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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

MADISON, Wisc. — The fields of corn growing across the state looked knee-high by the Fourth of July, as they say here, but politics is parched in the heartland as Wisconsin prepares for another furious showdown in this fall election harvest. Call it a civil war, that’s what it feels like.

I knew this place as a girl. I love Wisconsin, but don’t know it anymore.

The blue-leaning state is already a major battleground in play in 2016, with presumptive presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump vying for very different voter bases. Clinton will court the two cities, Madison and Milwaukee, while Trump may concentrate on the rest of the state, branding and sneering at the city folk as elites and eggheads. He is the champion of making people hate each other, after all. And she is head girl of the elite.

Trump did not do well here in the primary, however, and the chair of the University of Wisconsin political science department, David Canon, expects Clinton to do “marginally better against Trump than the national result.”

South of the state capital, two native sons from the small, depressed town of Janesville, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democrat Russ Feingold, perfectly illustrate how far apart the two parties are.

Ryan, every inch the company man whose conscience cowers at Trump, can’t keep a neat House of Representatives. He has an unruly bunch of Republicans in the majority, and Democrats are beginning to show spirit, as they did staging a House sit-in on gun violence, which made Ryan fighting mad.

As senator, Feingold was the only one to vote against the Patriot Act. Bully for him. He’s running for the seat he lost in the tea party tempest six years ago.

For many — those who see Wisconsin as an enlightened state that produced Thornton Wilder, the playwright of the classic “Our Town,” dissenters who remember the campus anti-Vietnam War movement started on the shores of Lake Mendota and intellectuals who dwell on tree-shaded streets named after universities — there is a profound gulf with the rest of the largely rural small-town fabric of the state. Green Bay, for example, could not be more different than liberal, urbane Madison and the diverse, sturdy patchwork of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin can never be taken for granted, but current waters seem especially turbulent. In her insightful new book, “The Politics of Resentment,” Katherine J. Cramer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, interviews working-class people from the rural reaches of Wisconsin. She struck up conversations with some people at gas stations. She explains clearly how forgotten and ignored they generally feel, caught in an economic cauldron with hourly wage work or health care costs that make life harder to get by since the Great Recession hit eight years ago.

The economic downturn that President Obama inherited from the “war president” George W. Bush has left fingerprints on so many houses and families. As Cramer shows, people are still struggling and they resent others with more privilege and access to new rules in an ethereal economy. The Obama “recovery” has Wisconsinites asking, “what recovery?” When Trump speaks of free trade and lost jobs, he strikes a chord.

Like the Mississippi River that runs along its border, Wisconsin captures the cross-currents of the national stage better than anywhere. With hard-charging right-wing Gov. Scott Walker set to speak at the Republican National Convention, the state’s civil war will be on display. Walker is hostile to a pride and joy, the University of Wisconsin, bleeding under budget cuts, and to public employee unions.

The Progressive Party was founded here, about 100 years ago, to stand for fairness and squareness in the Midwestern tradition, especially toward the giant monopolies like Standard Oil. Collective bargaining was practically invented here. Senator John F. Kennedy served on a committee that chose Robert La Follette, a Progressive, as one of the greatest in Senate history.

But never forget that Communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, the senator who first exploited the anti-intellectual, paranoid and nativist steaks in American politics, also started here.

A remnant of the real Civil War hangs around Madison’s heart. It’s a comfort that famed Camp Randall, the UW football stadium, began as a place on the right side of the Civil War. Here Confederate war prisoners learned the Union was not for quitting.

Somehow that makes things better.

Photo: Unions workers (front) and various supporters hold up signs before a U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Hauck