After another state budget failure, we need a Democratic realignment in Wisconsin

It’s happening in DC, why not Wisconsin?

September 14, 2021 6:00 am
Night view of the MLK Jr. Blvd. entrance to the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison with lights shining on the dome

Night view of the MLK Jr. Blvd. entrance to the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison | Richard Hurd via Flickr CC BY 2.0

As the leader of a large-scale grassroots group that urged a full veto of the state budgets in both 2019 and the 2021, you may expect me to rail against Gov. Tony Evers’ decision this summer to sign largely intact the GOP’s latest instrument of fiscal sabotage. This is not that column.

Endless hand-wringing over what moderates fail to do deflects from the agency of progressives. As William Shakespeare put it, “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

While Wisconsin progressives were largely cut out of the governor’s decision to sign the GOP budget, we nonetheless share responsibility. In contrast to our national counterparts, we have yet to build the unity and inside-outside power to co-govern on equal terms with the moderate elected officials who actually run the Democratic establishment (the official party is not the locus of governing power).

None of this will change until Wisconsin progressives come to terms with the new realities of our evolving two party system. At the dawn of American multi-racial democracy in the 1960s, leaders such as Bayard Rustin, Max Shactman, Michael Harrington and Walter Reuther advocated a grand realignment where the major segments of the left would enter the Democratic Party, while reactionary and racist elements would be expelled into the GOP. Although it took over 40 years, today the idea looks remarkably prescient.

An anti-democratic and dog whistle (and explicitly) racist conservatism has captured the GOP. The Democrats are now composed of moderate and progressive wings, with large numbers of women, men, people of color and LGBTQ people in both the moderate and progressive factions. The two wings might be separate parties in a Parliamentary structure, but in the American system they need each other to hold power.

The stakes of making this unwieldy coalition work are high in our era of earth-shattering consequences, putting an exceptional burden on the Democrats to bridge the enormous gulf from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). The character of the new GOP rules out meaningful bipartisanship with elected Republicans, except for occasional initiatives that at best nibble around the edges.

This new intra-party bipartisanship has flowered in Joe Biden’s Washington because of changes in the balance of power brought on by social movements and shifts in voter sentiment. The 40-year moderate domination of the national Democrats ended after 2016, overwhelmed by a historic surge in social justice organizing, the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, and the popular resistance to Donald Trump. These movements were energized by steady climb in the progressiveness of the Democratic electorate in the 21st Century, from 28% in 2000 to 51% of party voters in 2020. There is no good reason to believe that Wisconsin Democratic voters are less progressive than their national counterparts, and substantial evidence to the contrary.

These shifts also fueled electoral challenges to moderate hegemony, beginning with the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which showed that an insurgent candidate could raise an army of campaign volunteers and enough clean money to compete. There were state-level antecedents close to home, including Ed Garvey’s insurgent challenge to Tommy Thompson in 1998, and more successfully Paul Wellstone’s Minnesota Senate race in 1990, but they did not take hold. Sanders’ breakthrough in 2016 did, fueling the rise of an insurgent progressive wing that won a series of shocking primary victories over entrenched moderate incumbents. 

The rising power of the progressive wing transformed Democratic politics. Biden, in contrast to Hillary Clinton, forged a strong general election coalition with Sanders and the progressive wing that proved pivotal to his victory. 

After a 2020 presidential primary where all major candidates by post-Reagan standards ran on progressive platforms, the centrist Biden adjusted to the new political context, blindsiding his top advisors with the directive to get policies on a New Deal scale. One veteran member of his team texted a colleague: “Did that really happen?” This alliance continues in 2021. Biden’s Build Back Better agenda is the most sweeping structural reform pursued by a sitting president since the New Deal. With virtually no votes to spare, the fate of this agenda in the next two months is the first major test of intra-party bipartisanship.

This realignment has yet to take hold in the Badger State. As I told Wisconsin Public Radio last year, there is a striking gap between federal and Wisconsin state government Democrats, who under Evers’ leadership are operating by and large with the political playbook of the 1990s.

Facing an eight-year climate deadline to cut emissions in half, roughly 6% per year, Evers signed a two-year budget that will increase greenhouse emissions, and introduced one himself that despite some modest initiatives made little tangible progress given the scale of what is needed. The story is the same on mass incarceration, racial equity, skyrocketing health care costs, and almost every major priority.

Even more discordant was Evers’ decision not to line-item veto a tax cut that mosty benefits people who make over $100,000, and claim it is a victory for the middle class, which amounts to Clinton-style triangulation (adopting Republican policies to blunt their electoral impact).

The only real path for achieving different outcomes in the future is for progressives to build the power and strategic unity on the ground and at the Capitol to insist on a better deal.


In an article for In These Times earlier this year, I detailed the key building blocks of effective progressive power: 1) Investing in deeper organizing that builds a larger multiracial base in social justice groups and in growing the labor movement; 2) A better inside-outside game, meaning strategic alignment among progressive groups with significant memberships, grassroots lobbying, and electoral muscle with insurgent progressive candidates and elected officials.

Some social justice groups in Wisconsin, including Citizen Action, have dramatically increased organizing capacity, and there are promising efforts at better coordination. Citizen Action and a handful of other groups are also intervening in primaries to nominate populist candidates. We are about to launch a fledgling Movement Politics Academy to train the next generation of progressive candidates committed to aligning themselves with grassroots organizations.

But a handful of organizations is not enough, it takes an ecosystem. As a battleground state, Wisconsin benefits from massive outside investments in presidential and Senate election years, but too many of these resources are squandered on the sugar high of short-term political spending which does not build permanent power. One reason Minnesota has more progressive influence is because Democrats and progressives in that state  have invested more in organizing and base building.

This is not a zero-sum game; a more dynamic progressive wing is in the interest of moderates as well. I agree with the main thesis of E.J. Dionne’s book Code Red that combining the attributes of moderates and progressives is the best way to prevent a GOP takeover, and would create a powerful Democratic party that could dominate American politics. 

The truth is that Wisconsin moderates are leaving power on the table. While Evers’ centrist branding could attract more moderate independent votes for his own reelection, as I told the Wisconsin State Journal, calling an ultra-partisan GOP budget bipartisan, and muddying the waters about its impact, makes it harder to attract moderate votes in legislative races and to inspire the base turnout necessary to defeat GOP incumbents.

It also harms the Governor’s reelection. In an era where base turnout matters more than swing voters, especially in midterm elections, not providing a full-blooded critique of GOP policies and a bold agenda on the major challenges facing the state makes it harder to turn out young voters, the most progressive generation in half a century. Ominously, the drop-off of young Black voters in Wisconsin in 2016 was larger than the margin of Trump’s primary victory. They simply did not see how Hillary Clinton’s bland agenda would improve their lives.

True power sharing between progressives and moderates in Wisconsin is the only path to full Democratic control of state government. To achieve their objectives, progressive organizations need to align with other like-minded groups and with progressive candidates and elected officials in a way that shifts the center of gravity within the Democratic coalition. Progressive activists must also do their part by investing their energy and resources in state and local power-building groups.

Moderates will not give up their domination of the Democratic coalition unless progressives build the capacity to insist on an equal partnership. As Frederick Douglass famously said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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Robert Kraig
Robert Kraig

Dr. Robert Kraig is the executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Robert took the helm in September 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, when Citizen Action was in virtual bankruptcy, and has led a dynamic team of organizers in rebuilding it into one of the leading progressive forces in Wisconsin. (He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.A. from the University of Georgia and a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh).