Last Updated July 14, 2003
Wisconsin, tucked off north of the main east-west routes across the country and squeezed between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, was at the beginning of the 20th century one of America's premier "laboratories of reform," in Justice Louis Brandeis's phrase--and was again at the end of the 20th century: a state originating new public policies, seeing how they work, serving as an example for others. Wisconsin's first fame as a laboratory came during the Progressive era that began around 1900, and its primacy was due to an extraordinary governor, Robert LaFollette Sr., and to the state's unique history and German heritage. Wisconsin is the first state of that vast stretch of the United States reaching all the way to the Pacific, settled first by New England Yankees but even more by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. The German language is seldom heard now, the once plainly German beer brands now seem quintessentially American and few ties remained with the old country after two world wars, though in 2000 30% of Wisconsin residents were of German descent. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germans were among America's most numerous immigrants and until the 1890s probably the most distinct. They implanted, on the rolling dairyland of Wisconsin and the orderly streets of Milwaukee, their separate religions, often retaining their language and maintaining old customs, from country weddings to drinking beer--a source of friction in temperance-minded America--to eating bratwurst.
Politically, the Germans were not monolithic. Their origins were diverse and they were spread too widely across the nation. But where they were concentrated, there was a distinctive politics, basically American, but with echoes of progressive ideas current in German-speaking countries in Europe. Nowhere was the politics of German-Americans more apparent than in Wisconsin. This is one of the two states that gave birth to the Republican Party in 1854 (the other is Michigan), and Germans, then arriving in America in vast numbers, heavily favored it. They abhorred slavery and welcomed the free lands Republicans advocated in the Homestead Act, the free education promised by setting up land grant colleges, and the transportation routes constructed by subsidizing railroad builders. Then came the Progressive movement of LaFollette, elected governor of Wisconsin in 1900. Up to that time a conventional Republican politician, LaFollette completely revamped the state government before going to the Senate in 1906. At a time when Germany was the world's leader in graduate education and the application of science to government, LaFollette had professors from the University of Wisconsin, just across town in Madison, help develop the state workmen's compensation system and income tax. The Progressive movement favored rational use of government to improve the lot of the ordinary citizen--an idea borrowed partly from German liberals and adopted by the New Dealers a generation later. All these programs were an attempt to bring bureaucratic rationality--Germanic systematization--to the seemingly disordered America of free markets and multiple cultures, gigantic fortunes and vast open spaces.
LaFollette became a national figure. He tried to run for president in 1912 as a Progressive, but was shoved aside by Theodore Roosevelt. He did run in 1924 on his Progressive ticket and won 18% of the vote, the best third-candidate showing between 1912 and 1992. He was strongest in the northern tier of states from Wisconsin west and along the West Coast--the same area of strength of later liberals George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. After LaFollette died in 1925, his sons carried on his tradition, progressive at home and isolationist abroad: Robert LaFollette Jr., for 22 years in the Senate; Philip, elected governor in 1930, 1934 and 1936. Philip created his own Progressive Party in 1934, with ominous overtones: a "Cross in Circle" symbol his critics called a circumcised swastika, huge rally-like parades reminiscent of some in Europe at the time and a call for the governor to propose all legislation. But Philip lost in 1938 and did not run again, and Robert Jr. decided to run for re-election in 1946 as a Republican but lost the primary to Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy's charges that Communists were influencing American foreign policy fed on the inarticulate convictions of many in Wisconsin and elsewhere that the U.S. should have been fighting Russia as well as Germany in World War II.
McCarthy's national prominence made Wisconsin seem like a Republican state. But he won by narrow margins and the LaFollette Progressive tradition was taken up by liberal Democrats like Senators William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson, and Governor Patrick Lucey. Like most liberals of their era, these progressives saw Washington rather than Madison as the main site of their laboratory of reform. Wisconsin, a mostly Republican state in the mostly Democratic years from 1944 to 1964, became a mostly Democratic state in the mostly Republican years from 1968 to 1988.
In the 1990s Wisconsin moved in another direction, and was a laboratory for different reforms, for which the state's economy provided a favorable environment. Wisconsin's high-skill, precision manufacturing economy jumped into gear in the late 1980s, and helped lead the nation's export boom of the 1990s. The labor force is highly skilled and famously productive, with fewer hours lost to health, weather or strikes than average; unemployment fell to 3.5% in 2000, entry level-wages were $2 over the legal minimum wage, and Wisconsin's major economic problem was a shortage of workers. Population has been rising robustly, particularly in the ring of counties around Milwaukee, around Madison and in the Fox River Valley from Oshkosh to Green Bay, and in the once rural counties within commuting range of greater Minneapolis-St. Paul. Yet much of the political focus remains on the dwindling number of dairy farmers. Wisconsin ranks number two in milk production, number one in cheese, but thanks to improved productivity the number of dairy farms has declined from 105,000 in 1960 to 45,000 in 1980 and 21,000 in 2000. Waukesha County outside Milwaukee, once Cow County, U.S.A., now has only 67 dairy farms. The federal milk price fixing system is biased against Wisconsin, with prices higher the farther the farming operation is from Eau Claire; Wisconsin's members of Congress have spent much time and psychic energy trying to change this.
The motivating force for reform in the 1990s was, as in the early 1900s, a Republican governor, in this case Tommy Thompson, who beat a liberal Democrat in 1986 and went on to win some of the nation's highest job approval ratings. He cut taxes, sponsored a school choice program, and passed a series of welfare reforms--the nation's most thoroughgoing--which since 1987 cut caseloads by 93%. Across the nation other governors and leaders of the Republican Congress have looked to learn from Wisconsin's experiments: it's a fair question whether the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act would have passed without Wisconsin's example to give its backers confidence.
Thompson did not carry all before him and left some fiscal problems behind him, while Wisconsin, proud of its clean politics since the LaFollette era, was suddenly beset by political scandal. Neither party is dominant. Al Gore carried the state in 2000 by a margin of 47.8%-47.6%. Wisconsin has two Democratic U.S. senators, one elected twice by narrow margins; its U.S. House delegation is split 4-4. In 2002 it replaced Thompson's successor as governor, Scott McCallum, with Democrat Jim Doyle. But he won with less than a majority of the vote. Republicans won control of the state Senate and increased their majority in Assembly. Previous legislative leaders were swept aside by scandal, though their misdeeds might not be classified as such in many other states. The scandal broke when legislative staffers were accused of running partisan campaigns from state offices; it escalated when legislative leaders were charged with seeking contributions from lobbyists during discussions about legislation. But this is a state where in the 1970s two legislators were defeated after they used state credit cards for less than $100 of personal phone calls, a state senator was prosecuted for accepting $100 for giving a speech and in 1987 a state senator was charged with accepting food and drinks at a Packers game. Even after the reforms of the late 20th century, the spirit of the LaFollette reformers of the early 20th century lives on.
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