Progressive politics on the comeback in Wisconsin?

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Five years ago, it seemed progressives had staged a comeback in Wisconsin. Hundreds of thousands of marchers hit the streets of Madison to protest the so-called “budget repair bill,” later known as Act 10. The law backed by Gov. Scott Walker stripped most collective bargaining rights from the majority of public-sector workers in Wisconsin.

The weeks-long peaceful occupation of the Capitol building in early 2011 generated a new wave of progressive energy among students, unionized workers and other activists. Placards bearing the movement’s signature blue fist were plastered all over the capital city. A thumping chant—”This is what democracy looks like!”—became the protest’s anthem.

“Recall Walker” signs and bumper stickers spread across south-central Wisconsin and elsewhere. More than 900,000 Wisconsin residents—roughly one out of every three voters—signed petitions to recall Walker from office.

Then the wave dissipated. Walker won his June 2012 recall election. Seven of the 10 recalled Republican senators kept their jobs. Walker was re-elected to a second four-year term by a comfortable margin. Republicans kept control of the state Legislature.

Democrats wondered, what happened?

Mike Wagner, associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is studying post-Act 10 politics in Wisconsin, says passage of the law and Walker’s recall win not only demoralized progressives, it also severely curtailed the political capital and political power of Democrats’ biggest allies—public sector labor unions. In 2015, Walker signed a right-to-work law that weakened Wisconsin’s private sector unions as well.

“It’s hard to lose a big battle and regroup and come back stronger,” Wagner says. “It’s especially hard when the battle you lost makes it harder for you to organize as it did in Act 10.”

It was a stunning defeat for progressivism, which was born in Wisconsin and has long influenced its politics. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette—the former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator—is credited with launching the movement around the turn of the 20th century during the Gilded Age to protect people from corporate excess and related political corruption.

In the ensuing decades, progressivism was credited with inspiring numerous state and national initiatives, including employee protections such as child labor laws and compensation for injured workers; environmental protections including forest and water conservation; safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare; and anti-discrimination laws including the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

But these are old victories. Although its influence still can be felt in Madison and places across Wisconsin, progressivism is not widely embraced. 

A 2012 Marquette Law School poll found that just 19 percent of Wisconsinites identified as progressives or liberals, poll director Charles Franklin says, while a national 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll found just 12 percent identified as progressives. That same 2010 poll also found that 54 percent of respondents say they do not know what the term means.

Even Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been debating the term. Each has tried to build the case for being the progressive choice for voters in the 2016 race to the White House.

Political observers in Wisconsin say any efforts to regain momentum in the state must include finding common ground with independents and conservatives, some of whom support their nemesis: Scott Walker.

At Odds with the GOP
Progressives in Wisconsin also face a structural problem. In 2012, more Democrats than Republicans voted in the elections for state Assembly, but Republicans took 60 of the 99 seats due in part to legislative districts drawn in 2011 by GOP leaders. (Democrats, it should be noted, declined opportunities to depoliticize the process in eras when they controlled the Legislature.)

“They [Republicans] have redistricted and gerrymandered the maps in Wisconsin to give themselves a huge advantage and diminish the power of the ballot for people who are in these gerrymandered districts,” says Matthew Rothschild, former longtime editor of The Progressive magazine, a more-than-century-old publication headquartered in Madison.

But Kathy Cramer, a political science professor who is faculty director of UW–Madison’s Morgridge Center for Public Service, says Walker’s small-government message resonates with many rural voters who believe they get little return for their taxes.

Cramer traveled across the state, observing conversations and interviewing people in coffee shops and gas stations for her book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. She found many rural voters feel government is too big and “public employees are getting too much, and it’s coming off my back.”

“‘Here I am working really hard trying to make ends meet, and I can’t afford to pay health care and I’m being told my tax dollars are being used to pay for health care for public employees,'” Cramer says, paraphrasing a common theme she heard during her research. “‘Why would I support that?'”

Walker “played the politics of resentment like a Stradivarius,” says Rothschild. “He made people resent those who were just one rung above them on the ladder, the economic ladder, rather than looking at the people on the very top who were not allowing them to climb the ladder at all.”

An attempt was made to contact Walker for this story. Walker’s office acknowledged the request for an interview but did not comply before the publication deadline.

But Cramer says the divide comes from many complicated factors; and each side’s animosity toward the other does not help heal the divide.

“Are you [progressives] really saying that half of Wisconsinites are incompetent, are not smart enough to participate in democracy? Or could it be that maybe they see the world in a very different way than people who are voting for the other party?” Cramer says. “That attitude—that people who are voting for Scott Walker and the Republicans are being fooled or they’re stupid—is very common,” she says. “And that doesn’t help the cause of progressives.”

‘Schizophrenic’ Politics
The identity crisis among local progressives is just one facet of Wisconsin’s complicated political personality.

“We have a [politically] schizophrenic state and we’ve always had a schizophrenic state,” says Rothschild. “This is the state of Fighting Bob La Follette, and it’s the state of [anti-Communist demagogue] Joe McCarthy. I mean, it’s the state of Ron Johnson, and it’s the state of Tammy Baldwin.” 

As Republicans maintain their tight grip on state government and the state’s congressional delegation, conservatives such as Walker and U.S. House Majority Leader Paul Ryan are increasingly seen as the face of Wisconsin politics.

But progressivism—which views government as the great protector and problem solver—is not dead here.

