key influence on him. This was the chief justice of Wisconsin, a man named Edward Ryan, and he gave a speech in 1873 to the University of Wisconsin Law School. La Follette would enroll in that law school the following fall. But he said the question will arise and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine, which shall rule, wealth or man? Which shall lead, money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic free men or the feudal serfs of corporate capital? And this was the spirit of Wisconsin progressivism, the idea that corporate power needed to be contained.
They weren't necessarily socialistic, although there were some Milwaukee socialists, but they believed that unfettered, laissez faire capitalism was damaging to society as a whole. In that spirit, La Follette, who went on to become governor and senator of the state, was channeled into policies that limited, for example - banned corporate donations to candidates, instituted direct primaries to limit the influence of, for example, the railroad companies, things like this to open the government up to normal, everyday citizens. And that was the spirit of Wisconsin progressivism.
DAVIES: And then in the early 20th century, there were a number of reforms that we kind of are used to everywhere nowadays.
DAVIES: But they were really revolutionary at the time. Talk about that.
KAUFMAN: They really were, and this was another aspect that was very unusual, in particular to Wisconsin. It became called the Wisconsin Idea, and La Follette was very much a champion of the state university, the flagship university in Madison. And the Wisconsin Idea was a kind of ethos that placed on the University of Wisconsin a moral obligation to serve the citizens of the entire state. And this would entail crafting legislation, drawing on the faculty to help draft legislation. For example, the first workers' compensation bill was passed in Wisconsin in 1911. That then became a model for the entire state. Much of the New Deal was crafted by Wisconsinites loyal to this notion of the Wisconsin Idea, people that had served with La Follette and his successors.
For example, the unemployment insurance program was first drafted in Wisconsin, and then it was made national. The Social Security Act was drafted by a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Even Medicare, 30 years later, was drafted by a Wisconsinite named Wilbur Cohen who was loyal to the Wisconsin Idea. And this was an exemplification of this humanistic philosophy that influenced the entire country.
DAVIES: So how many of these social changes were actually enacted in Wisconsin? They did establish - what? - a workers' compensation law, which helped compensate workers for injuries on the job. What else?
KAUFMAN: Another key one was the first successful progressive state income tax. Before that, I think it was 16 states had tried and failed. They had been stymied because politicians were reluctant to enforce it because people would become very angry. So even though an income tax might be instituted, they would collect very little revenue, and then it would be overturned in a court decision. And Wisconsin was facing the same troubles. So this man named Delos Kinsman drafted a successful state income tax, and he did it by instituting numerous changes that made people see the benefits. In other words, the tax money would be used for - mainly for local communities so they would see the benefits of it. And he made it very progressive, so it hit the wealthier harder, and other things that made it successful. And then it became a model for states to collect revenue to do good things like invest in libraries, schools, roads, other things that were needed and useful to the community as a whole.
DAVIES: It's interesting that in the early 20th century the state of Wisconsin granted workers' comp insurance, a progressive income tax, a couple of decades later unemployment insurance. And, you know, nowadays, when a state proposes something like that, business interests say, wait a minute, this is going to be a job-killing tax or regulation. Employers will move out of the state if you impose these burdens on businesses that other states don't carry. Was that done at the time? How did they deal with that?
KAUFMAN: Well, I think the reason it was able to be successful in Wisconsin is La Follette had really limited the influence of corporate money into the public sphere, into the government sector. So they were able to do some of these things. And it was reflective of the time. I think you've seen changes since 1976, Buckley v. Valeo and on into Citizens United, that has very much opened up the flood of corporate money. And that can really influence policy. And you've seen that very strongly in Wisconsin recently where a lot of these reforms have been overturned.
DAVIES: But - so when these reforms were enacted in Wisconsin, the railroads, the manufacturers didn't leave. I mean, the state really developed fairly robust manufacturing economy, right?
KAUFMAN: They did. And they were able to find a balance. I mean, there was also the skill in which these laws were crafted. For example, John Commons, the economics professor who drafted the workers' compensation bill, he consulted with the corporations. They worked out something that was both vastly beneficial to the workers but also took into account the concerns of industry. It was a pragmatic idealism is how I characterize it. It lifted everyone up or attempted to but also looked at balance. And in order to be workable, it had to be accepted by everyone, and it was at that time, more or less. That began to shift.
