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Author visits Baraboo to discuss Wisconsin’s political change

October 13, 2018

Dan Kaufman wonders whether the rest of the nation will catch what Wisconsin has contracted.

Gerrymandered districts, unfettered campaign donations and waning union clout have altered Wisconsin politics, he argues in his new book, pushing a state renowned for progressive ideals from blue to purple to red. Kaufman writes events in Wisconsin, which gave Republicans control of the statehouse and voted for President Donald Trump, may predict outcomes in other swing states.

“It’s a true bellwether,” he said. “It’s becoming a proxy for national battles.”

On Sunday, Kaufman will visit the Village Booksmith in downtown Baraboo to discuss his book, “The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics.”

“This is exactly the kind of opportunity we envisioned when we started carrying new books,” store owner Rob Nelson said, “to give people in our area access to the latest titles, and occasionally the authors who pen them.”

Kaufman will appear Saturday at the Wisconsin Book Festival, making his Baraboo visit possible. “I love that area,” he said. “It was a delight to be able to say yes.”

Wisconsin native

Kaufman grew up in Madison. Today he writes for magazines like the New Yorker, for which he chronicled the statewide uproar over Gov. Scott Walker denuding labor unions. His initial reporting in 2011 got him thinking about a book analyzing Wisconsin’s political evolution.

Contributing factors abound: Walker busted unions that once helped elect Democrats. The Republican Legislature drew district maps assuring the GOP of majorities in both houses, even though Democrats received more total votes. A state voter identification law is thought to have disenfranchised constituencies that tend to vote blue. And since the 2010 Citizens United decision, “dark money” has flowed into Wisconsin to influence campaigns.

“There are a lot of factors trying to bend the electorate,” Kaufman said. “I did feel a sense that the state’s politics were being taken over.”

As a Wisconsin native who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, Kaufman watched Wisconsin’s transformation as a far-away insider. Seeing Trump win in Wisconsin, which hadn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, surprised many. Kaufman argues it shouldn’t have.

Complicated, contradictory

Wisconsin’s political pulse never has been easy to find. The state produced progressive champion “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, but also red-baiting U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy. What could be more complicated than sending Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, to the Senate, but also electing Republican Tommy Thompson governor four times? The state’s current Senate representatives, Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, are polar opposites.

“Wisconsin has always had different tendencies, progressive ones as well as right-wing independent ones,” Kaufman said.

Barack Obama won here twice, but during his term the state shifted right, from the top statewide posts to local precincts. Kaufman attributes this to conservative activists who, with corporate backing, pushed the electorate into the red. In that respect Wisconsin could become a national model.

“A lot of times people are looking for one simple answer, but I think it’s more layered than that,” he said.

Kaufman’s book digs up the state’s political roots and analyzes its more recent history, starting with Walker winning the governorship in 2010 in a mid-term election that targeted Obamacare and Madison’s Democratic power structure. Soon thereafter Walker enacted Act 10 to strip public employee unions of their right to collective bargaining. The action sparked protests and a recall election Walker survived. Undeterred, he won re-election in 2014 and signed new legislation making Wisconsin a right-to-work state.

Until recently Wisconsin had displayed a willingness to support Republicans and Democrats. The parties united in support for conservation, health care and public education. “I think that has eroded,” Kaufman said. “There’s a lot of decline in the public sector.”

Now the party-line rancor common in Washington is seen here. “There’s been a revival of this divisiveness in Wisconsin, and it’s troubling,” Kaufman said. “I think it would be great if people could return to a spirit of, ‘We’re in this together.’”

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