Seven of the Madison Common Council’s 20 representatives are backed by Progressive Dane, a small party that endorses candidates for local offices. The party also backed three of the seven members of the Madison School Board. 

Although not all endorsed by Progressive Dane, numerous liberal officeholders in Dane County, including Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, also call themselves progressives.

And former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold—founder of the Progressives United Political Action Committee—has set that effort aside to run for the seat he lost to conservative businessman Ron Johnson in 2010.

Progressivism in Action
Ten people gather around a conference table at the Madison Senior Center to debate their party’s platform for the upcoming Dane County Board elections.

They want better conditions for the homeless. A living wage for people who provide social services under government contracts. Funding to help renters avoid eviction. No more arrests for marijuana possession. An end to “economic segregation” in Madison.

This is not a meeting of the Republican Party, or even the Democratic Party. This is Progressive Dane.

In a discussion afterward, Progressive Dane member and former co-chair T.J. Mertz, an Edgewood College history instructor and Madison School Board member, laments a lack of real commitment by some in the progressive movement.

“The word ‘progressivism’ has become meaningless,” Mertz says. “People who claim to be progressive are often far from it when it comes down to real issues and real action.”

Greg Brown, a Union Cab dispatcher, agrees. He says while progressives support traditional issues such as gay rights and a woman’s right to an abortion, not enough are focused on problems such as low pay for workers or the rising cost of Madison housing.

Michael Martez Johnson, co-chairman of Progressive Dane, says in an interview that the party needs an “umbrella strategy” that broadens its base beyond “niche” constituencies such as the homeless and the poor.

“You want to create something that helps not only marginalized groups but larger groups of people,” he says.

Johnson, who is African American, says he also would like to see more effective outreach to professionals, younger people and people of color. “We’re a 1990s and 2000s political organization in a Twitter and Facebook world,” he says.

Supporters and critics alike say that to be successful, progressives must connect with less educated, rural and working-class people who are more likely to vote Republican and who may share common views—even if they would never label those views as progressive.

Signs Pointing Up for Progressives?
Some political observers predict progressivism may soon enjoy a resurgence in Wisconsin. Polls show most voters support progressive ideas such as raising the minimum wage and universal background checks for gun purchases.

Donald Downs, UW–Madison professor emeritus of political science, law and journalism, predicts “a minor comeback, to rebalance the left-right scales in Wisconsin.” He says hard-right conservatives are “unrealistic” in their goal to severely shrink government and may have lost voters on issues such as immigration.

Rothschild, who left The Progressive after 32 years to run the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, is upbeat. He cited as positive signs the emergence of Black Lives Matter, the push for a $15 minimum wage and the move to amend the U.S. Constitution to erase court rulings defining corporate campaign donations as free speech.

“The ideals of progressivism are as popular as ever,” he says. “Progressive views on … the minimum wage and public education and the environment and getting money out of politics are all majoritarian issues—vastly popular.”

John Sharpless, a moderate Republican and UW–Madison history professor, says conservatives’ stance on the federal health care law also may work to the advantage of progressives.

“Arguing the repeal of Obamacare is going to go nowhere with people literally, physically in pain,” Sharpless says. “To look at somebody whose mother is dying of cancer and say, ‘The market will take care of that,’ is cruel. It’s just stupid and cruel. They need to help Mom, and they need to have the bills paid so they don’t lose the farm. Until Republicans have a real answer to that,” he adds, “I think they’ll lose that battle. Remember, there were a lot of people opposed to Social Security and Medicare. Only a lunatic comes out against Social Security now.”

Progressivism Going Forward
Mike McCabe, author of Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics, believes progressives must craft an optimistic vision for the future, moving beyond protecting past policy gains such as Social Security and Medicare. McCabe has been traveling the state as part of Blue Jean Nation, his grassroots movement for the “politically homeless.” 

“Rural people are voting for their interests as they see their interests,” McCabe says during a forum on democracy at UW–Madison last fall. “Your job is to make a better offer. We need progressive forces in our society that are thinking very imaginatively and seeking to become policy innovators in the 21st century.” 

In some respects, Paul Soglin may fit that mold. The on-again off-again mayor of Wisconsin’s capital city—and former Vietnam War protester—turns 71 next month. His brand of pragmatic progressivism has made enemies on the left and right, but, he argues, has built Wisconsin’s most successful city.

Soglin has been criticized by progressives for giving tax dollars to developers and moving dozens of homeless people from in and around the City-County Building. 

The mayor countered that dispersing the unruly group last fall sharply cut arrests and medical emergencies among the homeless population. “This is a progressive response,” Soglin argued, “because not only is the public safer, but the homeless people are safer.”

He says dynamic development—which some progressives call corporate welfare—generates crucial property tax revenue to pay for progressive policies such as competitive wages and benefits for city workers, and progressive programs such as $25 million over the next five years to build permanent housing for Madison’s homeless.

Rather than “mindless chatter” about cutting government spending, Soglin says Madison strategically invests in people and infrastructure. The city continues to “far outdistance” the rest of the state in economic growth, he says, despite Republicans’ “historic” cuts to UW–Madison, the city’s top employer.

Rothschild says he believes progressivism could enjoy a resurgence if it gives people what they want, such as free prescription drugs on Medicare, paid family leave, paid medical leave, paid maternity leave and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“There are things like that that could give people a direct positive impact in their lives,” Rothschild says. “And those are the kinds of things that I think progressives advocate.”