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Episode 1: Welcome to Wisconsin

Episode 1 graphic — three Wisconsin politicians
A look back at notable Wisconsin politicians and political movements: Gov. Scott Walker, Milwaukee Ald. Vel Phillips and U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

As a swing state, Wisconsin has outsized influence in the 2024 election. What you may not know is Wisconsin has been influencing national policy for over 100 years.

This is Swing State of the Union — a podcast all about Wisconsin and why it’s so important to U.S. politics.

Wisconsin has been influencing national policy for more than 100 years. In this podcast, we’ll explore the history of Wisconsin politics, what politics looks like in the state today, and what that means for our future.

This podcast has some ambitious questions it's trying to answer. Like, why is Wisconsin a swing state? What are the different cultural factors that shape Wisconsin politics, and what can our politics here teach us about the rest of the nation?

To do that, we'll be looking at a wide array of topics through that lens. Like deindustrialization and unionization, polarization — both structural and personal, and threats to voter rights in Wisconsin, among many other topics.

But this episode is all about why Wisconsin matters — both because it's an election year, and because Wisconsin has been predating national political trends for over 100 years.

So why does Wisconsin matter? Well, the short answer is — the Electoral College.

Most of us have heard of the Electoral College and have a basic understanding of what it is: it's the system through which we elect our president. So, instead of counting each person's vote and declaring a winner based on the candidate that gets the most votes, each state is apportioned a number of votes based on the number of U.S. representatives and senators from that state.

That might feel unnecessarily complicated and you wouldn't be alone in feeling that way. But it's important to remember — the Electoral College was created by the U.S. Constitution and that founding document is a monument to compromise. The founding fathers held vastly different beliefs and were attempting to unite a war-torn nation of people.

From the very beginning, there was huge disagreement on the Electoral College, but what's maybe most surprising is that it's lasted this long. More than two centuries later despite challenges to the system, huge shifts in population, and culture — the Electoral College remains. And some Americans wonder why their vote should mean less based on their location? Why should a voter in Wyoming have more voting power than a voter in California?

The setup also means that conservatives in blue states and liberals in red states effectively don't have a voice in our presidential elections.

Which brings us back to Wisconsin, where elections are routinely decided by a margin of less than 1%. Although the state has relatively few Electoral College votes — just 10 — the vote is so closely contested that anything could happen. And that's not common. Of the 50 U.S. States, only seven are considered swing states in the 2024 election, and Wisconsin is sure to be one of the closest.

So that’s the short answer. Now the long one — Wisconsin matters not just because it’s an election year, but because the state has historically reflected and predated national trends. Here’s 100 years of history in 16 minutes.

The year is 1911. It will still be another three years before the start of World War I, and Germany and Russia are still ruled by monarchs. There are only 46 states in the U.S. as Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona and New Mexico are still territories, and a 22-year-old Charlie Chaplin is just getting started in vaudeville.

And in Wisconsin, a new idea was being tried for the first time in America: the state income tax.

Previously, states primarily raised revenue through either tariffs, a tax on imported or exported goods, and excise taxes, a tax on specific items like alcohol, tobacco or sugar. The federal government did tax income briefly to pay for the Civil War, but the tax was repealed soon after and future attempts were ruled unconstitutional. The 16th Amendment, which allowed the federal government to tax income, wasn’t ratified until 1913 — two years after Wisconsin had instituted its own income tax.

Ringling Brothers, yes the carnival company, was among those who lobbied against the tax, threatening to move their headquarters out of their Baraboo, Wisconsin home because of it.

But business interests in Wisconsin didn’t hold the political power they had in other states, as Wisconsin was led by a coalition of progressives and socialists, whose political base was largely made up of farmers and industrial laborers who didn’t hold much sympathy for the business class.

As John Gurda, Milwaukee author and historian explains, Wisconsin’s Progressive Party, led by “Fighting Bob” La Follette, was popular among rural farmers, as they were looking to take a stand against railroad companies who exploited farmers’ need to transport their goods to market.

"They were considered kind of these blood suckers, you know, who were just bleeding farmers, especially, dry. You know, they tried to get their crops to market and the railroads really held them up. So there was competition on the lakeshore because there were so many ports. But the the monopolies they had inland, it costs more to ship grain from, say, Hudson in northwestern Wisconsin down in Milwaukee than it would from Milwaukee to Buffalo. So there was a real kind of an openness to railroad reform. And La Follette just rode that, you know, that was really one of his principal campaign planks," Gurda explained.

