Hardly anyone outside of Wisconsin had ever heard of Kenosha before a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot by a policeman two weeks ago. The policeman, Rusten Sheskey, a seven-year veteran of the Kenosha Police Department, held Blake’s shirt as he shot Blake in the back seven times while Blake’s children waited in the car.
I had heard of Kenosha only because I had just finished reading a feature-length article in Harper’s magazine about how Kenosha county where, after having supported Democrats in almost every election for almost every office for forty-four straight years, voters had swung to President Trump in 2016.
Kenosha is critical in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. As Kenosha goes, so does the country. Democrats have to take back Kenosha and nearby Racine to take Wisconsin. And they have to win Wisconsin to beat Trump nationally. No wonder it’s called “the tipping-point state.”
Wisconsin, before voting Trump, would have seemed familiar to Canadians. In his article for Harper’s, James Pogue says: “Wisconsin had a homegrown tradition of political congeniality and soft egalitarianism that traced its origins to the days of Robert La Follette and the Progressives.”
Similar to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which the continent’s oldest community-owned professional sports franchise outside baseball, Wisconsin’s Green Bay Packers are the only publicly-owned, not-for-profit, major league professional team in the United States.
Why would a state, so seemingly familiar to Canadians, vote for someone that Canadians generally despise?
The answer is multi-faceted: dwindling union solidarity led to less involvement in the community and a diminished sense of pulling together; betrayal on the part of the Democratic Party; and a fading vision of the American Dream that promised opportunity.
Wisconsinites became disillusioned when both major parties agreed that what was good for the boardroom was good for America. The union jobs of Wisconsin, with the highest wages in America and therefore in the world, went south to states with right-to-work laws and weak unions.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement over the desperate opposition of labour groups and Midwestern Democrats. House majority leader Dick Gephardt called the treaty “a threat to our wages and our standard of living.”
President Obama, who had won industrial counties in Wisconsin by margins that Democrats hadn’t achieved in a generation, promised to expand labour’s organizing power with the Employee Free Choice Act. It was never passed.
Disillusioned, Wisconsinites looked for anyone outside the mainstream. Congressman Mark Pocan told James Pogue: “People thought at first, ‘Oh he’s going to fight China, this’ll help.’ Folks are realizing that no matter how much they thought that Trump was going to support them, it hasn’t turned out better.”
Now Kenosha is the focus of racial tension. Parts of the state are harshly segregated. According to one analysis of recent census data, the quality of life for black residents in Milwaukee and Racine is among the worst in the country.
Supporters of Black Lives Matter and armed young men descended on Kenosha on August 25 in what Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth described a “chaotic, high-stress scene, with lots of radio traffic and people screaming, chanting and running.”
In the mayhem, a Trump supporter, a white 17-year-old with an assault rifle from Illinois, killed two protesters and wounded a third.
President Trump defended the young killer on Monday, illogically claiming that he was acting in self-defense when unarmed protesters confronted the shooter.
Kenosha, a small city the size of Kamloops, will loom large in the upcoming presidential elections on November 3.