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Ghosts of Wisconsin

On competing political legacies in the perennial swing state

Not long ago, one of my Wisconsin friends told me about the time he had gone out of his way to piss on Joe McCarthy’s grave. He was driving up to Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley, where McCarthy had launched his political career, and he knew that the famed red-baiting senator was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery, on the southwest side of Appleton. So he and his wingman found their way on a wintry day to McCarthy’s plot near a scenic bluff overlooking the Fox River, where they endeavored to write a message in yellow on the snow-covered ground, involving at least the letters F and U.

I gather this happens from time to time—despite a section in the Appleton municipal code that specifically forbids urination on cemetery grounds. An accusation was made in 1968 that McCarthy’s grave had been defiled when poet Allen Ginsberg and members of The Fugs, along with about seventy-five people, gathered there for a “Beat Exorcism.” But Fugs member Ed Sanders claimed the event was “dignified and respectful,” and fellow member Tuli Kupferberg called it “beatific.” The point was to summon McCarthy’s “troubled ghost” “for a communion of love, tenderness, flesh, thrills, and psychic change,” so that they might then send his spirit “back to the void, without harm.” (An eleven-minute audio of the ceremony survives in all its madcap sixties glory.)

There are those who visit out of true devotion, as well. “I go down there every year or so,” an Appleton local, “obviously a McCarthy fan,” told biographer Arthur Herman when he was asking directions to the gravesite as he researched his 2000 book. In fact, a large crowd attended McCarthy’s burial in May 1957, and a Marine honor guard draped his casket with the American flag. McCarthy had served in the Marines from 1942 to 1945 before he won his seat in the Senate in 1946, paving the way to his bullying, alcohol-fueled career as the leading anti-Communist demagogue of the 1950s.

It was as if Ginsberg’s beat exorcism had utterly failed, and the ghost of Joe McCarthy had returned to stomp again on the state’s progressive heritage.

After I heard my friend’s story, I thought about another Wisconsin graveyard—one that I visited several years ago. Forest Hill Cemetery is just south of the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. Inspired by the famous Mt. Auburn grounds on the Cambridge-Watertown line in Massachusetts, it is landscaped in the “rural cemetery” fashion, with ample greenery and winding drives. Here at Forest Hill lies Robert M. La Follette, along with several others from Wisconsin’s most famous political family. “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s grave is plain, marked not by a grand monument but by a long flat slab. It shows only his name, date of birth (June 14, 1855) and date of death (June 18, 1925). Next to it, in the same style, is the grave of his wife and political partner, Belle Case La Follette.

It was the political tradition of Bob La Follette that mattered to me as a college student in Madison. It seemed to me then that McCarthy’s connection to Wisconsin politics was accidental and incidental. On a campus that featured every possible variant of leftism—from democratic socialists and young Marxist scholars to the Trotskyite Spartacist Youth League and the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade—the progressivism of La Follette was still very much in the air. I believed it was the real homegrown Wisconsin radicalism, the true spirit of the place. For one thing, Madison was (and is) the home of the magazine La Follette founded in 1909, originally called La Follette’s Weekly, and two decades later renamed as The Progressive. One of the magazine’s proudest moments was the production of a special issue in 1954 that denounced the dishonest and destructive Red Scare politics of Joe McCarthy.

In truth, the state has long been in precarious balance. Madison and Milwaukee can sometimes count on a progressive alliance with some of the southwestern and northern regions, but often the heavily white rural areas reassemble into what author Richard Rovere said McCarthy represented: “a coalition of the aggrieved.” For the last nineteen years, Wisconsin’s progressives have gathered in September for an event called “Fighting Bob Fest.” (This year it was held online due to the pandemic.) But even while La Follette’s memory is kept alive, his political heirs have in the recent decade lost their hold on the state. When Donald Trump eked out a Wisconsin victory in 2016 by 22,748 votes, it ensured his victory in the Electoral College. It was as if Ginsberg’s beat exorcism had utterly failed, and the ghost of Joe McCarthy had returned to stomp again on the state’s progressive heritage, just as he had done when he first won his Senate seat by defeating the incumbent senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr.—Fighting Bob’s son. The direct line from McCarthy to Trump is not fanciful: it was McCarthy’s unprincipled counsel Roy Cohn who later became a political mentor to the young Donald Trump. Cohn also introduced Roger Stone to Trump, and Stone went on to be one of Trump’s favorite political dirty tricksters.