While Progressives were popular in rural areas, it was the Socialists who were popular among urban industrial labor. Like in many major American cities, Milwaukee’s industrial workers organized around poor working conditions. Milwaukee workers shed blood for these ideals.

We’ll learn more about the Milwaukee Socialists in later episodes.

But the income tax was here to stay, both in Wisconsin and nationally. In 1932, during the Great Depression, Wisconsin Progressives were the first in the nation to institute state-funded unemployment insurance. Two year later, political scientists at the University of Wisconsin developed a plan for state-funded Social Security.

By 1935, the Social Security Act made these Wisconsin innovations national law, and they became core pillars of the Democratic Party’s “New Deal” coalition formed under President Franklin Roosevelt.

Gurda said, "The Socialist platform and a lot of it's rhetoric was co-opted by the Democrats. You know, Social Security in 1935 that was a socialist idea called old age insurance."

But about a decade later in 1946, political winds had shifted. World War II had just ended and the Soviet Union and the threat of global communism dominated American politics. In Wisconsin, the Progressive Party was dead, and though the movement had grown out of the Republican Party decades earlier, Wisconsin’s Socialists and Progressives were defecting to the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party was nominating a firebrand from Appleton, Wisconsin: Joseph McCarthy.

"They shouldn't be called Democrats, They should be referred to properly as the 'Commiecrat Party,'" McCarthy said.

McCarthy had been a Democrat until two years before this election, and though initially he was not as vocal about communism, by 1950 he had found his political niche. His name became synonymous with anti-communism, as he relentlessly hunted supposed communist agents in the federal government.

His crusade and tactics, now known as “McCarthyism,” drew the ire of his colleagues in the Senate; as well as U.S. Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch — who claimed McCarthy recklessly accused members of the Army of being communist agents, without ever providing proof of espionage.

"You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of peace?," Welch said.

But McCarthy’s message resonated with Wisconsin voters, and he was reelected in 1952. In his second term, he continued his rhetoric before being censured in 1954 and dying in office three years later.

In the decade after McCarthy’s death, Wisconsin would, yet again, shape national law.

The Great Migration had made its way to Milwaukee, and by 1967 the promise of unionized industrial labor had attracted more than 80,000 Black people mainly to Milwaukee’s north side.

Milwaukee’s south side, populated primarily by Polish immigrants and their families who came to work in the city’s factories around the turn of the 20th century, were openly hostile to Black people and favored the segregated status quo.

But as Milwaukee historian Reggie Jackson explains, Milwaukee proper and suburbs surrounding Milwaukee allowed covenants explicitly prohibiting the sale or rental of homes there to anyone who was not white.

"Sixteen of the 18 suburbs within Milwaukee County used racial covenants for a number of years. These covenants were written from the early 1900s through the 1950s, even 10 years after the Supreme Court ruled that they were unenforceable, people continued to to write them. They were very effective tools in keeping cities, towns, villages as white as possible, because that was the purpose of them, was to keep people of color out, and they were very, very effective," Jackson said.

When Alabama governor and segregationist leader George Wallace visited the south side of Milwaukee in his 1964 campaign for president, he received a warm welcome.

"And I want to say to you here that I am very grateful to you and there will always be a warm place in my heart for the people of Milwaukee and of Wisconsin. And as I said the other night, if I ever had to leave Alabama, I'll come to the state of Wisconsin," Wallace said.

But for 200 nights, anti-segregationists led by Milwaukee’s NAACP Youth Council marched across the city, including the 16th Street Viaduct known as Milwaukee’s Mason-Dixon line, to protest segregation, despite the slurs, threats and violence that awaited them.

Among the marchers was Vel Phillips, the first Black alderperson and the first woman alderperson in Milwaukee. She kept the pressure on the otherwise all white, all male Common Council to pass legislation to outlaw racial discrimination in housing.

"Nobody is free until everybody is free, and we intend to march, all of us, until we get just some of the basic freedoms that are ours," Phillips said.

Phillips first proposed a fair housing bill in Milwaukee in 1962 — she was the only vote in support. Three years later, Wisconsin would sign its own, watered-down version of a fair housing bill, that excluded the majority of the housing stock in Milwaukee. In 1968 the federal Fair Housing Act was passed in Congress, which mirrored Phillips’ initial proposal.

