GOP Takeover, from Wisconsin to Washington (Part III)

Part I Part II

Kathleen Vinehout at Fighting Bob Fest in 2013. Image taken from Mike DeVries of Capital Times.

I have been sitting on this post for over six months, but an article by Sarah Jones was posted to the Nation today, titled In La Follette Territory. That reminded me about the piece I planned on writing that lined up with the end of this article — how do we fight?

First, to speak of general impressions of the article — I think Sarah Jones does a great job detailing the lessons learned from Janesville and Politics of Resentment (neither of which I have read). As I mentioned previously, the politics of Scott Walker comes from driving a wedge between the divide between “the M&Ms” (Madison and Milwaukee) and the rest of the state, and it’s been tremendously successful.

She also brings up Wisconsin’s progressive tradition from Robert La Follette. In Madison we hold an annual Fighting Bob Fest to commemorate him and his brand of progressivism, but it doesn’t really seem like his spirit’s all that strong here in Wisconsin. I’d point to two major factors:

  1. The anti-Act 10 Movement and its failure to achieve anything demoralized Labor (and in turn grassroots politics) in Wisconsin. Following the Act 10 marches, Labor leadership demobilized the strikes in favor of a recall election (instead of transitioning to, say, a General Strike), which ultimately failed in its goal of removing Scott Walker from the State Capitol. This bred distrust between the rank-and-file and the union leaders, and the laws being passed along with this resentment caused union participation to drop sharply.
  2. Wisconsin’s Democratic Party suffers from homogeneity with the national party. In her article, Jones lays out La Follette’s focus on policies that help rural Wisconsinites and fight profiteering — both strategies that jibe very well with the Upper Midwest. Minnesota and Wisconsin are often compared and contrasted against each other, as two states that veered in two different directions in the past ten years (Minnesota to the left with Dayton in charge, and Wisconsin to the right). Minnesota’s Democratic party is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, its roots coming from banding together with the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party during World War II. This difference allows the Minnesota DFL to distinguish themselves as standing up for Minnesotan interests better than Wisconsin’s Democratic party, who can’t shake the accusation of being anti-rural and only focused on wins in big cities.

Other factors are certainly at play, but these two factors have heavily influenced Wisconsin’s current situation and need to be examined and/or fought if Wisconsin is to have a left-wing renaissance.

The biggest task in the next election is defeating Scott Walker. (Tammy Baldwin has a re-election that will be heavily contested, but that is a bit more nebulous for now.) Walker is dealing with a budget crisis around how to fund road work, which may weaken his image in-state. Additionally, There’s likely to be a wave of progressive backlash from the draconian Trump and Republican agenda, and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin would very much like to ride that wave. The big question is “Who” — can Wisconsin come up with a candidate that has a chance of unseating Walker? Right now three major candidates have already or are likely to declare:

  1. Andy Gronik — he’s a democratic businessman from Milwaukee area. I don’t have much faith in him because he’s a CEO type and we know what happened the last time a politically inexperienced CEO from a city that started in M ran for governor.
  2. Tony Evers — Evers is coming fresh off of a landslide electoral victory for state superintendent. He can win elections and he can outflank Walker on any educational talking points (since Evers has been in office the entire time Walker’s been there) — as Jones’s article notes, education would be a great issue to pick up smaller-town votes. He was born and raised in small-town Plymouth, WI and can bank on that. He’d probably get attacked as someone with only Madison’s interests in mind and a neophyte on jobs.
  3. Kathleen Vinehout — Vinehout is a state senator from small-town Eau Claire. She is the only one of these three I’ve seen speak in person, and I was impressed (with some reservations). She spoke at the Wisconsin Grassroots Festival in Mazomanie, WI (along with Catherine Cramer, the author of Politics of Resentment). She has a solid stump speech, and wears her small-town Wisconsin accent as a badge of pride. My only concern with the speech was that she had an impassioned ode to the Obamas and Clintons, which may be a liability when going to territories gutted by their neoliberal policies.

I did go off on a tangent here, but many on the left see Walker as an arch-foe, and given that much of the GOP’s national power was modeled off of Wisconsin’s growth, we need to closely examine Wisconsin’s efforts to topple the Republican supermajority.

While the “who” debate rages on, we also need to examine “how”. We need to have a concerted voter registration push to combat the terrible voter ID laws that have been passed (and may get strengthened under Trump). In addition, we need policies for rural areas — Vinehout is already working to champion rural broadband as one of her key issues, for example.

Most importantly, though, we need to create the rural grassroots progressivism that Jones espouses in the article, with or without the Democratic Party’s support. Organizations like Our Wisconsin Revolution, Indivisible chapters, and Democratic Socialists of America (full disclosure: I’m a DSA member) need to find ways to canvass and cater their message to rural and smaller-city Wisconsinites to rebuild the progressive spirit in these areas. We don’t have to change our core message or pander to their interests — we need everyone in Wisconsin to realize the problem is the ultra-wealthy and that when we fight for a better future, they’re a part of that future too.