When Trump held a rally in Janesville on October 17, he told his fans, “We win Wisconsin, we win the whole ballgame.” A few months ago, this seemed like a real possibility. As Dan Kaufman reported in The New Yorker in August, even if Joe Biden were to take Pennsylvania and Michigan, Trump could “still win a second term by holding Wisconsin.” But Kaufman spoke to farmers in the areas of the state that had once turned out to vote for Barack Obama and then switched to Trump in 2016. He found lessening enthusiasm for Trump now, as the farm economy has suffered from Trump’s trade wars. And as Wisconsin became one of the hardest hit states by the pandemic, it seemed plausible that Trump’s standing was falling further (as polls consistently have indicated). “I think there is a widespread rejection of Trump at this point,” Kaufman said in early October on a panel discussion hosted by The New Republic.

Yet no matter how this presidential election plays out, Wisconsin will likely continue to be a political battleground. Just about every state has some kind of populist or progressive tradition that is in constant struggle with forces of reaction and corporate influence peddling—even Oklahoma, one of the most reliable of the rural Republican states, once sent the firebrand populist Fred Harris to Congress, just as South Dakota once gave us George McGovern, and Texas sent the crusading mavericks Ralph Yarborough and Henry B. Gonzalez to Congress. But few states have stayed so close, for such a long time, to a tenuous tipping point as Wisconsin has. Few states have the kind of split that could send Joe McCarthy to the Senate and then, immediately after, replace him with the good-government reformer William Proxmire. Wisconsin was the home of important environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. But it also gave us the influential right-wing network builder Paul Weyrich, the Republican operative Reince Priebus, and the Koch Brothers’ lackey Scott Walker, who served two recent terms as governor. For a while Senator Russ Feingold was one of the nation’s most inspiring progressives, but at the same time, the Janesville area sent the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan to Congress, where he became Speaker of the House. Even today, the state is represented in the United States Senate by liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin and by Republican nabob Ron Johnson.

Close observers have been pointing out for years that a kind of Trumpian politics took hold in Wisconsin well before Trump came along. University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine J. Cramer started a project in 2007 that led her to an extensive listening tour of the state, in which she visited twenty-seven communities. She found herself in position to watch the 2010 election of Scott Walker, his immediate attack on the collective bargaining power of the state’s public employees, and the unsuccessful attempt to remove Walker in 2012 by way of a recall election.

Few states have stayed so close, for such a long time, to a tenuous tipping point as Wisconsin has.

Cramer’s book, The Politics of Resentment, hit shelves in 2016 and became a touchstone after Trump’s election, as journalists tried to comprehend why voters in places like Wisconsin would elect an urban real-estate huckster who wouldn’t know the difference between a steer and a dairy cow. Cramer explains the “rural-urban divide” mostly from the rural perspective—delving into what she calls “rural consciousness.” What she detected just about everywhere she went was a sense from people in small towns that the bureaucrats down in Madison didn’t know and didn’t care about the issues that most affected their communities. As she writes, “animosity toward government is partly about feeling overlooked, ignored, and disrespected.” It was that simmering resentment that Walker picked up on and used to fuel his campaign against public employees. It worked because so many people across Wisconsin resented the idea that state workers had the kind of salaries with health and pension benefits that they lacked.

Dan Kaufman’s 2018 book The Fall of Wisconsin shows the mechanics behind “the conservative conquest of a progressive bastion.” He notes that Walker had not campaigned on anti-union planks. But shortly after he was sworn in as governor, he was recorded by a documentary filmmaker discussing his plans with one of his billionaire donors. Asked if there was a chance Wisconsin could ever become a “completely red state,” Walker replied, “The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public-employee unions. Because you use divide-and-conquer.”

In fact, not all union members rallied in solidarity with the public employees—police and fire unions were exempted—and Walker’s strategy worked. The money of the billionaire Koch brothers came to his aid in the 2012 recall effort. That year, David Koch explained in an interview with the Palm Beach Post: “What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.”

After Walker survived the recall, he went on to win re-election in 2014. And due to the legislative gerrymandering he supervised in 2011, the Wisconsin legislature remains heavily tilted toward Republican rule. A moderate Democrat, Tony Evers, was elected in 2018, and the legislature immediately moved to rein in his powers. Meanwhile, as Kaufman noted in the October TNR panel, labor unions have less political power than ever in the state. The decline in labor density—from 15 percent in 2010 to 8 percent—makes Wisconsin now on par with Alabama, Kaufman said.

