Being a Democrat in Wisconsin: Even Walker loves La Follette

This is the first installment in a series of short essays I will be writing about Wisconsin politics.  State politics, I think, are under-appreciated by politicians, political operatives, and academics.  The huge federal programs of the 20th century and the states’ multiplying interconnections certainly increased the importance of national politics during the last century, but state politics still matter quite a lot.  And the inability of Democrats to win state offices has certainly had a huge effect on Wisconsin policy and the lives of Wisconsinites.  Anyone trying to travel from Madison to Milwaukee and Chicago or trying to receive medicaid benefits can certain attest to this.  My primary interest is to explore how Democrats in Wisconsin should proceed given the political failures of the past five years; sometimes this will also be pertinent to national politics, though what makes sense for liberals in New York or California may not make sense for those in Wisconsin.  

There is a story good Wisconsin Democrats often tell themselves about their state.  In the beginning there was Governor (and then Senator) Fighting Bob La Follette who led a battle against wealthy business interests to win a better life for hard working Wisconsinites.  Progressive politics spread across the country and morphed into the New Deal politics of the 1930s, which brought money for massive public projects, improved regulation, and transformed the social safety net into what it is today.  Aldo Leopold, a wildlife management professor at UW, made similarly important contributions to environmentalism during this time.  In The Sand County Almanac he argues that the environment must be treated with care just as if it were a fellow member of society, creating a new way of interacting with the environment that recognizes its value beyond its uses for humans; this is what he called the “land ethic.”  That is pretty radical stuff.  And it seems that modern leftist politics has deep roots in Wisconsin history, and by extension it must have similar importance for Wisconsin politics and society today.  From this perspective, the recent actions by Wisconsin Republicans has been and extremely shocking change for the state.

But this ignores the political history of Wisconsin, a state that has for most of its history been under the control of the GOP.  Even La Follette was a Republican.  And although it is true that the transformation of the party system over the last century has made such designations less meaningful, certain elements of this GOP dominance have always been and continue to be important for Wisconsin.  To begin with, it is important to understand that the GOP has typically aligned itself with rural (and eventually suburban) interests.  The story of the party’s origin begins at a small meeting house in some small (Mid)-Western town (in Wisconsin or Michigan, depending upon whether you ask someone from Wisconsin or Michigan).  Its period of dominance in Wisconsin has a similar rural character, which was likely most obvious during the reign of the Republican political machine during the 1800s that did the bidding of wealthy loggers. This is  a striking difference from the urban origins of the (modern) Democratic party, which controlled similar political machines in northern cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Whereas FDR’s “new deal” politics were a reaction to the corrupt and ineffective governments of the Democratic Political Machine in New York City  (“Tammany Hall”), the progressivism of La Follette was a reaction to the rural business interests in the Republican party and in support of a more direct and robust form of democracy within Wisconsin.

This is important because the politics of La Follette represents an earlier stage of progressivism than those of FDR and LBJ.  Whereas the “new deal” of FDR put in place a top-down structure for federal control in the states, with the hope of decreasing corruption and improving the implementation of social and infrastructure programs, La Follette advocated greater municipal control and citizen involvement.  It was FDR who oversaw the development of the federal bureaucracy into its current dominant form and LBJ who later expanded it (with “The Great Society” initiatives).  Today most Democrats following in that tradition, seeing a large federal government as a indispensable tool for improving the lives of citizens who are often the victims of less competent and efficient state governments.    In this way La Follette’s politics bears more resemblance to the classical liberals of the 19th century than the (statist) leftists of the 20th century.  He was more similar to Theodore Roosevelt in this respect, who was another early progressive.  Although FDR is clearly one of the founders of the modern Democratic party, it would be odd for Democrats to claim the elder Roosevelt to the exclusion of Republicans.  Democrats should examine their own political beliefs, but most who support Obama’s (and Congress’) recent expansions of the welfare state (and the Federal Government’s role in it) have much in common with FDR and LBJ but far less in common with La Follette, Theodore Roosevelt, and other early progressives.

For instance, it is entirely possible that La Follette might have supported something like Act 10, which was the bill that created an uproar in Wisconsin in 2011 for taking collective bargaining rights away from public employees.  Although he certainly stood by workers in their attempts to form unions, he might have been far less comfortable with unions formed by government officials, which are meant to give them greater leverage against the elected representatives of the people in compensation negotiations.  La Follette was committed to keeping private interests of state officials from corrupting their service to the public; from that perspective public employee unions might be worrisome.  There are good reasons to think that public employees should have the right to form unions, but those are ideas of modern leftist politics rather than earlier progressivism.  Additionally, urban liberals should take care to remember that Wisconsin has been, and still is, a primarily non-urban state.  Milwaukee and Madison do not have the populations necessary to dominate the rural and suburban parts of the state in the same way Chicago and the Twin Cities dominate Illinois and Minnesota respectively.  Wisconsin is still a rural state, and that is important in explaining its GOP dominated politics.

The tradition of La Follette and the progressives doesn’t exclusively belong to modern Wisconsin Democrats; Republicans have a right to it as well.  Many Republicans see themselves as reformers, taking on corrupt parts of government in the hopes of creating more responsive, efficient, and fair governance.  How should Wisconsin Democrats see their role in politics today?  With brief interruptions in the 1970s, Wisconsin politics has been dominated by the GOP nearly from the founding of the state.  The more recent successes of Tommy Thompson and Scott Walker (and GOP dominance in the legislature) are consistent with this.   But it is important to note that Democrats have had incredible success in winning federal offices during the latter half of the 20th century.  Additionally, Wisconsin’s electoral votes have gone to Democrats in every presidential election since Reagan’s first.  This offers a great deal of hope for Democrats, because the electorate for national elections is younger than that for state elections.

Although Wisconsin Democrats should take seriously their losses in recent years, they should not see them as a sign that the state is slipping away from them.  Rather, Republican dominance is a return to the status quo.  However, the state is ripe for the taking if Democrats are able to convince the more liberal majority  to become involved in state and local politics in addition to national elections.  I will discuss this in my next post.

Reading of Interest

There are (unfortunately) rather few political histories of Wisconsin, though I give two suggestions below.  The first is Leon Epstein’s 1958 “Politics in Wisconsin.”  By now this is very old, but it is a classic that covers the most important parts of Wisconsin’s political history.  The second is a 2006 book by James Constant that discusses both historical and structural aspects of Wisconsin politics and government relevant to understanding public policy in the state.  

Leon D. Epstein, Politics in Wisconsin, Univ. of WI Press, 1958.

James K. Constant, Wisconsin Politics and Government: America’s Laboratory of Democracy, Univ. of NE Press, 2006.