"Growing Realignment: Land, Labor, Taxes, and the Decline of Wisconsin's Democratic Majority"
thesisposted on 06.08.2019, 00:00 by Adam Mertz
Combining the methods of history, political science, and sociology, “Growing Realignment,” examines the battle over teacher unionism in relation to the larger fate of Wisconsin’s farm-labor political coalition, offering a regional case study with significant national implications. From the 1970s through the 1980s, Wisconsin Democratic policies to promote growth—by providing tax concessions to industry and the wealthy, by fostering tourism, and even by constructing interstate highways—contributed to the erosion of the state's farm economy through increased property taxes and outright displacement of farmland. Wisconsin farmers felt besieged as sprawl from suburbs and recreational areas enveloped farmlands—while public sector unions pushed for higher pay and benefits. Both trends drove up property taxes and compelled farmers to sell their land. To address these problems, Wisconsin’s main teacher union teamed up with Wisconsin farm groups in a campaign to remove public school funding from the regressive property tax. Yet opponents claimed such a shift would harm the state’s “business climate,” and these concerns dovetailed with the statewide Native American treaty rights controversy, which racialized government spending and regulations. After the property tax reform campaign foundered, increased property tax pressures and the increased need for non-farm jobs produced a growing realignment in state politics, as Republicans channeled those frustrations toward reducing environmental regulations and curbing public sector union power. While Wisconsin represents an extreme example, this story played out to varying degrees throughout the United States. After all, sprawl—from suburbs and from recreational areas—reaches all corners of the country, leaving concentrations of suburban wealth and large swaths of rural poverty. This change diminished rural residents’ ability to sustain quality schools, healthcare, and other kinds of infrastructure. As much as any professed cultural issues, these long-term economic grievances helped construct the rural-urban divide shown in current state politics and the 2016 presidential Electoral College map. “Growing Realignment” therefore demonstrates how taxes—rather than an over-emphasis on “culture wars”—helped redefine politics from the 1970s through the 1990s, tracing the rise of Republican Party’s increasingly successful right-wing populism.