We asked Dave Ranney, the author of Global Decisions, Local Collisions and New World Disorder: The Decline of US Power, to comment on how the election looked from Wisconsin.
For the past 10 years or so I have been spending most of my time living in a small rural town on an island in Northeast Wisconsin (the other time is spent in Chicago). Based on that experience I would like to make a few points.
There is a strong sense of who belongs and who does not here. Those who are from the Island can be anything from survivalists and militia wannabe’s to liberals who read the New York Times. There are also a lot of retired people from Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison here. So there is an unusually large group of transplants. None of us are considered “Islanders” and never will be. Our house is referred to by the name of the family that owned it 25 years ago or even by the name of the family that built and lived in it 75 years ago. The category, “rural non–college educated white” is, like alt-right, Latino, Black, woman, too broad to be useful. I am accepted because I do a lot of things in the community―on the board of the Maritime Museum, work with school kids on dramatic arts, etc. People know my politics and don’t care. I spent a lot of time when my 2002 book came out traveling around Wisconsin talking to mostly white workers…places like LaCrosse, Oshkosh, Green Bay and, of course, little Washington Island. I also went to Madison and Milwaukee. In all these places deindustrialization had decimated their communities and their unions were under attack and not fighting very hard on their behalf. They were angered and bewildered at this point. I would bet most of the people I talked to who were very angry at Bill Clinton and the Democrats voted for Trump.
I have also spent a lot of time in the past working in coalitions against the trade agreements―principally anti–NAFTA, WTO and IMF/World Bank Conditionalities. Now there is TPP and a host of bilateral trade agreements. This was always a tricky business because it attracted right-wing populists (it was Perot when I was active in this) and also attracted the unions. It was necessary to clearly establish what we were saying that was different from them in a way that wouldn’t make our politics marginalized. This was difficult but worthwhile because it was an area that a broad array of the working class could relate to.
Of course, I have had much more recent discussions on the Island where Trump won by about 40 votes out of 400 cast. Many people pulled their Trump lawn signs after the famous bus remarks. I suspect many of these people still voted for him but were embarrassed to admit it. Almost all up here are white. There are two churches―one Lutheran and one Evangelical Christian which most certainly divided evenly between Hillary and the Trumpster. Young people on the Island are hugely under-or unemployed and have few prospects. They are very, very angry. I think they were for Trump. Older Islanders who did not simply retire here like me were for Trump. These folks work sporadically as carpenters, on small farms, for the electric co-op and phone company, grocery store, bars and restaurants. They feel left out by the official parties and want something to change. Those that know about the Electoral College do not want to get rid of it because they fear their voice would be even more marginalized by the big cities on the East and West Coasts.
Taxes for many of these folks are a real issue. A worker who worked at Bata Shoes or OshKosh B’Gosh work clothes (now in China) with living wages and benefits and is now working (and her/his kids are working) at Walmart, may well have family land that used to be small farms. They can’t pay rising taxes, have had to sell off some of the family land. They saw Walker’s austerity as a way out of this mess. Liberals and Democrats have been telling them to suck it up―we need money to pay for education and highways. What do we have to say about this? Nothing right now! But a campaign that directly takes on the notion of trickle-down and proposes to abolish the property tax in favor of a highly progressive income tax might find some traction. Maybe it could have a less reformist element by a property-tax-refusal action.
On the other hand, retired liberals including businesspeople, college professors, schoolteachers, scientists and at least two retired CIA agents voted solidly for Hillary. They, of course, are not usually in dire circumstances economically.
Basically what I’ve heard is a desire for some sort of change and many were convinced that Hillary was more of the same. This accounts more than anything else for pro-Trump. The “icky” factor seemed about evenly divided. Hillary was not only more of the same but seen as a money-grubbing crook in bed with the bankers. Of course, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-all-things-not-white played a role, but not the only role, in determining who is less icky. I think the idea that it is simply racism, sexism or stupidity is being overblown. Of course there is more of that than we would like but I don’t think that is the heart of it. I think it is more the result of a rejection of all public policies and political parties of the last 25–30 years and a failure on the part of the left to offer any alternatives.
The best opportunity we had in Wisconsin was when Scott Walker was elected governor and began to push an anti-union austerity agenda. Many people went to Madison from around the state to protest and even occupied the Capitol building. There was a great deal of anger throughout the state. But there was no left with a program or a strategic direction that most of these could relate to. So into the void stepped the AFL-CIO and proposed a recall campaign that wanted to replace Walker with a mainline Democrat. All the energy and anger went into the campaign. Young people went door to door with union funding. But “rural whites” were able to unite around the notion that they didn’t want a mainline Democrat as governor and voted the recall down. Not only did the unions shut down the impulses of thousands of Wisconsinites but they also provided the groundwork for the sort of organization that eventually assured a Trump victory.
Trump stepped into a void. Categories like “Latino,” let alone “Hispanic,” are useless. Thirty percent of such voters went for Trump. Some of them are established in the United States with papers to prove it and don’t want others to enter and compete for the crumbs. I heard one person described as “Hispanic” say on public radio: “We are not monolithic.” Working class and de-classed Black people have been screwed as much if not more than the so called “non–college educated whites.” I would bet when the dust settles we will discover that many of them joined me and George Carlin on Election Day, and stayed home.