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—and at the century’s end—one of America’s premier “laboratories of reform,” in Justice Louis Brandeis’s phrase: 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 remain with the old country after two world wars, though in 2000 30% of Wisconsin residents said they 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, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. 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. 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. For years the federal milk price fixing system was biased against Wisconsin, with prices higher the farther the farming operation is from Eau Claire; the Milk Income Loss Contract program adopted in 2002 is biased toward Wisconsin, with a limit on individual payments that works against big dairy farms in California. But California is threatening to overtake Wisconsin as the nation’s number one cheese producer. One can’t see Californians putting on the cheesehead hats you see at games in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay. But will Wisconsin continue to put the words “America’s dairyland” on its license plates?
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. He cut taxes, sponsored a school choice program, and passed a series of welfare reforms—the nation’s most thoroughgoing—which dramatically cut caseloads. Across the nation other governors and leaders of the Republican Congress looked to learn from Wisconsin’s experiments: it’s a fair question whether the 1996 federal welfare 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 by 47.8%-47.6% in 2000, John Kerry by 49.7%-49.3% in 2004. Wisconsin has two Democratic U.S. senators, one elected twice by narrow margins, and in 2006 Democrats picked up a 5–3 edge in U.S. House delegation. 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 and Republicans gained control of the state Senate and made gains in the Assembly in 2002 and increased their margins in both in 2004. In 2006 Doyle was reelected 53%-45%, and Democrats picked up the state Senate and reduced Republicans’ edge in the state House to 52–47. Wisconsin now has a political pattern the opposite of other Great Lakes states, where the biggest metro areas are Democratic and the countryside Republican. Doyle in 2006 won a large majority of Wisconsin’s small counties and swept the relatively lightly populated western and northern counties. But the Milwaukee metro area was a dead heat, with three suburban counties casting the highest Republican percentages in the state, almost enough to overcome the Democratic majorities in Milwaukee County, where there was evidence of serious vote fraud in 2004. Governor Doyle resisted the efforts of Republican legislators to require photo identification of previously registered voters at the polls; the U.S. attorney in December 2005 found no evidence of major organized vote fraud.