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Wisconsin Regressivism

Undoing one of twentieth-century America’s greatest political achievements

Illustration by Taylor Callery

What is the opposite of sex? This is a question that admits of no answer, a kind of Zen koan that brings the reflecting mind to a standstill. So, what if we apply the question to “progressivism,” so-called: Is there an opposite to that? Answer: not if the question refers to the vague, amorphous, undefined progressivism of today. There can be no antonym for a term that is lexically meaningless.

In his new book, The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics (published by W.W. Norton in July), however, Dan Kaufman offers up, early on, a Wisconsinite whose crabbed values perfectly encapsulate the opposite of those of the original, genuine, big-hearted Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century. That person is Representative Paul Ryan, who told Glenn Beck in 2010 that a major goal of his was to “indict the entire vision of progressivism.” He labeled progressivism a “cancer” and identified it as “the intellectual source for the big government problems that are plaguing us today.” The first progressives, he argued, detached “people from the Constitution and founding principles to pave the way for the centralized bureaucratic welfare state,” which in turn fostered “a culture of dependency on the government, not on oneself.”

Ryan further claimed, “This stuff came from these German intellectuals to Madison, University of Wisconsin.” There is some truth to that, but if Ryan knew more about his native state, he would realize that the true culprits were Scandinavian immigrants who flooded into the upper Midwest in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These immigrants brought egalitarian values, derivative of Lutheran Protestantism, that inspired them to organize agricultural cooperatives and to support, in disproportionate numbers, the nascent trade union movement. A communitarian ethos also led them to view favorably the concept of the welfare state, which the Swedes called folkhemmet, or “the people’s home,” implying, contra Paul Ryan, not a dependency on the state per se, nor on the self alone, but rather on each other, as in a family.

Another key source of the Wisconsin Progressive ethos was John Bascom, the president of the University of Wisconsin from 1874 to 1887. Bascom was mentor to Robert (“Fighting Bob”) La Follette, the Progressive Republican who would serve Wisconsin as both a governor and a U.S. senator. Bascom, Kaufman explains, “saw society as a living thing, a type of organism. To maintain its health, the state needed to foster social, moral, and economic harmony. If the rich grew too rich, if workers became impoverished, if women were subjugated, society fell out of balance, and the whole of it suffered.” Though resistant to socialist ideology, he was even more opposed to laissez-faire economics and advocated strong government action to redress such imbalances. Perhaps the most important idea La Follette took from Bascom was the absolute necessity of curbing excessive corporate wealth and power for the sake of societal equilibrium.

La Follette was progenitor of the Wisconsin Idea, whose core value was symbiosis between the University of Wisconsin and the state government in developing public policy. A living embodiment of that idea was Aldo Leopold, a professor in the field of agriculture and economics at the university. Leopold viewed himself, Kaufman tells us, as an academic serving the public at large, not simply the students in his classroom. He was recruited by the New Deal to help oversee the ecological restoration of Coon Valley, a farming community in the west-central part of the state whose soil had been depleted by decades of human exploitation. Leopold quickly realized that the success of the project depended on collaboration between the soil-erosion service he represented and local private landowners, a dynamic he fully accepted. Curt Meine, Leopold’s biographer, expatiates on this point: “You have these deep channels of Wisconsin political culture that weave back and forth,” Meine said. “There’s a tension, which has often been a healthy tension, between social responsibility and individual responsibility, between government action and individual action. We’ve been able to use that tension in Wisconsin in a positive way for generations.”

Until, that is, the ascension of Governor Scott Walker, who has scorned the balancing act between concern with individual rights of the liberal tradition and concern with the common good of the civic-republican tradition, which constituted the essence of classical progressivism. Nowhere is this scorn more evident than in his implacable campaign to win approval of an out-of-state mining company’s plan to construct a behemoth ore mine in the pristine Penokee Hills area of northern Wisconsin.

For the Bad River Band of the Ojibwe Native American tribe, whose reservation lies downstream from the open-pit mine’s designated location, the plan constituted a “life-or-death matter.” But for tribal elder Joe Rose, it was also symbolic of a momentous fork in the road that human civilization has reached. What was preventing people from choosing the right path forward, Rose thought, was what he called “corporate windigos.” Windigos, in Ojibwe mythology, are giant, cannibalistic beasts, forced by hunger to devour human flesh; and the more they consume, they hungrier they become. Corporate windigos like the mining company are likewise creatures of unrestrained greed and excess. “That’s where your democracy is threatened,” Rose told Kaufman. “That’s what’s happening right now.”