The Left’s Opportunity in Wisconsin

In La Follette Territory

How did the Democrats lose a once progressive and populist hotbed like Wisconsin?


Prosperity hasn’t always come easily,” Barack Obama told the people of Janesville, Wisconsin, in 2008. At that point a candidate in the Democratic primaries, and with the recession still months away, Obama had come to promise the city’s beleaguered General Motors workers that their plant would survive threatened cuts. Through “great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America—that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible.”

This scene appears early in Amy Goldstein’s new book Janesville, and it precedes the chain of horrors that came in the wake of the financial crisis. The GM plant closed. Suicides in the county doubled. Children became homeless. The 2008 financial crisis is frequently reduced to a matter of statistics and graphs, which makes Goldstein’s extensive reporting so valuable and, at times, moving. Her work, stretching from 2008 to 2016, tells Janesville’s story through the struggles of the local families. By emphasizing the effects of economic collapse on family life, Goldstein’s narrative doubles as a sort of generational saga: It humanizes the worst economic crisis of contemporary times by chronicling the enormous pressures it placed on several generations of Janesville residents.

Along with Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Janesville also helps answer a question that has been plaguing political commentators since last November: Why did Donald Trump win in Wisconsin? Everyone has a theory—-Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategies, Trump’s appeal to protectionism, GOP voter suppression—-and most of them have some truth. But one must also understand Wisconsin, a so-called purple state with a stark urban/rural divide, if one is to understand the national rage that swept Trump into the White House.

The two authors take different approaches. Goldstein is a journalist for The Washington Post, and Janesville is essentially a work of reportage, drawn from interviews and research conducted in the city at the center of the book. Cramer is a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her book is a study of public opinion; she gleans her findings from observations of small group discussions in rural communities across the state. But these two different accounts of Wisconsin complement, rather than contradict, each other. Read together, they also illuminate the state’s Republican shift and chart a way forward for reversing it.

Goldstein begins her narrative in the winter of 2008, two days before Christmas. Janesville’s GM plant—the one that Obama had promised would stay open—has been shut down, producing the last Chevy Tahoe its workers would ever build. But the citizens of Janesville still think this is only temporary: The recession has just dawned, and like most people across the country, they believe a recovery is imminent. The city’s assembly line had survived past fluctuations in the auto industry, and Goldstein reports that this nurtured a stubborn optimism among Janesville’s residents. One of the people she followed was an auto worker named Jerad Whiteaker: “As a GM’er,” she writes, “unemployment benefits and union layoff pay will nearly equal his wages. They will carry his family through, he expects, until he finds work that he enjoys more.”

Whiteaker and many others in Janesville didn’t anticipate the scale of the city’s economic collapse in the wake of the plant’s closure and the financial crash. Goldstein reports that roughly 9,000 people in and near Janesville lost their jobs in 2008 and 2009, meaning that a little over 14 percent of the city’s population (at that point, 63,540 people) were unemployed by 2010. And these were not just individual tragedies: Most workers had families to support, and the plant’s closure stranded them in a flailing job market with skills that didn’t necessarily transfer to other industries.

Many in Janesville, and in other industrial towns like it, learned that it wasn’t so easy for the newly unemployed to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Whiteaker, for example, tries retraining as a lineman, then takes a miserable job at a jail before finding work as a forklift driver; his teenage children take on multiple minimum-wage jobs. Some General Motors employees accept transfers to factories outside Janesville, forcing them to spend little time with their families, while others swell the classrooms of Blackhawk Tech, a local community college, to retrain for other industries. A few sell their possessions in order to make their mortgage payments.

Goldstein’s straightforward narrative gives the lie to a beloved neoliberal bromide: that a person’s hard work—no matter the shape or structure of the economy—will guarantee a tolerable standard of living. Lose your job? Get new training. No jobs in your town? Move to another one. When the market self-corrects, the argument goes, workers must self-correct along with it, retraining for new jobs in an ever—changing economy. But what Goldstein’s book captures is the limits of these individual self-corrections: Without a broader social safety net, the citizens of Janesville struggle to stay afloat no matter what type of skills they acquire.