It’s the long-held dream of the business tycoons and their political tools. Paul Ryan articulated it in a 2010 interview with Glenn Beck: “What I’ve been trying to do is indict the entire vision of progressivism,” he said. He called that vision a “cancer” and “the intellectual source for the big government problems that are plaguing us today.” Said Ryan: “I grew up in the orbit of Madison, Wisconsin. I know who these people are. I know what they think. I know what they believe.”

Meanwhile, the distressed voices of people all over the state are heard in Cramer’s book and in Kaufman’s. There is a clear sense of loss that anyone from a small town, especially in the heartland, would recognize. Kaufman quotes a retired plumber named Tom Nielsen.

“This used to be a busy place,” he said, gesturing to Kenosha’s run-down streets. “American Motors was here, Chrysler, Jockey underwear, American Brass. They all went by the wayside, all by the wayside.”

And what to do with that resentment? Taking money out of the pockets of state workers may have felt satisfying at the time, but it didn’t do a thing to bring back lost jobs, to boost other workers’ pay, or to save farmers from bankruptcy.

In times like these, there are the consolations of history. Figures like La Follette get lost in a hazy mist after a while. They are more myth than man. This week I turned to David P. Thelen’s 1976 study, Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit. It’s a useful reminder of how relentless the forces of corporate power and corruption are—and how grueling it is to take them on when voters are pulled in multiple directions by their own divisions. How hard it is, in other words, to prevail over “divide and conquer.”

La Follette operated at a time when both the Democratic and Republican parties were divided. They navigated shifting alliances between the many immigrant blocs through Wisconsin. Starting with the election of 1890, the sizable populations of Germans around Milwaukee leaned toward the Democrats. Scandinavians in the west and north were up for grabs. (Finnish immigrants on the Iron Range in the far north were ardently socialist.) La Follette spent most of his career as a Republican, at war with business interests in his party. And he was often flummoxed by the cultural divisions that kept people distracted from their economic interests. The year 1914, for example, saw rural evangelicals blame their problems on cities and their heavily Catholic populations. “The dramatic revival of ethno-religious conflict undermined insurgents’ hopes for reuniting people as consumers, taxpayers, and citizens,” Thelen writes.

La Follette knew that political progress depended on something elusive, what writer Ian Haney López calls “messages of economic populism tied to cross-racial solidarity.”

By 1924, La Follette broke away from the Republican Party to run for president on the Progressive Party ticket. He insisted that “to break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people is the one paramount issue.” He was supported that year by a wide array of labor unions, farmers’ advocates, and leading intellectuals, such as W. E. B. DuBois, Franz Boas, Theodore Dreiser, Thorstein Veblen, as well as Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, and socialist leaders Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.

Even then, the attempts to form a majority coalition were defeated by the two-party system and the fear stoked by business interests that people would lose their jobs if they voted for dangerous radicals like La Follette. According to Thelen, “even more menacing than the occupational differences that divided the Progressives’ potential constituents were the bitter cultural conflicts, symbolized by prohibition and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.” La Follette stood strong against the Klan, condemning “any discrimination between races, classes and creeds.” Thelen writes:

Since the beginning of his political career La Follette had tried to subordinate such cultural conflicts to more important economic ones, but by 1924, as ethnic, religious, and racial tensions fragmented American society, La Follette found not only that he had earned the wrath of prohibitionist leaders as “the only wet candidate” but also that he could not even present his economic program without offending ethnic groups. His anti-Supreme Court plank, intended to rally organized labor, alarmed German Catholics and Lutherans who found that the courts protected their parochial schools against Klan-dominated legislatures.

The Republican Calvin Coolidge won the presidential election in 1924 with 54 percent of the vote. Democrat John Davis took almost 29 percent, and La Follette collected 16.6 percent. He won Wisconsin with 54 percent of the vote, but that was the only state he carried. He died the following year, seventy years old and exhausted.

Wisconsin has been in play ever since—open to leaders who don’t accept that corporations and their flunkies should rule, or that there should be an “urban-rural divide,” but also open to leaders who exploit divisions among the natural majority of laborers for political gain. La Follette knew that political progress depended on something elusive, what writer Ian Haney López calls “messages of economic populism tied to cross-racial solidarity.” His enemies then and now have worked diligently to prevent that. The Koch Brothers, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and their allies have been pissing on La Follette’s grave. May his ghost come to haunt their dreams.