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The state that shaped modern American politics in the early 20th century emerged this week as the chaotic symbol of the decline of American politics in the 21st century.

In 1906, Wisconsin introduced political primaries into American life. This week in 2020, the state’s presidential primary – held, incongruously, amid a stay-at-home order – became an international spectacle, mired in controversy, overshadowed by angry imprecations even as it exposed frustrated voters to COVID-19 contamination.

Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in full hazmat gear in Kenosha, Wis., on April 7, 2020.


The state that once led the nation in political innovation was the only state in this round of contests not to postpone its primary; with the withdrawal of Sen. Bernie Sanders from the presidential race, the remainder of the contests are but a formality. The one-time peaceable kingdom of Wisconsin was transformed into a range war with many of the raucous qualities of the frontier feuds that marked the American West.

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‘’This was a great laboratory for democratic ideas, and the ideas that came of Wisconsin had national impact,” said John Savagian, a historian at Milwaukee’s Alverno College. “The whole Progressive Era was driven by the idea of readjusting economic disparities and promoting political activity. We can no longer consider Wisconsin to be a progressive leader.”

And so a state where sober and serious-minded voters once strolled to polling places in tidy towns with a sense of duty, a feeling of responsibility and an air of rural rectitude, instead this week found itself convulsed in tumult, conducting perhaps the most physically perilous election in American history, with voters practising both social distancing and social protest in hopelessly lengthy lines winding around street corners.

The entire dark comedy may have been summarized by a woman in a homemade mask standing in her puffer vest in a line extended by social-distancing protocols. She held a handmade sign proclaiming the only thing Wisconsinites agreed upon this week: ”This is Ridiculous.”

Ridiculous – but the new reality in a state squeezed between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi and shaped by the Laurentide Ice Sheet that swept south from Canada.

And yet Wisconsin – whose 126 cheese plants produce more than 350 varieties, where 7,228 herds hold 1.26 million cows, where more than 30 billion pounds of milk are produced every year – always has stood apart from the rest of the country.

It once stood apart by virtue of the progressive movement begun by former governor (and later senator) Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, whose early 20th-century crusade – for workplace safety, labour laws and political innovations such as the primary, the recall of elected officials and broad public referendums – spawned a movement that swept across the country, molded American political figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis, and sent reform ripples into Canada.

Now it stands apart not for the purification of politics – a phrase that animated the early Wisconsin progressives – but for a peculiar politics of resentment and revenge. In that regard it reflects the United States as a whole, though with a red/blue division within the boundary of a single territory.

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The Wisconsin difference: the contemporary divisions in the state do not follow the rural/urban divides that are characteristic of American politics. In Wisconsin, the division is between the major metropolitan areas of Milwaukee and Madison (more ardently Democratic than ever) and the rest of the state (just as ardently Republican).

These changes were fuelled by redistricting in 2002 and 2011 that gave the Republicans firm control over the state legislature in a period when Scott Walker, who served as governor from 2011 to last year, introduced a muscular form of Republicanism into the state, battling government-worker unions and liberal redoubts in the huge public university in Madison. Indeed, the University of Wisconsin once was so much a part of the state’s political culture that links between it and the state government were known as the ‘’Wisconsin Idea.’’

In all of this the struggle between former vice-president Joe Biden and Vermont’s Mr. Sanders was but an irrelevant afterthought. The real stakes are in what might be a dress rehearsal for voter-suppression efforts in the general election: a state Supreme Court contest whose winner will cast the deciding vote in an upcoming voter-suppression case.

Though – consistent with Progressive Era traditions – the judicial election is non-partisan, Democrats favour Jill Karofsky while Republicans side with Daniel Kelly. The Republican calculation is that a small turnout in a time of coronavirus threat will give an advantage to Mr. Kelly, a Walker protégé. “The state legislature decided to put the health of its citizens at risk so they could win a Supreme Court seat they otherwise couldn’t,” said David Canon, a University of Wisconsin political scientist.

The winner of that contest will not be known until April 13. But in this cauldron of contention and confusion, Wisconsin has, as Mr. Savagian put, ‘’lost our progressive heritage.”

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