That Janesville’s hard-hit workers can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps underscores an irony specific to the city: Its most famous native son, the Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, has dedicated his political career to promoting the supply-side pieties that helped create the recession. The people of Janesville want to work; they are willing to be flexible and take jobs that fracture their families and sap their psyches. But this just isn’t enough—something more significant is broken. For most residents of Janesville, the problem isn’t a willingness to work; it’s the lack of economic opportunity.

When Kristi Beyer and Barb Vaughn lose their jobs at the local Lear plant, they go back to school to change industries. Similarly, Whiteaker hates the work that he performs at GM, a sentiment he shares with other GM workers in his family. But he values the opportunities that the job gives him, in part because it’s unionized and therefore a path to middle-class security—but also because he has resigned himself to the fact that most work is arduous. When he loses his job at the GM plant, he is basically willing to take any other job available.

Another GM’er, Matt Wopat, becomes a “Janesville Gypsy,” one of the group of local men who, in the wake of the plant’s closure, are forced to spend five days a week working in various GM factories out of state. He does this not because he has a specific emotional attachment to GM or to the labor of producing automobiles; he tries community college and a career change before deciding semi-nomadism is an acceptable price to pay for a GM pension and for the ability to sustain his family.

In this way, Goldstein’s book offers an overdue corrective to the common coastal perceptions of Midwestern discontent. Conservative rhetoric and right-wing anger don’t map the lives of Janesville residents in any discernible way. Despite the rightward shift in their state, many in Janesville see organized labor as a positive and necessary force in their lives. They credit union pensions for their comfortable retirements, and they value the collective bargaining that enables their wages to pay for a mortgage and the occasional family vacation. They lead middle-class lives because of the union’s work, and they know it. As a result, their anger and frustration are not directed toward those institutions that represent their interests.

Janesville also exposes the limits of charity as a way to resolve the devastating effects of an often unstable economy whose benefits are unequally distributed. An annual food drive provides the Whiteakers with occasional meals, but it cannot address chronic food insecurity. Its success depends largely on an army of union volunteers navigating their own tough times. The fortunes of charities, as Goldstein’s book reminds us, are tied to those of the communities they serve: In an unemployment crisis, most people can’t afford to donate what little they do have. And either way, free clothes and hot meals cannot provide the financial backbone that families need to survive.

Goldstein ends her book with a look at Janesville in 2016—a year in which President Obama and the Democrats frequently congratulated themselves for adding roughly 2 million jobs to the economy. But Janesville reveals the illusory nature of that post-recession growth. The same young people who relied on annual food drives are now trapped in student-loan debt. The Whiteakers’ twin daughters, Alyssa and Kayzia, graduate near the top of their class despite working their way through high school. But neither is able to afford the state university’s tuition without loans, and Alyssa takes out $17,000 a year to pay for an engineering degree. “That moment when you feel like the people who are in charge of education don’t want you to receive one,” she posts on her Facebook page. “I hate working my butt off to have to figure out a way to get the education I deserve.” So much for bootstraps.

Goldstein doesn’t editorialize, but the stories she relates inescapably support the left’s conclusion that charity and worker retraining are no real substitutes for the redistribution of wealth. The people in towns like Janesville need a stronger welfare state: Policies like single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and some combination of a universal basic income and a federal jobs guarantee would stretch a safety net over the abyss. Another aspect of Janesville’s story reinforces this position: By demanding a fair share of the profits earned at local plants, UAW Local 95 created security for many Janesville families. It could only do so much, however, and the union’s power waned as the local industries it represented began to die. But it kept many Janesville families out of immediate poverty and deserves much credit both for the results of its collective bargaining and for the political legacy it bequeathed Janesville. The union, after all, is one reason that Janesville hangs on to its affiliation with the Democratic Party, and why many of its residents have vocally opposed Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on the collective-bargaining rights of public employees.