But for a time, that was the norm, and it was accepted by both sides that this is better than - you have to remember, during the workers' compensation era, workers could be killed on the job, and they were frequently. And then you had the problem of a widow and her family that were destitute. Well, that became a problem for society as a whole. So even though companies at times resisted it, there was also an acceptance eventually that they had to address this problem, this human problem that was costing society very greatly.
DAVIES: What about both political parties? Did this pragmatic idealism enjoy bipartisan support?
KAUFMAN: Well, interestingly, Wisconsin was a heavily Republican state for generations. La Follette was a Republican for most of his career. Towards the very end, he formed a third party as the Republican Party became more identified with business, but he was really - came out of the spirit of the Lincoln-era Republican Party. So Republicans were basically the main and sometimes the only game in town in Wisconsin. There was a split between more progressive Republicans and, I guess you'd say, more conservative ones.
La Follette, you have to remember, was incredibly popular. He forged an impregnable urban-rural coalition. He won 78 percent of the vote in 1910 when he ran for U.S. Senate. Even though that was an advisory vote because senators are picked by state legislators, it was a stunning result. And he won 71 of 72 counties. And basically, his movement dominated Wisconsin politics. And he would go along to these small towns and speak to people about this danger of corporate influence on their lives.
DAVIES: And how far into the 20th century did this sort of progressive trend hold in Wisconsin? And I note that Senator Joe McCarthy - probably the most notorious anti-communist of the century - came from that state.
KAUFMAN: Right. He was elected twice. And there were other examples of sort of right-wing populism asserting itself. For example, George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor, ran for office in 1964. And part of his success in Wisconsin, particularly in Milwaukee, inspired him to run again in 1968, run a much more serious national campaign. Those things being said, the progressive spirit remained dominant, I would say, until probably the '70s or '80s. I mean, it faded. But you still had a Republican governor, Warren Knowles, in the late '60s granting collective bargaining rights to all state employees. That was noncontroversial.
The environmental movement, which was spearheaded by Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin governor and senator who founded Earth Day, was an accepted bipartisan tradition. Also, the idea that every citizen should participate and make voting easy, the idea of using the university's expertise in science and other policy areas to make better laws - these were all accepted norms that were part of Wisconsin's progressive legacy. It began to be eroded quite strongly in the 1990s when Governor Tommy Thompson was elected, but even he paid fealty to this tradition. He instituted a program to give low-income people health insurance called BadgerCare. But he also began to erode the tradition of support for public schools. He instituted the first charter school program in Milwaukee that was then replicated across the country, including by President Clinton.
DAVIES: Dan Kaufman is our guest. His book is "The Fall Of Wisconsin." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist Dan Kaufman. He hails from Wisconsin. He has a new book about the state's politics. It's called "The Fall Of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest Of A Progressive Bastion And The Future Of American Politics."
Things changed, of course, in the 21st century. And Scott Walker, the current governor, was a major agent of that change. Tell us about his background.
KAUFMAN: Scott Walker is the son of a minister. He was originally from Iowa and moved to Wisconsin when he was, I think, about 10 years old to Waukesha County, which is a very conservative collar county of Milwaukee. He went to Marquette University and dropped out somewhat mysteriously, never really explained why. He dropped out close to finishing and went to work for the Red Cross. While he was at Marquette, he told a fellow student named Glen Barry - he said, God has told me I'm chosen to cut taxes and stop killing babies. His political allegiance as a conservative was pretty clear by then. He then went on to win in a race for state assembly.
And then in 2001, there was a scandal in Milwaukee County over pension benefits for public workers, and they were being given huge payouts. And Walker exploited this scandal and ran for office as an unabashed conservative and started a long battle with the public employees unions. He began cultivating conservative organizations, including Americans for Prosperity, which is the political arm of Charles and David Koch, the industrialists that have funded much of the Tea Party.
During his time as Milwaukee County executive, he also cultivated an image as a kind of blue-collar conservative populist, kind of right-wing populist. He said that he brought his brown bag of lunch to work every day and really sort of pitted the taxpayer against the public employee. And that presaged his much more consequential attack on collective bargaining that happened in early 2011 shortly after he was elected.
DAVIES: Now, you also note that the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in January of 2010 right before Scott Walker ran for office opened up new corporate and union money into elections and that he got a lot of support from conservatives. He was elected governor in 2010. Both houses of the Legislature were in Republican hands. And he undertook a pretty radical approach to dealing with public employee unions. What did he propose to do?