A newscast from that time: "The Civil Rights Act of 1968 included in the measure was a landmark open housing bill, which, when fully effective, would forbid discrimination in approximately 80% of all housing offered for rent or for sale in the United States.

"Fair housing for all, all human beings who live in this country, is now a part of the American way of life," President Lyndon B. Johnson said.

But while President Johnson and the Milwaukee marchers hailed the Fair Housing Act for the victory it was, economic forces would soon undermine its lasting material impact.

Milwaukee, like industrial towns across Wisconsin and the nation, would soon feel the effects of a changing economy. Starting in the 1970s, deindustrialization, or the process of transitioning out of an industrial economy, struck at the heart of Milwaukee. Good-paying jobs that supported a Black middle class within the city left or were eliminated altogether. At the same time, many middle class white Milwaukeeans moved to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them.

This left a city that was hardly recognizable by the 1990s. Reggie Jackson grew up in Milwaukee in the 1970s and early '80s, before graduating high school and joining the Navy. When he returned to the city a decade later in the early '90s, he could hardly believe what had happened to his hometown.

"The Black median family income in 1970 was the seventh highest for Blacks anywhere in the country, and Black people making equivalent about $50,000 in today's money for family median income versus what the real median income is today is about $30,000 for a Black family — a huge drop off in the condition of Blacks. And that's primarily because of the the good family supporting wage jobs and manufacturing that brought Black people to Milwaukee have primarily disappeared and been replaced by service sector jobs," Jackson explained.

He continues, "So when you look at the growth of jobs in Milwaukee, there's been a huge growth in low paying service sector jobs that have in many respects taken the place of family-supporting-wage manufacturing jobs that brought, you know, many people's parents and grandparents to Milwaukee from the 1940s through the 1970s and early '80s."

We’ll return to the effects of deindustrialization in Wisconsin in a later episode. But something else had also changed: the discourse.

In the 1990s, Wisconsin’s and the nation’s political winds had shifted back to the right. Conservative talk radio emerged as a dominating rhetorical force, personified by people like Rush Limbaugh.

Charlie Sykes was there as this movement took place in Wisconsin, hosting his own conservative show on Milwaukee-area station WTMJ. Sykes believes the popularity of his show in Wisconsin, and the popularity of the talk radio format nationally, was due to conservatives feeling left out of the national conversation.

"When I started talk radio was really not a major force. The Fairness Doctrine had been repealed in the late 1980s and AM radio was sort of like an abandoned strip mall. Nobody was doing anything there. And so when people like Rush Limbaugh and others came in, I don't think anybody could have quite seen what the trajectory was going to be. And I started in 1992-1993 and turning on the radio and hearing, you know, conservative ideas taken seriously was like was like pouring water into parched earth because they had not been getting this," Sykes said.

As the '90s turned to the 2000s, and the 2010s, Sykes says he grew concerned with the effect his medium was having on political discourse.

Sykes said, "We had been so successful in criticizing the bias of the mainstream media that we had succeeded in destroying the credibility of all of the fact-based media, and it became impossible to penetrate that and as a result many conservatives had lost their immunity to bad information. So, and I think that you saw this happening in Wisconsin perhaps before, you know, the rest of the country. The other pivot point of course was, you know, the the fight over Act 10, where I think the lines were drawn much more intensely than they ever had been before. I mean if you want to look at a real inflection point, you have to go back to 2010 and 2011, you know, post Tea Party when in fact, you know, a lot of the divisions that we've seen nationally were vividly on display in Wisconsin and I was certainly part of that."

As Sykes alludes to, he also succeeded in putting Wisconsin Republicans on the map again.

In 2011, a century after Wisconsin’s Progressive and Socialist coalition made it the first state to institute an income tax, Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin Republican, was chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Paul Ryan, a Republican U.S. representative from Janesville, was a rising political star soon to be tapped as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012.

And Gov. Scott Walker, a Wisconsin Republican, was in the national spotlight after passing Act 10, a landmark bill that Walker claimed would cut costs by banning public sector unions from collectively bargaining on anything other than wage increases at the rate of inflation. Fire and police unions would be the only exception to this ban.

In 100 years, Wisconsin had gone from passing a progressive income tax to slashing state budgets all while setting national trends in Social Security, anti-communist rhetoric, Civil Rights and mass media communication.

