I had only been outside its borders once before I went to college. And yet I already knew that Wisconsin did not take up much space in the national consciousness. The coasts seemed more important—the glamor of New York, the sunny promise of California. It did not have the fables of Texas, the loyalties of New England, the energy of Chicago or the bluesy fascination of New Orleans. Even so, I was proud of being from Wisconsin.
The topography did not have the drama of the Rocky Mountains or the Southwestern Desert, but the kettles and moraines of Wisconsin had visual interest that softened the landscape. The state did not have an ocean coast, but it had the Great Lakes with a grandeur that non-midwesterners did not grasp. Lake Michigan is like the ocean, but oh no, it’s not. It’s Lake Michigan with its own majesty. (A friend has just returned from golf at a course on the Lake Michigan shore. He was surprised that the water was blue and clear. He assumed, based on no knowledge, that it was brown. I could see that ignorance about Wisconsin abounds, but since few think about Wisconsin in the first place, the abounding is limited.) Unlike other places, Wisconsin had smaller lakes everywhere—no one in Wisconsin was more than ten or fifteen minutes from several—that afforded fishing, boating, swimming, mists, and soothing, primordial sounds. Perhaps the landscape was not as awe-inspiring as some locations, but it was pleasant and welcoming. And it had walleyes.
The climate, however, while interesting was not always pleasant, but even that could afford some pride. People whose only opinion about the state seemed to come from televised playoff games at Lambeau Field (aka, the frozen tundra) would ask me about the cold (and yes, okay, it was cold). However, I would rather haughtily reply that it was just winter in Wisconsin implying that unlike the questioners, Wisconsinites were tough.
The human institutions, however, were the real cause for my pride. They had led to a better state and society than elsewhere in the country. The public education system was excellent starting, at least for me, with two years of kindergarten culminating in an affordable, flagship university that was considered one of the best in the nation.
Politics, while not totally free of rancor, did not have the bosses or the machines of other places. Local elections were nonpartisan, which helped to reduce blind partisanship. Although rich people were elected to office, money was not necessary to hold office. In the 1980s, William Proxmire spent less than two hundred dollars to get reelected to the Senate.
Wisconsin had a tradition of reform and innovation that others in the country copied to make their states better. It had created the first unemployment insurance program, for example, which acted as a model for other governments, and people from this Wisconsin tradition helped create Medicare. As a recent magazine article stated, “The state’s home-grown social-democratic tradition, which fused support for open government, public institutions, and economic equality, remained largely bipartisan.”
Of course, not everything was wonderful. I was dismayed when I learned that Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. And, of course, Wisconsin produced Joe McCarthy, leader of a movement that took his name and did so much damage to the country. Still, Wisconsin was a place to be proud of. It was a place of clear skies, clear water, and clean, transparent, and sensible politics.
Then something happened. The news that seeps out of Wisconsin now makes it seem as the state has become nearly as corrupt and crazy as many other places. Legislators have been indicted for various acts of corruption, something I do not remember happening in my youth. Money, as elsewhere, has become central to politics. Five million dollars were spent on a state Supreme Court race to defeat an incumbent. Seven hundred million–seven hundred million!!!–is expected to be spent on the 2022 elections. Wisconsin has undermined its educational system. State funding for the University and K-12 education has decreased. A Dean at the University of Wisconsin told me that the school was no longer a public university but a university with some public assistance. Wisconsin has become a leader in attacking and denigrating teachers as well as a leader in corporate giveaways, both in money and in permitting pollution. The state also has become a poster child for partisanship adopting one of the most gerrymandered legislatures in the country. The state has also made it harder to vote, but the gerrymandering means that votes don’t matter that much anyway.
This sort of news made me realize that Wisconsin was no longer a beacon for reasonable government but had become just like many other states.
Then came the aftermath of the 2020 election. The crazy comments and actions escalated—too many for me to summarize, but here’s one for you to consider: Imagine a government official saying that there is no evidence that you did not commit murder last year. Would you be shocked? Outraged? Would you laugh at such idiocy? Would you lose faith in the government official or the government itself? Now consider that one of the six officials on the Wisconsin Election Commission said about the 2020 election in Wisconsin: “There’s no evidence voter fraud did not occur.”
Oh, Wisconsin, grand old Badger State. What has happened to you? I wanted to think that Joe McCarthy was an aberration, but his insanity now seems to have taken hold.