Wednesday, 24 August 2016


Scott Walker, or "Harley," as he would have liked to have been called, would seem to be a pretty traditionally Wisconsin guy. His political rise though, was actually only made possible by the decline of traditional Wisconsin.

The official center of Downtown Madison is a pedestrian-only, shopping/dining district called, fittingly, "State Street." It runs for about a mile, and at one end is the State Capitol, while at the other end is UW-Madison, Wisconsin’s flagship university. Locals probably associate the area more with raucous Halloween parties and homeless people than anything else, but State Street is obviously designed to be the symbolic cultural center of the state, physically linking the two great institutional expressions of its people.

It is a nice touch, I think, and it has long been much more than symbolic. Many readers, I am sure, are at least somewhat familiar with "the Wisconsin Idea"—the idea that "the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state." This means that the university is to expand the benefits of its knowledge to every citizen of the state.

First articulated by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1904, this mission took form in extension programs to bring useful arts and technology directly to the people, in Wisconsin Public Radio (“The Ideas Network”), and of course, in working closely with the state government. The Progressive Era legislation resulting from the latter is undoubtably the most famous legacy of the Wisconsin Idea. As the UW website explains:
"[Van Hise] also took advantage of his friendship with Governor Robert M. La Follette, a former classmate at the university (my emphasis), to help forge closer ties between the university and state government; during the early part of the 20th century, faculty experts consulted with legislators to help draft many influential and groundbreaking laws, including the nation’s first workers’ compensation legislation, tax reforms and the public regulation of utilities."
For the Wisconsin Idea to work though, Wisconsin has to remain Wisconsin. While much of Wisconsin’s unique character remains, there have been some important changes in the state since "Fighting Bob" La Follette’s days, changes that threaten both of spirit and the specifics of the Wisconsin Idea.

Governor La Follette
Population wise, the Great Migration of Blacks to the north hit Wisconsin less than it did many others, but those who did come have formed a community that—how to put this delicately, a community that has failed to thrive, at least by conventional socio-economic measures.

Nationally, blacks have higher levels of social dysfunction than others, of course, but the problem is far worse in Wisconsin. It may be, as Steve Sailer suggests, that Wisconsin’s historically generous welfare system—a legacy of the Wisconsin Idea, mind you—is the very thing that lured the more underclass-sort of Blacks. Maybe, maybe not, I make no certain claims on that, because for my point, all that matters is that they are there.

Perhaps the real problem for the Wisconsin Idea though, comes from the white reaction to this Black population and from the nationalization of politics—both of which stem from the fact that Wisconsin is not its own Particularist country.

The culture in Wisconsin is a somewhat unusual combination of (mildly) socially conservative and egalitarian. It is a land of co-ops and labor unions, and of course, until recently, it had one of the most generous social welfare programs in the country. It is also a place of deep continuity, for the United States. Comparatively few people from other states move to Wisconsin, and comparatively few people from Wisconsin move to other states. Wisconsinites are even less likely to move away from their small towns—unlike in much of the country, rural Wisconsin’s population is holding steady. It is also somewhat religious for a northern state.

Wisconsin is everything Nietzsche loathed about the Germany of his day, only more so. As it happens, Wisconsin is to a large extent directly descended from that Germany. Half of all whites in Wisconsin claim German ancestry, which is four times greater than the next largest ancestry. No other state’s White population is so dominated by one ancestry (at least not officially). The vast majority of these people’s German ancestors immigrated to Wisconsin during Nietzsche’s lifetime, and the culture of the state still bears that stamp. The Wisconsin Idea is essentially derived from late-nineteenth century Germany’s social-democratic movement.

Besides the legacy of progressive politics, the Wisconsin Idea, helped by the ethnic similarity of all corners of the state (in many states, the ethnic balance varies by region), has made Wisconsin into what I call a "state" state, like Texas or Minnesota (Wisconsin’s slightly more white-collar sibling). While people who live in Metro Boston are from New England, and people who live in Chicagoland are from Chicago, but people who live in metro Milwaukee are from Wisconsin. The state is the focal point of identity in Wisconsin—remember, "the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state."

