On Election Day in 2016, pundits were confident that Wisconsin would be a “blue wall” that would lead Hillary Clinton to victory. The next day, however, revealed a different story. Instead of showing Clinton the same support they had given Obama in the previous two presidential elections, Wisconsin went for Trump by 22,748 votes.
Political commentators were flummoxed. How could Wisconsin, historically the most progressive state in the Union, have turned overnight to the right? After all, Wisconsin had served as the legislative laboratory for the rest of the country, passing reform laws that later inspired the New Deal. Furthermore, Wisconsin’s unions could be reliably counted on to turn out the vote for Democrats. What had caused such a sudden shift?
According to journalist Dan Kaufman, the answer is that the shift did not occur overnight. A native Wisconsinite now based in New York, Kaufman argues that Wisconsin’s swing to Trump is the product of a decades-long effort by conservative think tanks, PACs and donors to dismantle Wisconsin’s progressive ethos and replace it with a right-to-work, anti-regulatory government. The result, according to Kaufman, is a gerrymandered state with weakened environmental laws, poor educational results and increased poverty.
Democrats do not get off lightly, either. Kaufman claims that the Democratic Party’s neglect of the industrial workers who made up the bulk of their union support had a significant impact on the outcome of the 2016 election. He also observes that job losses from NAFTA and the recession made union workers particularly susceptible to Governor Scott Walker’s divide-and-conquer tactics. Democrats, he argues, took Wisconsin for granted, and gave the unions little or no support in devastating political battles. Weakened, they had neither the ability nor the desire to turn out the vote for Clinton.
Kaufman weaves recent political events, Wisconsin history and the stories of real people caught in the political whirlpool—union leaders, Native Americans, grassroots organizers—into a meticulous and compelling exploration of a consequential political metamorphosis. It is essential reading to understand how we arrived where we are today.