But the benefits of organized labor do not extend to the less industrialized areas of the state. In poorer, more rural communities, the successful tactics of unions like Janesville’s UAW Local 95 are a cause for envy—and they can become fodder for a conservative backlash. This backlash, and the divisions between urban and rural working-class Wisconsinites, are the phenomena that Katherine Cramer has spent years attempting to capture, and it is at the center of The Politics of Resentment, which collects years of her fieldwork in rural Wisconsin.

Published in March 2016, Cramer’s book is creative and engaging. She conducts her research almost like a journalist, insinuating herself into small groups in rural communities across the state. It’s a cultural adjustment for her, she admits, but from 2007 to 2012, she visits local gatherings—some poor, some middle-class—in roughly two dozen rural communities to find out why the support for redistribution remains so low despite widening income inequality. What Cramer uncovers is something often overlooked by the Beltway commentariat: that what has led to the rightward swing in Wisconsin politics is not just deindustrialization, but a sharp urban/rural divide that is shaped by an attitude she calls “rural consciousness…an identity as a rural person that includes much more than an attachment to place.” This consciousness transcends economic status and is strongly influenced by resentment toward those living in cities—as Cramer describes it, “a sense that decision makers routinely ignore rural places and fail to give rural communities their fair share of resources, as well as a sense that rural folks are fundamentally different from urbanites in terms of lifestyles, values, and work ethic.”

There are some cultural reasons for this resentment, but mostly it’s about money. Cramer’s subjects believe they’re unfairly taxed and largely ignored by the state and federal government, which concentrate their resources on urban centers. As a result, these people evince a special contempt for the government as well as for public employees——a category that includes teachers and university faculty and staff in addition to government workers. In dice games, in coffee klatches, and at breakfast, these rural Wisconsinites tell Cramer that government jobs are soft and overcompensated—-evidence, they believe, of “greedy unions” and an institutionalized malice against blue-collar workers.

“I’d have a better chance working till sixty-seven being a teacher and not doing any physical work than being out in the woods working,” one logger tells her in 2009, adding: “At sixty-five years old you’re worn out. You should be able to retire.” Another asserts, “The people that do have health insurance don’t realize” how lucky they are. Cramer concludes: “People in small towns resented university employees in general because they received great benefits.” But instead of hoping to unionize or receive the benefits of a more expansive, redistributionist government, these people believe that the only solution is to limit the power of organized labor in Wisconsin politics and shrink both the state and federal government.

Here we behold the great liberal nemesis: the conservative poor person who votes against his or her own interests. But Cramer injects some welcome nuance into the caricature. She concludes from her fieldwork that rural support for small government is due less to a specific political philosophy and more to a generalized distrust of government. “A person can be highly critical of the people currently in government or current government procedures while at the same time believing in principle that society ought to invest heavily in government, even beyond defense,” she notes. It’s an astute point: Her subjects resent government principally because they don’t believe it works for them. In this view, voting Republican doesn’t contradict their interests; they vote for people like Scott Walker and Paul Ryan because they think the Republican vision of a pared-down government will ultimately benefit them.

Nor is their skepticism regarding how the government is currently run entirely misplaced. Income inequality is growing, with a greater share of wealth concentrated in America’s richest families. There is also a geographical divide: Many rural communities have taken a longer time to recover from the recession than cities. Government funding, channeled through agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission, has helped to develop rural areas, but it hasn’t resolved the structural inequalities that cripple many of their economies.

Cramer’s subjects attribute this to malice, but there’s not much evidence to support that conclusion. Rural problems, as Cramer notes, can be blamed on the specific features of rural economies in contemporary America and to the thinness of our social safety net more generally. But that can be difficult to see from the perspective that her subjects share, and so it’s no surprise that they identify government as the enemy. And here again, they aren’t completely wrong: The federal government doesn’t currently spend money in ways that benefit rural people. Rural communities have problems that can’t be solved without big government, but the government doesn’t dispense funding in ways that actually help these communities. If the Democratic Party wants to rebuild trust in rural areas—if it wants to win back states like Wisconsin—then it has to develop robust social policies that address rural needs.

