Wisconsin Politics and Government: America's Laboratory of Democracy

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Throughout the twentieth century, Wisconsin won national visibility and praise for its role as a “laboratory of democracy” within the American federal system. In Wisconsin Politics and Government James K. Conant traces the development of the state and its Progressive heritage from the early territorial experience to contemporary times. Conant includes a discussion of the four major periods of institutional and policy innovation that occurred in Wisconsin during the twentieth century as well as an examination of the state’s constitution, legislature, office of the governor, courts, political parties and elections, interest groups, social welfare policy, local governments, state-local relations, and current and emerging issues.
Readers of Wisconsin Politics and Government are likely to find a close correspondence between Wisconsin's social, economic, and political experience during the twentieth century and the essential democratic characteristics Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his classic work Democracy in America. For example, Wisconsin’s twentieth-century civil society was highly developed: its elected and administrative officials continuously sought to improve the state's political and administrative institutions, and they worked to enhance the economic and social conditions of the state's citizens. Other modern characteristics of the state's democratic experience include issue-oriented politics, government institutions operating free of scandal, and citizens turning out to vote in large numbers.
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Editorial Reviews

Annals of Iowa

“Conant takes readers through the evolution of Wisconsin’s constitution, legislature, executive, judiciary, parties, and interest groups. . . . [Wisconsin Politics and Government]’s strength clearly lies in the author’s impressive grasp of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the state’s polity.”—Annals of Iowa

Progressive Populist

“In what is surely the definitive work on the history of Wisconsin politics, James K. Conant has analyzed nearly every part of that state’s political history up to the present.”—Alvena Bieri, Progressive Populist

— Alvena Bieri

UNP blog Post - Cara Pesek
Progressive Populist - Alvena Bieri

“In what is surely the definitive work on the history of Wisconsin politics, James K. Conant has analyzed nearly every part of that state’s political history up to the present.”—Alvena Bieri, Progressive Populist
Annals of Iowa

“Conant takes readers through the evolution of Wisconsin’s constitution, legislature, executive, judiciary, parties, and interest groups. . . . [Wisconsin Politics and Government]’s strength clearly lies in the author’s impressive grasp of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the state’s polity.”—Annals of Iowa

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Product Details

Meet the Author

James K. Conant is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He grew up in Wisconsin, began his professional career working in Wisconsin state government, and received his PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
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Read an Excerpt

Wisconsin Politics and Government

America's Laboratory of Democracy
By James K. Conant

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006 James K. Conant
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780803215481

Chapter One

The Character of the State

Wisconsin's best-known writers ... frequently show their respect for, sometimes even their awe of, the people who settled Wisconsin and formed it into a state. As the writers demonstrate, not only did the pioneers accomplish these tasks but they also lived admirably and set the state on a proper moral course .... Their main virtues, as these writers assess them, are fortitude, a sense of community, honesty and practical and managerial skills ... measuring oneself against Wisconsin's settlers ... is a lesson in humility. John O. Stark, "Wisconsin Writers," Wisconsin Blue Book, 1977

The history of these (Progressive) policies in Wisconsin is a history of the fight against special privilege which sought advantage for the few at the expense of the many. Zona Gale, Wisconsin writer, early 1920s

Wisconsin is a wonderful place to live. National surveys of the best places to live in America afford one measure of the quality of life enjoyed by most of Wisconsin's 5.4 million residents. At least ahalf dozen Wisconsin cities are regularly included on the list, and Madison, the state's capital city, is often ranked number one. Among the factors that contribute to the strong rankings for Wisconsin's cities are the openness and friendliness of its people, the fine quality of its k-12 and vocational/technical schools, the low crime rate, the state's outstanding university system, a remarkable range of recreational resources, easy access to a wide range of cultural activities, and effective municipal and county governments.

Wisconsin is also a wonderful place to visit. It is a favorite vacation spot for people from all over the country and particularly from other Midwestern states. People travel to Wisconsin to hunt and fish, boat on the Mississippi River, hike or camp in the state's beautiful state parks and forests, traverse its marvelous system of bike trails, canoe or go "tubing" down its rivers, take vacations on one of its thousands of inland lakes, lie on the beautiful sand beaches of Lake Michigan, sail the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior, or drive Wisconsin's rustic country roads.

What factors have contributed to the exceptional quality of life in Wisconsin? The state's varied geography, its settlement patterns, regional setting, historical development, and diversified economy have all played a role. The most important factor, however, may be the progressive, or positive, role that state government has played in the society. Throughout much of Wisconsin's history, its politics and public policy have been shaped by those who believe that government's proper role is to protect its citizens and to advance the interests of the community as a whole rather than the interests of a few.

This "commonwealth," or "moralistic," conception of the proper role for government has not gone unchallenged in the state, however. Opposition to it has come from those who view politics and government as an extension of the marketplace, rather than as something separate from it. In the "marketplace," or "individualistic," view of politics and government, the primary role for government is to serve the interests of those who control it; that is to say, members of the party in power, as well as the individuals (party members) and business organizations that support them. They all expect to gain tangible rewards from government.

