When the Wisconsin uprising arose in 2011, as hundreds of thousands of citizens raised an outcry against Gov. Scott Walker's assault on labor rights and the underpinnings of civil society, one of the nation's ablest social commentators came to the state to observe what he recognized as an essential struggle.
Thomas Frank, the author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" and other essential books on the crackup of American politics, economics and governance, traveled with me around the state in those heady days and wrote a brilliant essay that recognized the vital importance of a struggle that went beyond simplistic equations about Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
If Wisconsin succeeded in pushing back against the anti-labor extremism of its governor (and the billionaire campaign donors who had invested in him as the point man for their drive to redistribute wealth and power upward), if Wisconsin taught Democrats how to fight rather than compromise, American politics might take a turn for the better. Frank knew this fight mattered. And he came to observe it with a keen eye and a cautiously optimistic sense of hope and possibility.
We went to Union Grove, my Republican-leaning hometown in southeast Wisconsin, and attended a rally that packed the local American Legion hall. After the rally, as Frank recalled in a fine piece for Harper's, "the crowd put on its hats, coats, and scarves, grabbed its placards, and rolled out to mount what is almost certainly the only labor protest this burg has ever seen ... And the marchers, in their work boots, their Packers jackets, and their ragged orange hoodies, walked up and down the streets of their town, shouting in that flat, glorious Wisconsin accent, 'This is what democracy looks like!'"
It was a glorious struggle. And yet, it did not prevail. Walker made his changes, survived a recall and cleared the way for a 2016 election when — despite the governor's failure to secure the Republican presidential nomination — Wisconsin rejected the Democratic nominee for president for the first time since 1984.
Frank has observed the change in Wisconsin politics with an eye toward what is being lost, and what might be regained. He recognizes political dynamics that are playing out in the Badger State are not so different from those that transformed his native Kansas from a populist hotbed into a reliably Republican state where working-class men and women regularly vote against their own economic interests and enrich people like the Koch brothers. His 2004 exploration of the phenomenon, "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," explored the future that was coming at us. Brilliantly. It was about much more than Kansas. It was about an evolving American politics in which anti-elitist conservatism — often generated by elitist conservative donors like the Kochs — was taking full advantage of the opening that was created when Democrats abandoned the economic justice themes outlined by FDR and his successors in favor of the vapid centrism of Bill Clinton and his successors.
Wisconsinites read Frank's book back in 2004 and 2005 with a certain pride. Yes, he was clearly correct about Kansas and a good many other states. But Wisconsin was different. Wisconsin, we told ourselves, was still progressive. It had a Democratic governor, a Democratic attorney general, strong Democratic delegations in the Legislature and the Congress. Both U.S. senators were Democrats; and one of them, Russ Feingold, was boldly carrying forward the tradition of anti-war and pro-civil liberties progressivism outlined a century earlier by Robert M. La Follette and his radical circle. As other states backed Republicans for president, Wisconsin handed its electoral votes to every Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis in 1988 — as it would continue to do with its warm embrace of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Surely, Badger progressives told themselves, Wisconsin was different. And better.
Then came Walker, and then came the 2016 election, which saw the state reject Feingold's attempt to return to the U.S. Senate and embrace (albeit narrowly) the candidacy of Republican Donald J. Trump.
Something has gone awry. Terribly awry.
Wisconsin no longer seems different — and better. It can no longer claim to be the bulwark against right-wing hegemony.
Tom Frank knows this. He has kept observing the state; he has kept writing about the aggressive politics of Republicans like Walker and Trump — just as he has continued to write about the failed politics of Democrats who cannot seem to beat the GOP's wrecking crew. In his 2016 book "Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?" the author demanded that Americans ask tough questions about the decay of American politics in the states and nationally.
As The New York Times observed in a campaign-season review of Frank's book: "(Many) liberals have expressed a grim satisfaction in watching the Republican Party tear itself apart. Whatever terrible fate might soon befall the nation, the thinking goes, it’s their fault, not ours. They are the ones stirring up the base prejudices and epic resentments of America’s disaffected white working class, and they must now reap the whirlwind. In his new book, the social critic Thomas Frank poses another possibility: that liberals in general — and the Democratic Party in particular — should look inward to understand the sorry state of American politics. Too busy attending TED talks and vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies."
Tom and I will explore these questions and these issues in a special conversation during this year's Fighting Bob Fest gathering starting at 7 p.m. Friday at Madison's Barrymore Theatre. We'll renew the Chautauqua character of the event that our friend Ed Garvey so valued by inviting the crowd to join in a serious, searching discussion of "What's the Matter With Wisconsin?" And, with allies such as Jim Hightower and Nina Turner, we'll point toward real solutions that can renew the Wisconsin Idea and the progressive promise of this great state. Admission is free. Join us! And let's keep the conversation going over the weekend at the Cap Times Idea Fest!
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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