The Republican Party was founded from the remnants of a proto-socialist free love commune outside Ripon, WI
And other dispatches from an imperfect place that I love deeply
Top note: I originally published a different version of this piece in January of 2020, back when just a couple hundred people read this newsletter. I’ve always had a particular affection for it, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately so I revised it to reflect both this moment and some slightly evolved thinking on my part.
Also: This is the first time I’ve done a paywalled post. We’ll see how it goes. Free subscribers are getting a preview; paid subscribers should see the whole thing. If you’re enjoying it and are in a position to subscribe, thank you. This is my day job. If, however, you want to keep reading and you don’t have the $50 a year or $5 a month in your budget, just email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll comp you.
My wife’s Grandma Pearl was a farmer’s daughter from Marion, WI. Her Grandpa Howie was a plumber’s son from South Milwaukee. Howie fought in the South Pacific during the war, and then briefly lived in New York while waiting for his discharge paperwork. Pearl came up from Wisconsin for that stretch and together they house-sat a place across the way from St. John The Divine. At some point, Pearl’s parents came to visit, and the newly reunited young couple took them on a tour of the big city.
I never met my wife’s great-grandparents, but from everything that I’ve heard, they wouldn’t have been ones for making a big scene about bright lights or famous sites. My wife is of thoroughly nonplussed stock. At some point, the group found themselves outside of a large office building right around quitting time. Nobody can remember which building. What’s important was that all of a sudden, these four Wisconsinites were faced with a crushing wave of people— just hundreds of them streaming their way onto the street and towards the nearest subway station. Frank, the quiet farmer from the Shawano-Waupaca County borderlands, just stood there, staring them down silently. When he did speak, it was quietly but definitively, offering a single sentence before abruptly turning and walking the other way.
“Who… feeds…. these… people?”
This is an essay about rural White people in general, and rural White people in Wisconsin specifically. I offer it not because White cranberry farmers in Nekoosa are more worthy of attention than Hmong families in Wausau, Black teachers in Racine, Ho-Chunk doctors in Marshfield, Palestinian small business owners in Oak Creek or Mexican union stewards in Green Bay. It’s just that, for better or worse (ok, for worse) the political proclivities of rural White people have an outsized impact on our country. They are also, to be clear, a group of human beings whose stories do matter, even if they are too frequently told quite poorly. I’ll attempt to hold all of that in here— empathy, exhaustion, accountability.
It’s also worth noting that I have next to zero credibility on this topic. I’ve lived in Wisconsin for about fifteen years— an extremely short run by Badger State standards. That time has been solely spent in Madison and Milwaukee, which are the opposite of rural communities (“cities,” if you will). I am two generations removed from my family’s farming roots in South Dakota and Iowa, and though I can tell a story of my own Montana upbringing that would give me a measure of rural credibility, doing so would require me to selectively edit a good half of my growing up years. Most damningly, I lived on a student-run farm in college for a single month. In that month, every single one of our chickens got eaten by foxes. It was so bad.
This is all to say: I’m a suspect source here, but I do love this place, and at least I’m not the person responsible for this Saturday Night Live sketch (it’s a terrible sketch! almost impressively so!).
This likely goes without saying, but I am writing about rural White people in Wisconsin right now, two years after I first published this essay, because there is an election coming up, one that will be incredibly consequential for our state, and likely for the country as well. Ours is, for better or worse, one of the few states the rest of you are forced to pay attention to. I am sorry. Please let me know if you accept apologies in the form of dairy products.
Come November 9th one of the following outcomes will have come to pass:
Wisconsin will vote out its Democratic Governor, return its particularly cartoonish Republican Senator to D.C. (helping turn that chamber over to the GOP) and give Republicans in the Senate and State Assembly a veto proof ⅔ supermajority. Wisconsin will continue to keep its draconian abortion law on the books, our municipalities will be further starved of revenue, and dreams of positive change being enacted by both our State and Federal government will be dashed. We will not get to have nice things.
Democrats will win some of those races but lose others. Most of the bad stuff will still happen.
Democrats will have a great election day. The supermajority will be thwarted. We’ll elect our first Black U.S. Senator ever. We’ll return a kindly Egg Mcmuffin-eating school teacher to the Governor’s mansion… and still, the government will be gridlocked, most of the bad laws will remain in place and even a victory will feel a little bit like a loss.
We’re faced with this simultaneously dire and existentially underwhelming set of options both because our electoral system has always been rigged towards rural White people and because over the past decade the Wisconsin GOP passed laws and drew maps to take a structurally uneven playing field and tip it further askew. Their shenanigans have been widely criticized, but usually with a defeated shrug. Everybody from the left and the right has just assumed that the trick will continue to work, because there’s no way that rural White people will vote for anybody but Republicans. That’s true everywhere, after all. The only thing notable about this place, in most tellings, is how badly the game has been rigged.
But that’s not what’s actually interesting about Wisconsin. This state isn’t just another What’s the Matter with Kansas story about how rural and exurban White people “vote agains their interests'“ because of conservative media. Wisconsin’s story matters because it used to be a laboratory for what organizing in majority White places could accomplish for the common good, which makes it a interesting place to explore the question: What if rural White voters could be organized for justice and collective care again? What would that look like?