Madison, Wisconsin: The Heartland’s Progressive Hotbed

Left-wing politics thrive in Wisconsin’s diverse capitol city

| May-June 1997

In 1946 The Saturday Evening Post portrayed Madison as “a town where Lincoln could have grown up in harmony with his surroundings, Galileo could have spoken his mind, and Demosthenes could have been mayor.” Fortunately for the folks who live, work, and play on the scenic isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, not much has changed since then.

The Midwest niceties of clean air and clean living lay an idyllic blanket over this town, while a tradition of progressive politics shapes its character. Indeed, Ralph Nader beat out Bob Dole for second place in the city’s central neighborhoods. The population of 200,000 may be largely white and middle-class, but diversity shows up in public office: Madison has had a black police chief, a lesbian judge, a female fire chief, a gay state legislator, and several city council members with disabilities.

Much of the town, which is Wisconsin’s capital, revolves around the 40,000-student University of Wisconsin, whose waterfront campus looks more like a resort than a hotbed of ‘60s radicalism. Left-wing politics is a time-honored tradition, though. Madison was a stronghold of the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, which set a tone for community activism that has a strong influence on city politics. .

Outdoor enthusiasts thrive in Madison. Bikes outnumber cars around town three to two, and trails of all kinds are plentiful: 150 miles for bikes, 100 miles for cross-country skiing. Sprawl is a serious problem, but activists and progressive officeholders are working to put the brakes on: There are plans to preserve expanses of green space on the edge of town, and a new development designed by planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk aims to recreate the compact, walkable feel of Old Madison out in the suburbs.



The model here is more Scandinavian than American, with an emphasis on excellent public services, top-notch public schools (where kids score 25 percent above the national average on SATs), higher-than-usual taxes, and an ample supply of community spirit.