KAUFMAN: Well, he proposed to all but strip them of collective bargaining rights, which is their ability to speak as a collective voice around wages, benefits and other workplace concerns, workplace safety, basically, reducing their ability to act as a collective voice. He exempted the police and fire department unions. Some would say that cynically because some of these unions supported him.
He was also, I think, concerned about public safety if he included them. Additionally, he slashed the state's contribution to their pension and health care benefits so they would have to pay much more. It was an act of both fiscal but also personal collective humiliation that was imparted on them. And I think that one thing you can glean from it is that it was really also a political attack that was very clear to a lot of people.
I'll give an example. During the fight over Act 10 - and you have to picture a hundred-thousand people at the state capitol from all over the state protesting. The Democratic state senators, 14 of them, fled to Illinois for three weeks to prevent a quorum in the Senate so they couldn't vote on the bill to build public opposition to this bill. Now, during that time, there was secret negotiations between two of the Democratic state senators and some of Walker's staff. They met at a McDonald's in Beloit and other places near the border.
One thing that one of them told me, Tim Cullen, a moderate Democratic state senator - he said, the one thing that was non-negotiable was the automatic dues checkoff. In other words, you could no longer choose to give a regular contribution to your union. At the same time, you could still choose to do so for a charity like the United Way or something like that.
There were other things that Walker was willing to negotiate around, according to Tim - for example, workplace conditions or things like that. But that never came to pass because both sides were entrenched and the bill was shoved through quite traumatically. They stripped the collective bargaining measure from the budget and just passed it immediately.
DAVIES: Now, I want to be clear that when Walker did this, he said it was partly to respond to a budget crisis. And that was a real thing. I mean, that's independently confirmed.
DAVIES: And the public employee unions offered to make concessions, as I understand it. They offered to pay more for their pension funds and pay more for their health benefits. But what he wanted to do was fundamentally undermine their ability to represent members. And, in the long run, you could argue that's going to save government money because they're going to get paid less, they're going to get fewer benefits.
KAUFMAN: Right. You could argue that. On the other hand, these people are also taxpayers. And one thing that's become clear from research is the benefit of union membership to other people that aren't necessarily in a union. For example, if wages are higher, it increases the economy in an area. People go out to eat. They spend money on things for their children.
What I would argue Walker was doing was kind of bringing everyone down, or at least the vast majority. The very wealthy were given tax breaks, as well as powerful corporations. And he did this by doing something that has changed Wisconsin very fundamentally. He stoked resentment against the public workers. It was clear in his inaugural address in 2011. He said the public employees can no longer be the haves, and the taxpayers can no longer be the have nots. Privately, he even went further.
There's a famous recording of him speaking to a billionaire donor where she says when will we become a completely red state? When will we become a right-to-work state? She conflated the two. And he answered, you know, have you seen what we're going to do with the public employees? And then he went on. He said, you know, because you use divide and conquer. What he meant by that was he was going to first attack the public employees. And then several years later, he instituted a right-to-work law against the private sector employees. Now you have a state that went from 14 percent union density when he was elected to 8 percent.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Dan Kaufman, author of "The Fall Of Wisconsin." We'll hear more of their interview after a break. Also, rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by Gorillaz, and linguist Geoff Nunberg will consider the differences between speaking American English and British English. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Dan Kaufman, author of a new book about the state of Wisconsin's dramatic political shift from blue to red. It's called "The Fall Of Wisconsin." When they left off, they were talking about Wisconsin's current governor, conservative Scott Walker. In 2011, he signed a landmark law, Act 10, that restricted the power of public employee unions to bargain collectively, perhaps their primary function. It took away the main incentive for employees to pay union dues and join the union. Act 10 led to protests from Democrats and union activists at the Wisconsin State Capitol that lasted more than two weeks.
DAVIES: A lot of us will remember seeing the Wisconsin State Capitol jammed with protesters day and night. You talked to an awful lot of Democrats and a lot of union activists and community activists. How did they feel about the union movement and the Democratic Party's response to this proposal when Act 10 was still being debated?
KAUFMAN: Well, I think they felt a lot of sympathy with the state representatives that went to Illinois. They were very proud of them for doing that. They felt a lot of anger towards national Democrats for what they felt was abandoning this important fight. For example, President Barack Obama in 2007 had said in South Carolina that if anyone attacks collective bargaining rights, I'm going to put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes and march with people. Now, when they did exactly that in Wisconsin, he didn't come. Nor did he come during a subsequent recall election after Act 10 was passed.
