The twisted metamorphosis of Scott Walker's Wisconsin: How a once-liberal state became a political battlefield

Walker ushered in a new era of conservatism in Wisconsin, but there's much more behind the state's transformation

Published April 9, 2015 8:35PM (EDT)

Scott Walker                                    (Jeff Malet,
Scott Walker (Jeff Malet,

How do you explain Wisconsin? Once the home to progressive liberal politics and politicians, such as governors Gaylord Nelson, Patrick Lucey and Anthony Earl, Wisconsin now produces the likes of union-busting Gov. Scott Walker, and a GOP-controlled legislature enacting voter ID, onerous abortion regulations, and anti-union right-to-work rules.

The state now even has a polarized and partisan Supreme Court with a constitutional crisis on its hands: Voters have just adopted a ballot initiative that would dislodge Shirley Abrahamson, the court's liberal chief justice, from the position she has held since 1996, and turn it over to the Republicans on the bench.

(Abrahamson was elected by voters in 2009 to a new 10-year term; she is now suing to retain her position.)

How has Wisconsin turned into the partisan battleground it is today? Part of the answer lies in factors idiosyncratic to Wisconsin, but part also speaks to the relative narratives both Republicans and Democrats use both in-state and nationwide to win elections.

For example, partisans like to contrast Wisconsin with the neighboring Minnesota -- two states identical in many ways -- pointing to their divergent paths under the governorships of Republican Scott Walker and Democrat Mark Dayton. These observers reference the states' contrasting policies on economics, taxes and education to explain the differing paths the states are on when it comes to jobs and growth. Recent reports, such as one by the Pew Research Center, depict a state marred by deteriorating job growth whose middle class has declined more than almost any other state in the nation. (Minnesota, meanwhile, comes out near the top in terms of unemployment, median family incomes, and economic growth.) But such references give too much credit, and too much blame, to recently enacted policies in explaining the economic paths of the two states. Nor do they address a far more fundamental question: Why has Wisconsin turned to the right?

The roots of Wisconsin’s change reside in three forces. The first is that, while Wisconsin has a progressive streak of the sort that once put socialists in office, there is a history of conservatism and reactionary politics to the state that Joe McCarthy of all people called home. Wisconsin has a nativist culture, born of homogeneous white northern European immigration patterns, that is still fearful of outsiders, suspicious of change.

Second, Wisconsin is politically complex: It has its strong liberal pockets, Dane County (home to Madison and the state university) and Milwaukee; but there is also a growing conservative population as well. While the liberal centers once dominated the state in terms of population, that is no longer the case: More people live in the suburbs, or in its small, rural communities, creating a strong political base for Republicans.

Third, the economic landscape of Wisconsin has altered dramatically over the past several decades, as it has transitioned from an industrial and agricultural economy in the '70s to a post-industrial world. Wisconsin has not fared as well as neighboring Minnesota, which has become a hub for bio-technology. It was never the home to as many Fortune 500 companies as Minnesota was, and its industries proved more vulnerable to global competition. The state made a series of bad choices or missteps when it came to how it responded to economic challenges as it emerged from its industrial past. A partial list of policy decisions with negative ramifications include: The gradual disinvestment in higher education under Thompson, weakening public schools, especially in Milwaukee; not providing funds to welfare recipients in the '90s to get job training or education; along with a lack of investment to upgrade infrastructure. Wisconsin for many decades was heavily dependent on manufacturing, and it was hit particularly hard in the '80s -- and then again during the Great Recession -- but did little to provide resources to help transition the state in a new direction. As a result, Wisconsin has lost economic ground over the last two generations, and the world economy has left it behind.

These three factors set the foundation first for Republican Tommy Thompson’s election to governor in the 1986, the Democratic loss of the legislature, and then Russ Feingold’s defeat in the Senate in 2010, along with Walker’s era-defining gubernatorial victory. Since 1987, Republicans have controlled the governorship for 20 of the last 28 years; and since 1995, except for a brief period, they have controlled one or both houses of the legislature. Walker and other Republicans have successfully exploited white middle and working class anxieties, as work has dried up, incomes have decreased, and the state has racially diversified. Walker, and before him Thompson, offered simple solutions for why things have gone wrong: Lazy welfare recipients, unions, gays, college students, intellectuals, Democrats, and government. (It is a variation of Thomas Franks’ “What’s the Matter with Kansas” thesis.)

But there's more to the situation than simply appealing to social issues, fear, and prejudice to acquire votes. The state's Republican lawmakers have also cynically adopted policies that not only do little to help their new constituencies, but are meant also to perpetuate and magnify exactly those same anxieties and make sure their base continues to vote Republican. Walker has been successful not only in exploiting political prejudices; his policies have actively encouraged and nourished them.

During Walker's 2012 recall election, signs across Wisconsin signs declared, “It’s beginning to work,” referencing claims that the economic policies of Walker were finally going to produce the 250,000 jobs his 2010 election promised. Those jobs never materialized, yet Walker retains the support of so many of those whom his policies have hurt.

In so exploiting and nurturing these attitudes, Walker and Republicans have been successful in flipping Wisconsin. They have used a narrative of blaming others, decrying them, Democrats, and government for the reasons why the middle and working class are struggling. Democrats conversely have failed to articulate a narrative to why this is wrong and their policies are right. This is why Wisconsin is flipping, why Walker is successful, and how that state is a case study and prelude to the Republican 2016 presidential campaign strategy.

By David A. Schultz

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Conservatism Gop Minnesota Republican Party Scott Walker Wisconsin