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Wisconsin in the Midst of a Political Shift

Gov. Scott Walker
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the last four years, Wisconsin has been in the national news a lot and for good reason. First, for returning money for high speed rail. Gov. Walker followed that decision by eliminating almost all collective bargaining rights for public sector unions and making major cuts to public education. Now, there’s right-to-work and more government cuts. We spoke with a few political observers about Wisconsin’s ideological change in direction.

Bill Kraus calls himself a moderate Republican, or as he puts it…

“I’m an old Republican hack, I guess,” Kraus says.

Kraus worked to get former GOP Governor Warren Knowles elected in the 1960s and later Lee Dreyfus. Kraus says if there were ever any question about whether Wisconsin politics have shifted, all you have to do is look at the budget Gov. Scott Walker recently created.

“There’s a move to cut the University of Wisconsin system loose, there’s a move to the voucher system which is sort of an attack on K12 public education, it cuts out the money for the state parks, it cuts out the money for public broadcasting, it stops the land purchases, it reduces the power and role of the Department of Natural Resources,” Kraus says.

For decades, Wisconsin was known as a progressive state. And Kraus says no one really challenged the presence of government.

All those people irrespective of party believed the government had a serious role to play in society. Republicans and the Democrats—the disagreement was on the margins as to how big that role should be. But nobody in power in my history in politics in Wisconsin thought that the government should go away. And this administration and this budget is serious indication of a move to diminish the role of government,” Kraus says.

While Kraus perceives a tilt toward weakening government, Glen Jeansonne sees extreme polarization. Jeansonne is a history professor at UW-Milwaukee.

“I think it’s not so much shifting to the right as it is hardening on both sides,” Jeansonne says.

And not just here.

“The country and Wisconsin, and I’ve been here more than 30 years, are more polarized now then I’ve really ever seen. And I lived through the civil rights movement in the south in Louisiana and the Vietnam War,” Jeansonne says.

One person not surprised Wisconsin is undergoing fundamental change is Richard Longworth. He wrote the book titled, Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.

Longworth says some changes dividing Wisconsin have actually been underway for years.

“Right to work as I said has been going on for a long time before we had to deal with globalization. The decline in the state support for education has been going on, well I’m just looking up the Wisconsin figures and that goes back to 1976, but I expect it started well before that,” Longworth says.

Longworth says a lot of policies Gov. Walker is advancing, are to court conservative voters in places such as Iowa – as he considers a bid for the White House.

Walker said last week that what he’s been doing as governor, is what the majority of voters here want.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.