The competition for control of state government between leaders, citizens, and groups who have held these differing conceptions of government has sometimes flared up during election campaigns and legislative sessions; at other times, the struggle has been less visible. Whether visible or not, the results of the electoral competition between those who hold the commonwealth and marketplace views has had profound consequences for the state and its people. In fact, while social, economic, and political conditions in Wisconsin seemed almost ideal in the latter half of the twentieth century, conditions in the late 1800s were dramatically different.

At that time the state and its policies were controlled by those who favored the marketplace model, and this contributed to an economic and environmental crisis that emerged during the 1870s and continued through the 1880s and 1890s. National economic recessions set the stage for this crisis, but internal economic and environmental conditions helped to ignite it. Less than thirty years after Wisconsin entered the Union as a frontier society in 1848, exploitative lumber, mining, and farming practices had significantly altered and severely damaged a natural landscape that had once been covered with large prairies, beautiful freshwater lakes and streams, fertile marshlands, vast forests, a remarkable range of plant species, and large populations of wildlife. In many parts of the state, intensive wheat farming led to a dramatic decline in the ability of the soil to support any crop, and mining practices led to pollution of lakes, streams, rivers, and marshes.

Clear-cutting the vast tracts of old-growth forests that covered the northern three-fifths of the state, however, had the deadliest consequences. The cutting not only destroyed the habitats for plants, fish, and wildlife but also set the stage for infernos that overwhelmed human settlements. The remains of the clear-cutting, as well as the tangled masses of brush that grew quickly after the trees were removed, provided fuel for the fires. Almost all of the state's northern counties experienced at least one major conflagration. The greatest loss of life occurred during the Peshtigo fire of 1871, which swept through six counties and killed more than one thousand people.

Because state government was controlled at the time by interlocking railroad and timber interests, state policy tended to provide explicit or tacit support for these exploitative practices. With more than 80 percent of the state's population dependent for their livelihoods on the land and the state's other natural resources, however, these environmental, economic, and political conditions had an adverse effect on most of the people. For some of the state's residents these exploitative practices and the state policies that supported them had devastating consequences.

Resistance to the economic monopoly and political control of the railroad and timber interests first emerged in the early 1870s. Farmers, who joined together under the banner of the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange movement, voiced their grievances against the railroad monopoly and the high rates charged for shipping grain to markets. They also challenged both the Democratic and Republican parties to denounce corruption in government and they demanded state regulation of railroads. Farmers alone, however, did not have the political strength required to bring about a significant change in state policy.

Nearly twenty years passed before a broad-based effort to wrest control of the state from the railroad and timber interests was initiated. The key figure in that effort was Robert M. La Follette Sr. In 1891, La Follette broke with the Republican Party bosses, known as the "Stalwarts." The Stalwarts were supported by and catered to the big economic interests.

After a bitter, decade-long fight with the Stalwarts for control of the Republican Party, La Follette finally won the party's nomination for the governorship in 1900. In that same year, he won the general election for governor. He was reelected governor in 1902 and 1904. In 1906 La Follette was elected to the U.S. Senate.

La Follette, his successors in the governorship, James O. Davidson and Francis McGovern, and other Progressive Republican legislators broke the stranglehold of the railroad and timber interests on state government. With the political support of the Social Democrats from Milwaukee and the expertise of faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Progressives opened up state government through election reforms, redesigned and invigorated government institutions, and effectively changed policy. Among the new policies the Progressive reformers ushered in were a workmen's compensation act, a state income tax, a law establishing maximum hours of labor for women, an apprenticeship act and related vocational education programs, a minimum-wage act for women and children, a pension act, a retirement fund for teachers, and a corrupt-practices act that limited and publicized campaign expenses.

More than a century after La Follette and his allies gained control of Wisconsin government, the Progressive legacy remains an important factor in the state's politics, government institutions, and public policy. Wisconsin citizens expect openness in government and honesty from their elected officials; that government will protect them from some of the excesses of the private sector; and that government will be an effective steward of the state's natural resources. Wisconsin's citizens also expect state (and local) government(s) to provide a high level of service in education, transportation, public safety, social welfare, and health care.

At the same time it is important to note that throughout the twentieth century those who held the marketplace (individualistic) view of politics and government remained a competitive force within the state. They not only provided an opposition to Progressive policies but also served as a counterweight to the moralistic (commonwealth) view of politics and government. In functional terms this counterweight may have served a useful purpose.

For example, during the early 1900s the initiative and referendum were advocated by Progressives throughout the country as a means of returning control over the election process to the people. These measures were approved in California, Oregon, and a number of other states where the Progressive movement was strong, but they were rejected in Wisconsin. Rejection of initiative and referendum may be the single most important factor in the relatively stable and moderate nature of politics in Wisconsin during the 1970s, 1980s, and most of the 1990s. Conversely during the same period, politics in California and Oregon were relatively turbulent and radical.

