I was always proud of being from Wisconsin. I cited my Wisconsin upbringing as a testament to my good Midwestern values.
But for a while now I’ve increasingly felt like, if forced to admit I am from Wisconsin, I need to rush to explain that, despite being from Wisconsin, I’m really not crazy or stupid. To salvage my dignity, I quickly point out that I went to school at Madison (now I know how those Texans feel when they rush to point out that they are from Austin).
It isn’t me that has changed, it’s Wisconsin.
I am a product of Wisconsin as much as Miller Beer or its favorite son, The Crusher (see here). The Crusher was the stage name for a pro-wrestler who reportedly used to train by jogging around South Milwaukee with a barrel of beer on his shoulder. My friends and I used to go to watch the wrestling matches at “The Arena.”
So I have solid Wisconsin creds. I spent my Elementary and High School years roaming the near South side in Milwaukee and camping out in a pup tent at Mauthe Lake. I dragged my overloaded wagon through unplowed snowdrifts to deliver the Milwaukee Journal after school and at 3 am on Sunday mornings. My undergraduate years at Carroll College in Waukesha were challenging and exciting, living in a welfare voucher flop house across from the library. While attending the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, I managed a large [reportedly haunted] apartment complex and parented a group home for a great bunch of mentally disabled residents in nearby Ripon. I taught High School in Wisconsin farm country and was particularly proud to attend Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the historic and vibrant epicenter of Midwest progressivism at its best.
Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of beyond beer and pro-wrestlers. It has a long history of bold and progressive leadership.
Throughout the twentieth century, Wisconsin led the country in devising pioneering legislation that aided the vast majority of its citizens. In 1911, the state legislature established the nation’s first workers’ compensation program, a progressive state income tax, and more stringent child-labor laws. The following year, former President Theodore Roosevelt described Wisconsin as a “laboratory for wise, experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.”The Undoing of Progressive Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman (see here)
The proud historical legacy of Wisconsin was hard-earned by courageous populist leaders like “Fighting Bob” La Follette (see here) and his sons. But the Wisconsin that birthed and raised me is no more. The sane and compassionate Wisconsin that the La Follette’s worked so hard to build was murdered back around 2016 when Conservatives took control.
While Trump’s victory may have shocked the media, it merely heralded the final stage of Wisconsin’s dramatic transformation from a pioneering beacon of progressive, democratic politics to the embodiment of that legacy’s national unraveling. Powerful conservative donors and organizations across the country had Wisconsin in their sights years before the 2016 election, helping Governor Scott Walker and his allies systematically change the state’s political culture.The Undoing of Progressive Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman
Wisconsinite Dan Kaufman, the author of that article in The Progressive Magazine, also wrote a book on this topic called The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics (see here).
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.
Kaufman is certainly correct in what is essentially his obituary for the quirky and loveable Wisconsin we once knew and loved. For me, it is viscerally sad to see Wisconsin laid so low by the Trump-fueled Conservative movement. Wisconsin may not be as Red on paper, or at least not receive as much attention, as other states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida. But when one considers how quickly it has been taken over by extreme Conservatism, and how far it has fallen from its former grace, it is particularly shocking. The prognosis seems to be that extreme Conservativism has entrenched itself deep into the very spine of Wisconsin, and that it will not recover back to a sane and rational state for a very very long time.
This one is personal for me. I think of the folks around me when I grew up in Wisconsin. My community was mostly working-class Polish or German stock but there was considerable diversity. Racial or ethnic animus was pretty minimal for that time. Yes, my grandmother locked the doors when we drove through a Black neighborhood, but that was the extent of it. Politics was mentioned after the Packer game, but it was not a particularly divisive issue.
My family were all moderate Conservatives. They complained about welfare, but mostly they treated their politics like their religion. They were Catholics. Now, if you know Catholics, they are very mildly religious. Yes, they believe in god, or profess to for the sake of the kids. They go to church once a year on Easter and Christmas and they figure their souls are safe. It’s all pretty laid back. My uncle who sponsored my First Communion took me to celebrate at the local corner bar afterwards.
These Wisconsinites were pretty much Catholic in their politics too. Yes they were Conservative, but not radically so.
But today, most of my friends and relatives back in Wisconsin are no longer Catholic in their religion or their politics. They are Evangelical Christians and they are MAGA true believers and they are tirelessly active in advancing both. When I spend any time with them they quickly tell me in the strongest terms that my atheism is going to damn my child to hell and that Donald Trump never, ever told a lie.
Their religion and their politics seem linked like two sides of the same coin. They always were, except before it was a moderate Catholic attitude and today it is a radical Evangelical one.
When I look back at Wisconsin, I remember it as that nice State who always brought the best potato dumplings and plenty of Blatz beer to the potluck. But somehow, tragically, got radicalized online and ended up storming the Capitol to lynch our political leaders in praise of god and Donald Trump.
R.I.P. Wisconsin. I hope you can somehow recover from this fever of evangelical religion and radicalized politics and return to the reasonable and sensible Midwesterners that would honor the great ghosts of Wisconsin past.