That was also a legacy of the Progressive Era where you could recall your state officials if you collected a quarter of the signatures of those that voted. They collected nearly a million signatures to recall Scott Walker, but they were kind of left to their own. In fact, President Obama's deputy press secretary, Stephanie Cutter, said, this has nothing to do with President Obama, even though Tom Barrett, Walker's opponent, had pleaded with Obama to come and help.
DAVIES: Now, Scott Walker, in 2011, specifically aimed his attacks at public employee unions, and there are other unions, particularly building trades unions, who were not particularly sympathetic to public employees. This is a division I've seen in a lot of states where there - where labor is not always united. How did that play out in Wisconsin?
KAUFMAN: Play it - well, Walker won about a third of union households in all of his elections, so definitely, divide and conquer is an effective strategy. But then after Walker passed a right-to-work law in 2015, a lot of them expressed profound regret. One of them that I follow closely in the book, Randy Bryce, who is now running for speaker of the House - Paul Ryan's congressional seat - was extremely cognizant of what the intention was, and he describes people in his local coming up to him and regretting this vote for Walker. They didn't see it coming. They thought they were different. They thought they were special.
And in some ways, President Trump has instituted the same strategy. He has spoken to the national conference of building trades, trying to say, you know, you're the good guys; we like what you do, but these other people, you know, not so much. And that's effective.
DAVIES: Let's just clarify the term right-to-work bill. I mean, that sounds like a good thing. In what sense is it anti-union?
KAUFMAN: Well, it makes paying union fees voluntary. However, the union's still obligated to represent you in a grievance, so that weakens the union's financial position. So it starves the union of funds.
DAVIES: So Scott Walker survives a re-election campaign after beating the recall election. And then in 2016, the presidential election arrives in Wisconsin, as it does in the rest of the country. The Democratic primary - Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton by 13 points. Why did Hillary Clinton have trouble connecting to Democratic voters in Wisconsin?
KAUFMAN: I think several reasons - one - she has never been a close ally of labor. Wisconsin progressives were deeply wounded by the attacks on labor. She was a former corporate board member of Walmart, a notoriously anti-union company. And she also supported for many, many years free trade agreements, like NAFTA and the China's membership into the World Trade Organization, that have really impacted the industrial Midwest in such a profound way. People are aware that you can drive by a factory, and they'll say, oh, this factory moved to Mexico and then went on to Vietnam. They are very keenly aware. Other factors played a role - automation and so on - but these agreements really impacted particularly the industrial Midwest - Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio.
DAVIES: And particularly unionized workers, I think. I mean...
KAUFMAN: Particularly unionized...
DAVIES: There's a lot of analysis that says that the kind of the net job loss is negligible but that it shifted things.
KAUFMAN: It shifted things.
DAVIES: It made it hard - things for unionized workers.
KAUFMAN: I think that's true, and I think the benefits that these agreements impart are to the wealthier population. So for example, if you don't have a college degree, you used to be able to get a decent job with good benefits, largely because of unions. Those people with good jobs because of unions - their wealth impacted the wealth of the local community. They could shop for things. They could buy things.
You go to some of these industrial towns like Kenosha and Racine just south of Milwaukee. They're very hollowed out, and that is a result partly of these agreements. Democratic Party has been aligned with free trade for some decades now. Sanders came along, and he had a very different message - a sort of return to an older model, a New Deal type of Democrat - that resonated powerfully with people steeped in the La Follette tradition. He was comfortable in rural audiences, and he was comfortable with industrial workers. And that, I think, fueled his success.
DAVIES: So Hillary Clinton obviously prevails and gets the Democratic nomination. What effort did her campaign make in Wisconsin?
KAUFMAN: None. They didn't even appear once. She didn't make any campaign appearance in Wisconsin, to the shock and outrage of many of the state's Democrats. I'm not sure how much it would've helped, but I think it would've sent a signal that she cared. She spent more money on a single electoral college vote in Omaha, Neb., at the end of the campaign than in Wisconsin and Michigan combined. She lost Michigan narrowly, as well. She did very little to win their support.
I think she didn't have an understanding of this underlying structural problems that were happening in Wisconsin and the deep pain from the labor battles that had just played out over the last six or seven years, and she was perceived as indifferent. And I think when you look at the numbers, it wasn't so much that Donald Trump did exceptionally well. He got about the same amount of votes as Mitt Romney. Turnout for her was very low. Partly, there was a really strict voter ID law. I'm sure that contributed. But there was also just no enthusiasm.