And things have accelerated over the past two decades, as JR Ross has witnessed. Ross is a journalist and the editor of WisPolitics.com. He’s also a regular contributor to WUWM.

Ross joins us now for an in-depth look at how politics has changed during his time covering it in the state.

Joy Powers: How have you seen things change over the last 24 years of covering politics in Wisconsin?

JR Ross: Well, there are two things. One is the same as what we've seen nationally — there's been a realignment in Wisconsin just like everywhere else, where you've seen the Democratic Party get, you know, better and better in urban areas and improvements suburban areas, while rural areas have gotten redder and suburban ones should be a strong hold for Republicans have gotten a little weaker, which is, you know, not unique to Wisconsin.

What has been unique is that we've been the eye of the storm for 13, 14 solid years. Now, I mean, we had big elections before when I first got here, you know, 2008 Barack Obama winning the state primary in February of that year by a huge number, that was a a big event, you know, Obama winning big in '08. That was big 2010, though kind of began the ramping up of things. So you had Scott Walker winning the race for governor, Republicans sweeping both houses of Legislature, and then it began the race to court and the race to partisanship. So in the race to partisanship, I mean Republicans drew new maps for the Legislature that helped them have majorities for the last 13 years, we've seen how that's played out and then the court, as Democrats kept losing legislatively, they kept going to court and putting things out there. And so it's been a constant churn now for 13 years pretty much in Wisconsin, which is unique.

Sam Woods: Yeah. You mentioned Wisconsin kind of becoming the eye of the national storm in the last 13 or 14 years, and I did not live in Wisconsin at the time, but from an outside perspective, it really did seem that the 2010 gubernatorial election was a turning point in Wisconsin politics. How did this election shape the current state of Wisconsin politics and kick off those 13, 14 years of that eye of that storm?

Ross: Well, wave years and every decade election year — 2000, 2010, 2020 — those are bad for the party losing them because you get to draw the maps. Now in Wisconsin, traditionally we end up in the courts for our maps to be drawn, so oftentimes there wasn't a wave, you know, like it was a split decision and the courts drew the maps. But in 2010, it had been several decades since a party got to draw the map and when they did that, it's a confluence of factors. One, years and years ago when you draw a map, you would rely on data that was kind of on paper. And I'm not saying like paper and pencil exercise, but you didn't have the tools you have today or even back in 2011 to draw a map. The technology has gotten so good you can slice and dice voters in ways that they would have imagined years ago to maximize partisan output now, and I know there are people who are outraged by the whole redistricting process who feel it's gerrymandered, etcetera.

I will tell you from my conversations in the Capitol over the years that redistricting is the most partisan thing you can do in the Capitol that is legal. You can't raise money while you're sitting in your Capitol office. You can't send political emails, but you can draw a map that can put your party in a really good position to win come the rest of the decade. And Republicans had that shot, and they took advantage of it. And to be frank, if Democrats had won in 2010, they would have drawn a map that was in their benefit as well. They had all three levers of power, they would have done it.

In fact, you can criticize Democrats for going back to 2009, they had all three — the governor's office, the Assembly and the Senate, they didn't put in place a nonpartisan redistricting process. They thought, 'Hey, we're coming off this big election with Barack Obama, we're going to be in good shape for a while,' and then things kind of turned. There was a backlash against Obamacare, the Tea Party movement kind of came up, and things changed. And Republicans took power, and then it set the stage for all these things, I mean Act 10 was a huge, defining moment in Wisconsin's political history, and then everything kind of flowed from there.

You saw the national interest in Wisconsin ramp up. You saw the influence of money take off and then other things have kind of happened over that time period that have amplified things. We're just, I always see if it happens in Washington, it seems like work its way down to Wisconsin eventually and other states. So the really intense partisanship in Washington, DC, it's worked its way here. People who make more noise, get more attention and can raise more small dollar nations. Everything that is happening nationally is happening in Wisconsin and exacerbating those partisan riffs.

Powers: Partisanship is a big part of this conversation, and one of the things that we're looking at inside of this podcast is both how state politics influences federal politics. But then, as you said, how federal politics and rhetoric impact what's happening in the state. I'd like to take it to here, and you talked a little bit about this, but the priorities of the Republican Party here in Wisconsin, what have those been over the last two decades? And really the last decade?