That task won’t be easy, especially given the different economies and geographies of a state like Wisconsin. And it will take years of work to bridge the long-standing resentments and frustrations that have created the gulf between urban and rural working people. In Janesville, UAW Local 95 provided the class-conscious political education that these rural communities lack. It’s not clear from Cramer’s narrative that groups with similar reach are organizing rural communities, and it’s an absence reflected in the statements that her subjects make to her. They complain about low wages, expensive health care, and underfunded public schools—but they fear that higher taxes will bankrupt them. “There ain’t shit here,” one logger tells her.

Untapped resentment leads to political failure, and in Wisconsin, the rightward swing was under way long before the current president rode his Trump Tower escalator into history. Rural Wisconsin celebrated Scott Walker’s assault on state government and organized labor as a long-overdue comeuppance, and in 2016 it turned out to vote for Trump. Janesville did not, though Goldstein notes that in comparison with previous years, many did not vote at all.

There’s no way to know exactly why voters stayed home. But the work of Goldstein and Cramer does underscore the flaws of Hillary Clinton’s famous retort to Trump, that “America is already great.” For many Americans—urban and rural—the American dream feels more like a dispiriting fugue state at best, at worst a daily struggle to provide the barest necessities of life. The hard work of Janesville residents hasn’t brought them lasting prosperity; their boats did not lift; their fortunes, like those of their rural neighbors, are limited and precarious.

The left offers the policies and the movement-building solidarity that Wisconsin’s working-class residents—urban and rural—require. And despite decades of red-baiting and an increasingly entrenched Republican Party in the state, Wisconsin isn’t necessarily rocky ground for the left. After all, left politics once thrived there: In Milwaukee, for example, socialists effectively ran the city government from 1910 to 1940, and the city elected another socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, from 1948 to 1960. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Robert La Follette dominated Wisconsin politics due to his unyielding egalitarianism, itself the outgrowth of a broader left-populist turn in the upper Midwest.
La Follette used his time in office—he served as governor, congressional representative, and senator at various points in his career—to lobby for campaign-spending limits and higher taxes on industry, and against foreign intervention, a record that urban-policy scholar Peter Dreier credits for later influencing the platforms of Franklin Roosevelt, Floyd Olson, and Fiorello La Guardia. La Follette’s agrarian populism and state-centered progressivism shaped Wisconsin’s political culture for much of the 20th century, and it is proof that a radical egalitarian politics need not be limited to the “sewer socialism” of Milwaukee’s democratic-socialist heyday.

The work of populists like La Follette provide something of a blueprint for left organizing, in the state and elsewhere. We are reckoning now with a new Gilded Age, and La Follette’s vision appears relevant not only for the people of Wisconsin but for much of the country. An expansion of the federal government’s services—Medicare for All, a universal basic income, a federal jobs guarantee, or some combination of the three—would benefit rural Wisconsin as well as cities like Janesville. And it could help the Democrats win back other states with a similar urban/rural divide.

But the Democrats can’t realize these goals until the party embraces the frustration felt by many working-class voters, who believe (not without cause) that both major parties have abandoned them. The challenge for Democrats is to find a way—much as Wisconsin’s populists and socialists did a century ago—to direct this anger at the right enemies, and to channel it into constructive pursuits. Janesville and The Politics of Resentment not only document the corrosive effects of our own Gilded Age: They also show us just how quickly anger can transform the political landscape of a state. But that anger isn’t the exclusive province of the vaunted working-class white voter; it is shared by working-class people of all races and ethnic groups. Nor is it necessarily a predictor of chaos or fuel for the far right. Instead, it’s an opportunity for the left to seize.

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