I spoke to a labor leader, the head of the UAW, at Kohler plumbing in Sheboygan, Wis. He said, I couldn't drag people out to put up two-by-fours - in contrast to 2008, when he was practically turning away volunteers. And he said, when he finally did get some people to help him put up signs, he knew they would be voting for Trump.
DAVIES: Wow. The union people were voting for Trump.
KAUFMAN: Well, some of them. Not him.
KAUFMAN: But they - there was a swing in the factory. You have to remember, too - I think people forget that Donald Trump's message during the campaign - he also twinned his message of resentment - racial resentment - with a defense of the welfare state. You can look at his speeches. He staged five huge rallies in Wisconsin. He almost always mentioned, we've got to protect Social Security and Medicare, and he railed against these free trade agreements. So there was a different kind of Republican message that resonated with a certain sector of the population enough to put him over the top, coupled with Hillary Clinton's noncampaigning and non-effort in these places, and it really impacted the race.
DAVIES: You wrote - this surprised me - she was the first presidential candidate of either party not to appear in Wisconsin during the campaign since 1972.
KAUFMAN: That's right. That's right. Yeah.
DAVIES: How did union households vote in the election as compared to earlier presidential elections?
KAUFMAN: Donald Trump did pretty well. I think he got 42 percent - same as he did nationally. Trump did almost as well as Ronald Reagan, which was the last time Wisconsin went Republican - in 1984.
DAVIES: You know, I can hear a Hillary Clinton activist - and I covered that election, so I knew plenty of folks in the campaign - and they would say it's crazy to say Hillary was not an ally of labor. She enthusiastically endorsed labor, and she said she did not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership and supported all kinds of things that would help working families. It's there on the record, right? Somehow it didn't have weight.
KAUFMAN: I would dispute that a bit, Dave. I mean, she said at the end she would not support the TPP. But previously, she had said 35 times, I believe, that she would. And she, in fact, called it a gold standard of free trade agreements.
DAVIES: Was that as secretary of state or as candidate?
KAUFMAN: That was as secretary of state.
DAVIES: You know, in the book, you make the case that - you know, besides attacking unions in a way that - you know, you argue - harmed working families across the state, Scott Walker also cut schools' funding and thereby undermined public education. That's a case you make - that, in addition, you know, he weakened environmental protections that had been there for, you know, decades and decades. If all that's true, how does he win a recall election in 2012 and his re-election campaign in 2014? If it is so harmful, why did voters keep him in office?
KAUFMAN: You know, I think there's a combination of factors, and I talk about this a bit in the book. There was certainly gerrymandering which preserved his legislative majorities, helping him enact these policies. There was a huge flood of dark money. There was frankly a weak Democratic opposition to his message, and there was a stoking of resentment in a time of economic insecurity. That is very powerful. And they weren't - people weren't being offered an alternative - a very compelling one anyway.
It would've been interesting if Senator Sanders had won the Democratic nomination. I don't know what would've happened, but it seemed like a more - of a clear-cut, different kind of message - a message more in tune with Wisconsin's past of lifting everyone up. But I think those factors combined - and, again, he had huge financial advantages. In the recall election, he had $30 million - not counting the outside money - to Tom Barrett's 4 million. Well, that does affect things. Another example is gerrymandering. In 2012 election, Wisconsin Democrats won an aggregate of almost 200,000 more votes than the Republicans, and yet they lost seats. That...
DAVIES: You're talking about in the state legislature.
KAUFMAN: In the state legislature in the assembly, and that leads to demoralizing (laughter) of your party. I mean, it's hard to get candidates to run when they know they're going to be defeated if the district is just so heavily drawn to favor the Republicans where - and the Democratic seats are - you know, they'll routinely win more than 70 percent of the vote. So they pack them in. And that case was, you know, brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's the first partisan gerrymandering case to go to the Supreme Court in more than three decades because the federal court agreed with the plaintiffs - the Democrats - that their rights had been denied because it was so extreme.
DAVIES: Dan Kaufman, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KAUFMAN: Thank you very much, Dave. It's been a real pleasure.
GROSS: Dan Kaufman is the author of "The Fall Of Wisconsin." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who's also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by Gorillaz. This is FRESH AIR.
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