Also worth noting is that the strength and influence of those holding the marketplace conception of government and politics were renewed in Wisconsin during the 1980s and 1990s. National politics and economic circumstances set the stage for this renewal. Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 was an important contributing factor, as were international, national, and regional economic trends. During the early 1980s the nation suffered its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and that recession was particularly severe in the Midwest and most of the older industrialized states of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

Within Wisconsin the improved electoral fortunes of those holding the marketplace view of government were both led and personified by Republican governor Tommy Thompson. After serving as a member of the minority party in the state assembly for almost twenty years, Thompson ran for the governorship in 1986 and won election by a narrow margin. He was reelected in 1990, 1994, and 1998 by large margins. Thompson resigned the governorship in January 2001 to take the job of secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration.

Thompson's fourteen-year tenure in the governorship, his staunch allies in the legislature, the strong support he had from business, his aggressive use of the partial-veto power, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court's apparent reluctance to constrain the governor's actions all contributed to a remarkable accumulation of power by the Republican governor in both the legislative and administrative arenas. In turn, these powers gave Thompson the opportunity to reshape state policy and its implementation in a variety of ways.

In support of some of his most controversial policy changes, particularly in social welfare, Thompson claimed that he was employing the same principles that the Progressives employed to shape government policy during the beginning of the twentieth century. Although Thompson may genuinely have believed this was the case, it also seems clear that he was attempting to employ a powerful symbol to diffuse opposition to his policy proposals. In doing so he followed a tactic that President Reagan employed as he pursued his conservative agenda by frequently invoking the name of Franklin Roosevelt.

Democrats in the legislature, however, were more likely to associate some of Thompson's policy initiatives with the marketplace philosophy and his tactics with the old Stalwart Republicans. Some bristled at Thompson's attempt to claim the Progressive mantle. Yet particularly in the area of social welfare reform, a case can be made that Thompson was employing some of the key Progressive beliefs, including the strong value placed on work and education.

The remainder of this chapter will provide an overview of Wisconsin-its geography; climate; exploration, settlement, and early development; economy; and politics and political culture-so as to better situate the more particular political discussions that follow in later chapters.


Wisconsin sits in the north-central part of the United States, and it covers 56,066 square miles. Wisconsin's land area is larger than that of Michigan to the east, but slightly smaller than those of its southern and western neighbors, Illinois and Minnesota, respectively. Overall Wisconsin ranks in the middle among the states in physical size.

Wisconsin has an irregular border. Its shape, however, resembles the top side of a person's left hand-with the thumb separated somewhat from the fingers. The irregularity of its shape is due in large part to the fact that on three sides the borders are defined by water. Lake Michigan and Green Bay define the state's eastern border; the St. Louis, St. Croix, and Mississippi rivers together define the western border. Lake Superior and the Menominee, Brule, and Montreal rivers define most of the northern border. Only Wisconsin's southern border, which separates the state from Illinois, is drawn across soil.

One of the most interesting features of Wisconsin's geography is that prehistoric forces left a huge dome or mound somewhat south of the midsection of the state. Because this high point of the state is close to its center, the state's major river systems run in several different directions. For example, the Fox River, in the east-central part of the state, runs north into Green Bay. By simply looking at a map of the state, one might assume the opposite-that Green Bay runs south into the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. Some river systems, like the Brule, run north into Lake Superior, while others, like the Apple, run southwest into the Mississippi River. Still other rivers, like the Rock, run south into Illinois.

Geographic Regions of the State

Wisconsin is divided into seventy-two counties, with numerous cities, towns, and villages. Geographers, however, divide the state into five major regions: Eastern Ridges and Lowlands, Central Plain, Western Upland, Northern Highland, and Lake Superior Lowland.

The Eastern Ridges and Lowlands consist of 13,500 square miles running from Door County in the north to Walworth County in the south. This area is bordered on its eastern side by the Niagara escarpment (made of Niagara limestone), which extends all of the way across the country to Niagara Falls. Lowlands make up most of the region, and they consist of smooth plains and glaciated lakes. Green Lake, one of the most interesting of these lakes, is nestled in a glacial bowl. The lake is more than seven miles long, two and one-half miles across, and nearly three hundred feet deep. Viewed from atop the hills that surround it, the lake has the appearance of a Scottish loch.

The largest glaciated lake in the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands is Lake Winnebago. Its north-south axis extends for more than sixty miles, and at its widest point the Winnebago is twenty miles across. The Fox River connects Lake Winnebago with Green Bay to its north, and the state's heaviest concentration of industrial cities can be found along this river and the lake. Other prominent glacial lakes in the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands include the Oconomowoc group and the Madison chain of lakes. The latter consist of Kegonsa, Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Wingra.


Excerpted from Wisconsin Politics and Government by James K. Conant Copyright © 2006 by James K. Conant. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The character of the state 1
2 The Constitution 32
3 The legislature 56
4 The governor 91
5 The courts 116
6 Private interests and interest groups 137
7 Political parties and elections 160
8 The state budget and the budgetary process 188
9 Social welfare policy 211
10 Local government 241
11 State-local relations 266
12 Wisconsin in the federal system 290
13 Continuing traditions and emerging issues 318
14 Studying Wisconsin politics and government : a guide to resources 327
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