State Phobia, Then and Now: Three Waves of Conflict over Wisconsin’s Public Sector, 1930–2013


While state legislative rollbacks of public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and other US states in 2011 appeared to signal an unprecedented wave of hostility toward the public sector, such episodes have a long history. Drawing on recent work on “governance repertoires,” this article compares antistate initiatives in Wisconsin in 2011 to two previous periods of conflict over the size and shape of government: the 1930s and the 1970s. We find that while small government advocates in all three periods used similar language and emphasized comparable themes, the outcomes of their advocacy were different due to the distinct historical moments in which they unfolded and the way local initiatives were linked to political projects at the national level. We explore the relationship of local versions of small government activism to their national-level counterparts in each period to show how national- level movements and the ideological, social, and material resources they provided shaped governance repertoires in Wisconsin. We argue that the three moments of conflict over the size of government are deeply intertwined with the prehistory, emer- gence, and rise to dominance of neoliberal political rationality and can provide in- sight into how that new “governance repertoire” was experienced and built at the local level.

Social Science History