New Glarus Brewing, a local beer favorite, does not allow its product to be sold outside state-lines. Many of you have seen the maps of favorite sports team by county, based on facebook "likes." One of the most striking things about those maps is that, whether it is the Badgers (who have “the most consistently loyal fans in America”), the Brewers, the Bucks, or the Packers, the state of Wisconsin is a solid block; if Wisconsin has a team, that team has Wisconsin. The Packers, the state’s most beloved team, are about as Wisconsin as it gets—an extremely well-run football team that is owned collectively by the community, as a non-profit.

A virtuous cycle of nature and nurture seemed to be moving Wisconsin ever closer to its Particularist ideal, but the bubble has been pricked by the outside world. As I said above, it started when a Black population that was/is highly dependent on public welfare was added to to White population that was/is hardly-at-all-dependent on public welfare (not directly, anyways). The Black/White difference in food-stamp dependency and violent crime is way, way, higher in Wisconsin than in the rest of the country. There was bound to be a White reaction, and it came out of the Milwaukee area.

Wisconsin’s Black population is concentrated in the city of Milwaukee, which is seen as an irredeemable mess by the rest of the state. Metro Milwaukee has the highest white/black segregation in the country, and the metro area is now one of, if not the most, politically-polarized in the nation.

This is fueled by the deep distrust and distain that the White-flight counties have for the city. In most of the country, the cities are blue, the suburbs are purple, and the countryside is red. In Wisconsin, the cities are blue, the countryside is purple, and the suburbs are deep-red (in Milwaukee). Milwaukee’s collar counties went for Romney by two or three to one. These are people whose grandparents and great-grandparents elected three different socialist mayors. Regional cooperation in the Milwaukee area has practically become an oxymoron.

While demographic change was upsetting Wisconsin politics, American politics was becoming much more nationalized. As the ethnic mix of the country has diversified, the Republican and Democratic brands, especially among officeholders, have become all-but standardized nationwide. Also, my guess is that ambitious politicians are more likely to come out of places that are more interested in politics, and Milwaukee area counties are among those with the highest voter turn-out in the country.

Governor Scott Walker, who comes from the world of Milwaukee politics, is the confluence of all these national and local trends. Walker, the only incumbent governor in American history who has ever won a recall election, is that rare Republican who stands his ground, and wins. Walker was first elected during the Tea-Party wave of 2010, and his brand of politics is the same Tea-Party type found from coast-to-coast; there is nothing particularly Wisconsin about it at all. Walker has (or perhaps had) national ambitions.

Union buster Walker.
For now though, Wisconsin is Walker's stage. The Wisconsin Idea is firmly entrenched, but he has been hacking-away at it with ruthless efficiency. Walker rose to national fame just one month into his first term when he proposed, and the Republican legislature eventually passed, a bill stripping public union workers of their collective-bargaining power. (Wisconsin was the first state to grant collective-bargaining to state workers.)

More recently, Wisconsin has become a right-to-work state. And now he is trying to strike at the absolute core of the Wisconsin Idea, at the state university system. Walker is proposing a $300 million cut in state funding for the University system over two years. This 13% cut would be one of the largest such cuts in American history. Meanwhile, owing to a law passed in 2013, tuition will be frozen for those two years. This year's state budget even eliminated the Wisconsin Idea as the university system's mission statement; after a public uproar, this "drafting error" has been corrected, and the original language is back in the budget. The mission statement may have been restored, but the mission itself has been severely compromised.

To recap, the example of a relatively small Black population started these dominoes. Their presence created a politically-polarized Milwaukee, as a "pragmatically socialist" white population morphed into doctrinaire small-government Republicans, which paved the way for Scott Walker.

In some sense, the Wisconsin Idea, certainly its progressive elements, is the author of its own doom. Whether you think it lured the wrong sort of Blacks, or that it trapped Blacks in poverty, or that White racism is to blame, the fact is that when a foreign element was introduced, the idea no longer worked.

Honestly though, to judge from the social statistics in every other state, none of their black populations would be compatible with Wisconsin. Different social arrangements work better with different populations. Be it racial, religious, or whatever, some are set up for diversity and some for homogeneity. Wisconsin's model of parochial, communitarian egalitarianism is an outgrowth of a particular people. Like most good ideas, the Wisconsin idea requires a racially homogenous population.

A version of this article originally appeared at last year.

Ryan Andrews is the author of The Birth of Prudence, which was published by VDare last year.


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