Ross: At one point, you know, Republicans were trying to go for incremental change, you know, I mean, Tommy Thompson really interesting figure in Wisconsin politics, longest serving governor Wisconsin history, served 14 years. In the early years of the Walker administrations, I'd hear from Republicans like, 'Man, this is way more aggressive than Tommy was,' because Tommy was dealing with, at times, a split Legislature. People kind of viewed Wisconsin as maybe a little less partisan. The lines weren't as sharp, but once Republicans kind of went through that battle of Act 10, it felt like the lines were hardened. Like, 'OK, we did this big giant, bold thing, which angered a lot of people, and we survived.'

Scott Walker, they tried to recall him. He not only won, he won by a bigger margin than what he won the 2010 race by and became a national figure, that also gave him access to a national fundraising network. It changed things. They began more aggressive. I mean, they kept winning, in part of the maps they drew. Right to work. So they did Act 10 for public employees, impacting them in 2011. 2014, they came back off those wins and 'Hey, we're going right to work. 'And that happened in the 2015 session, they passed that bill. Again, no backlash.

If you don't have to worry about really losing a general election or control, you can get more aggressive and kind of embolden them to to go and see what all they could do. And, you know, big things for Republicans for years Cutting taxes. We went from, when I first got here in 2000, you know, we were always top five, top 10 at least, in terms of the state local tax burden. Now we're in the mid 20s, low 20s. Conversely, we were always top five, top 10 for education funding. We're now in that 20ish range, 22ish range for education funding.

So they've changed things in Wisconsin significantly and you're seeing kind of Democrats, after all these years, of this kind of like taking it on the chin, they now feel like, 'Hey, we've got a new map, we have a chance to go out and change things,' that the tide has changed for them. The question is, can they get the right environment to take advantage of those new lines and really make a dent in the Republican majorities?

Woods: Well, on that topic of the Democratic Party and and kind of their their goals, how would you describe the priorities of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin over the last two decades as all this was happening on the Republican side?

Ross: To stop the change. I mean they wanted to kind of keep things the way they were. They didn't want to see Act 10 implemented. They didn't want to see a 20 week ban on abortion implemented or right to work or any of these things. They wanted more money into education. So they've been fighting a losing battle for a long time. But then Gov. Evers got elected. That gave them a backstop to try and stem the tide of things that for eight years, Republicans basically had free range for what they wanted to do. Evers changed that. He, by the way, recently issued his 188th veto of his five plus years in office. That's the most in state history by any governor. He's the champ. That's an illustration of the kind of push back to a Republican Legislature having a Democratic governor. Now the question is, can Democrats go from playing defense all the time to being more on offense?

That was JR Ross of WisPolitics.com, and that really brings us to where we are now.

So when we ask “why does Wisconsin matter in presidential elections?” Of course it is partly due to the state’s 10 electoral votes.

But as Phillip Rocco, a political scientist at Marquette University says, Wisconsin matters, not just in election years, but because what happens in Wisconsin so often goes national.

"If we're trying to understand why Wisconsin is a swing state or a state that is seen as politically significant, I think that there is something to the idea that Wisconsin, by a number of political actors across the political spectrum, has been seen as a proving ground for new ideas in American political life. And it's hard to understand Wisconsin is a battleground state if you don't understand what the battle is really about," Rocco said.

Income tax. Unemployment insurance. Social Security. Anti-communism. Desegregated housing. Decentralized political media. All of them have Wisconsin roots.

In the next nine episodes of Swing State of the Union, we’ll examine why Wisconsin is a swing state, through the lens of state politics.

We’ll cover Act 10 and its place in the larger context of deindustrialization and union politics. We’ll cover claims of election fraud, political polarization, money in politics, the Republican National Convention that's coming to Milwaukee and much more, happening right here in Wisconsin.

But next week, we examine the politics between Wisconsin and its largest city and how state and city budgets interact and the urban-rural divide.

"I find it unfortunate that there are really strong cultural divides between urban and rural communities. Particularly urban and rural poor communities, there tends to be just a real kind of political and, perhaps even, cultural rift," Dimitri Topitzes said.

Milwaukee vs. Wisconsin — on the next episode of Swing State of the Union.

Swing State of the Union is produced by WUWM, Milwaukee NPR a part of the NPR Podcast Network. Please subscribe to the Swing State of the Union podcast wherever you like to listen.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.