The Scott Walker Syndrome

Scott Walker, or “Harley,” as he would have liked to have been called, seems like a pretty traditionally Wisconsin guy. His political rise though, was actually 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 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, 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.[Emphasis added]

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. 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—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 worse in Wisconsin. It may be, as Steve Sailer suggests, that Wisconsin’s historically generous welfare system—a legacy of the Wisconsin Idea—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. 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 fairly unusual combination of 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. Relatively few people from other states move to Wisconsin, and relatively few people from Wisconsin move to other states. Wisconsinites are even less likely to move away from their small towns. It is also somewhat religious for a state outside the Deep South.

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 ethnicity. 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 the Social Democratic movement of Germany’s late nineteenth century.

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 couth sibling). While people who live in Metro Boston are from New England, and people who live in Chicagoland are from Chicago, people who live in metro Milwaukee are from Wisconsin. The state itself is the foundation of identity—and, as mentioned, “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, 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 now 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 far 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 much 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. And Walker has (or maybe had) national ambitions.

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 Walker 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 percent 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, undoubtedly, been gutted.

Perhaps the Tea-Party-ization of Wisconsin’s middle- and working-class politics was bound to happen, as both Left and Right have been “nationalized” over the past two decades. Nevertheless, it was Wisconsin’s Black population that served as an indispensable component of this evolution—despite the fact that it is rarely mentioned explicitly. Blacks, and the White reaction to them, effectively polarized Milwaukee and created the "Scott Walker syndrome." In some sense, the Wisconsin Idea, and certainly its progressive elements, is the author of its own doom. When a foreign element was introduced, the idea collapsed. Put simply, Wisconsin’s model of parochial, communitarian egalitarianism is an outgrowth of a particular people, without which it cannot function.

A earlier version of this essay appeared at in April of this year.

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