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  • The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics by Dan Kaufman
  • John E. Miller
Dan Kaufman, The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics. New York: W. W. Norton, 2018. 336 pp. $16.95 (paper).

Wisconsin has long been considered a bellwether of progressive politics. However, it is more rightly seen as a state balanced on a political teetertotter—one that historically has shift ed back and forth between progressivism and conservatism as the political context changes and as new leaders, circumstances, and institutional forces emerge. Written in the wake of the 2016 election, in which Wisconsin was one of several midwestern states that helped to propel Donald Trump narrowly into the White House, Dan Kaufman's highly readable book sets out to describe recent shift s in the state's political winds and to explain how a once-liberal bastion and laboratory for democracy has been converted into a testing ground for national conservatism. Kaufman, a Brooklyn-based journalist and Wisconsin native, sketches the historical background in broad strokes before delving into the recent past, utilizing the tools of an investigative journalist to analyze how and why the electorate opted for conservative leadership. He also explains how those leaders were able to prevail in a highly contentious political climate. The answers, he suggests, have important implications for the nation as a whole. Conservatives, not surprisingly, calculate that if they can flip Wisconsin permanently in their favor, they can do it anywhere in the United States.

Following an introductory chapter that efficiently describes the making of a generally dominant progressive political culture—largely influenced [End Page 197] by "Fighting Bob" La Follette and his wide coterie of followers—Kaufman gets down to business in chapter 2. This describes the "divide and conquer" brand of conservative politics that, during the past two decades or so, has pulled Wisconsin away from its original, more progressive moorings. Crucial in this process were Janesville Congressman Paul Ryan and, especially, Scott Walker. The former rose to the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives after 1998. The latter was a college dropout who rose to the governorship in 2010 and pushed through Act 10, a law that severely cut state-worker pensions and gutted collective bargaining for state employees. Contradicting the influence of environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold, father of the "land ethic," and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who created Earth Day in 1970, GOP legislators pushed hard for legislation to open up previously protected areas for mining operations. Working closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative organizations, Republicans pursued a path devoted to limited government, free markets, and federalism. Kaufman does a good job of describing the linkages among the governor, legislators, national political organizations, think tanks, intellectuals, and wealthy donors who worked effectively to promote the conservative cause.

The greatest value of this volume lies in the many interviews the author conducted with politicians on both sides of the spectrum, as well as with involved citizens, typical voters, and other interested observers. If political journalism can be considered the first draft of history, this particular example of it is of an especially high caliber. It is made all the more so by the author's solid grasp of the historical background of the events and developments that he describes. The special attention he devotes to Native Americans and their concerns, to labor and educational issues, to gerrymandering, and to money in politics is especially valuable.

Kaufman's book will inevitably be compared to Katherine J. Cramer's The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016). The two books are highly complementary, both relying heavily upon interviews and close study of local details. Kaufman describes his meeting with her and how she was able, in her book, to penetrate the resentments that many (especially rural) voters harbor of the political system and much of its established leadership. Kaufman will be criticized for leaning toward the views of those who criticize and condemn the conservative point of view. But his book's hard-digging...