Wisconsin voters are legendary for their ticket-splitting ways, choosing, for instance, in consecutive elections Barack Obama for president and Scott Walker for governor.
Is Wisconsin a blue state because a majority of voters haven’t voted for a Republican for president since 1984? Is Wisconsin a red state because it switched the governor, the state treasurer and both houses of the Legislature to Republican control in 2010?
I argue option three: Wisconsin is a deeply conservative state, in the non-political sense — conservative as in appreciating tradition and being resistant to change.
Historian Daniel Elazar put all 50 states into three groups — “individualistic,” which “emphasizes the centrality of private concerns” with “a premium on limiting community intervention”; “traditionalistic,” which “accepts government as an actor with a positive role in the community” while seeking to “limit that role to securing the continued maintenance of the existing social order”; and “moralistic,” which considers government “a positive instrument with a responsibility to promote the general welfare.”
The third group includes not just Wisconsin, but the states whose residents settled in Wisconsin — New England Puritans. Other than the general attitude toward alcohol, and the city of Madison’s attitude about drugs, Wisconsin is not a very libertarian state.
Wisconsin is in the top five of states for state and local taxes, and that has been the case as long as I remember. This state’s Constitution has a high-sounding phrase in Article I, section 22 — “The blessings of a free government can only be maintained by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” — but nothing, like limits on government spending or taxation, to enforce those high-sounding words.
Wisconsin has 3,120 units of government, second most per capita among the states behind only Illinois. We’ve had multiple budget crises over the past few years, but no serious move to reduce that number of governments by, for instance, requiring merging of small school districts (as Iowa has), eliminating town governments (as Iowa did), or requiring metropolitan governments such areas as the Fox Cities (which comprise four cities, three villages and six towns between Neenah and Kaukauna).
Although we have recently shown significant improvement in many surveys, Wisconsin traditionally has rated poorly in the various business climate comparisons by a variety of business publications and organizations, regardless of how they measure the quality of a state’s business environment. One measure in which Wisconsin has trailed the national average (not to mention our neighbor to the west, Minnesota) for a long time is business start-ups and incorporations. That indicates not merely a poor business tax and regulatory environment, but a cultural reticence toward taking the risk of going into business for yourself, because while you might succeed, you might fail too.
On the other hand, Wisconsin isn’t exactly progressive on social issues outside the Madison–Milwaukee axis. Before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, abortion was illegal in Wisconsin. Unlike, say, New York and California, this state is not a national leader in same-sex marriage. Tammy Baldwin didn’t get elected to the U.S. Senate because she is a lesbian; she got elected to the Senate because she’s a well known politician who ran a strong race for a Senate seat that has been in the hands of Democrats since 1957.
There is no serious movement, again outside the Madison–Milwaukee axis, to restrict guns. Hunting and fishing is viewed as so culturally important that hunting and fishing rights were voted into the state Constitution. The state high school football playoffs are scheduled to end before the gun deer season starts.
This non-political conservatism and resistance to change shows up elsewhere. The state’s media markets all have people in their newspapers and radio and TV stations who have been there much longer than the industry norm, who chose to stay in those areas instead of making more money in bigger markets.
Much of this might be the rational conclusion of Wisconsinites that change and progress are not necessarily the same thing, or that, while change is inevitable, positive change is not. It also indicates how remarkable it is when significant political change does take place, such as the Progressive Era reforms, or the 2010 elections.
It also illustrates how difficult it is to accomplish the change that political conservatives believe needs to happen in Wisconsin. Voters who are not obsessed with politics might not know that public employee collective bargaining became law in 1958, or that state legislators became full-time legislators in 1973. A radical tax reform step like ending the income tax, now proposed in Louisiana, is literally unthinkable in this state that started the income tax a century ago.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns touted “Change,” as if anything that was old is bad and anything new is good. (His campaign motto, you’ll recall, was “Forward,” to which should have been added “off a cliff.”)
A candidate who wants to be effective needs to tout not “Change!” but improvement. Voters don’t want just different; they want better.
That’s the key to winning political battles today.
William F. Buckley Jr. began National Review in 1955 by writing that his new magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” As we’ve seen in this state over the past couple years, liberals can be as resistant to change as conservatives are claimed to be.
Steve Prestegard lives in Platteville where he serves as Editor of the Platteville Journal. He has been a journalist for more than two decades. He also writes at his blog,