An Altered State: Wisconsin, Spring 2011

    Progressives knew that the state of Wisconsin was in for a rough ride when Scott Walker was elected Governor in November of last year.  By the time he took office, he had already killed plans for developing high-speed rail by refusing over $800 million in federal funds offered to connect Madison and Milwaukee. Even at that time, Walker's beholdenness to the road-builders' lobby, who had backed his campaign, was well known.
    It seemed to many of us then that we must suffer four years of retrograde legislation, in which we'd have to watch our state slide backward out of the 21st century, with little means of recourse, given total Republican control of our state government and the seeming inability of large numbers of Wisconsin voters to connect their rage with its appropriate targets.
    "The voters have spoken," the Republicans trumpeted.  Still many wondered if the November vote wasn't more a tantrum than any sort of coherent statement.  This, of course, did not keep the right wing from declaring a mandate to advance their radical agenda.
    Just how radical that agenda was we discovered on Friday, February 11th, when the Governor, ringed by heavy hired security, announced his plan to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining rights in the name of "repairing" the state budget.  The Governor declared flatly that there would be no room for negotiating with the unions.  This absolute position quickly became the flash point for massive rallies in support of the unions, a show of solidarity I'm sure must have come as an unwelcome surprise to the Governor and his foot soldiers in the legislature.
    That this all began in earnest a little less than three months ago defies credibility.  Since that time, we in Wisconsin have found ourselves in an altered state, barely recognizable from the one most of us have known all our lives.  During a solid month of record turn-out demonstrations at the Capitol, around the state, and in fact nationwide, all 14 of our Democratic state senators fled to Illinois for a couple of weeks to delay passage of Walker's disastrous Budget Repair bill.  These "Fabulous 14" crucially bought Wisconsinites time to examine the many controversial provisions of Walker's bill before the Republicans could railroad their budget package, in which many outrageously bad policies were hidden, without public debate. 
    In March, much of the mobilized action against the Walker administration shifted to a statewide movement to recall vulnerable Republican state senators complicit in foisting Walker's policies on an unsuspecting public.  At this writing, six districts have successfully filed recall petitions against Republican senators, as well as three against Democratic senators (for a perceived abdication of duty during their Illinois exile).  The Budget Repair bill itself, shorn of many of its financial features down to its anti-union core, is tied up in legal challenges. 
    While events run their course in the courts, polls, and ultimately in the lives of families and individuals threatened by the Republicans' destructive policies, we occupy what it would be a laughable understatement to call a "divided" state.  More accurately, we live in a state in which the social fabric has been ripped down the center, badly damaged, a nightmare, a kind of low-level civil war.
    When we ask ourselves whether it had to be this way, the answer is, of course not.  Arguably the kernel of the most sustained conflict has been Governor Walker's stubborn refusal to compromise.  As it turned out, the public employee unions were entirely willing to make requested concessions in pay and benefit in doing their part to address budget shortfalls.  But this wasn't good enough for Walker, who had by now painted himself and his fellow Republicans into a tight, non-negotiable corner.
    Finally, it wasn't about the budget at all, but about politics.  The Republican leader of the Wisconsin state senate, Scott Fitzgerald, admitted as much, telling Fox News on March 9th:  "If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you're going to find is President Obama is going to have a much . . . more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin."  Thus Governor Walker's partisan game plan stood starkly exposed:  Break the unions--traditional Democratic Party supporters--and break the Democratic Party.
    Later, on April 14th, at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings in Washington, Walker, when questioned by US Representative Dennis Kucinich over how much money ending collective bargaining rights actually saves the state of Wisconsin, admitted:  "It doesn't save any."  During that hearing, Walker reportedly maintained a cocky, smirking demeanor, his typical affect.  One might wonder if these matters are simply a game to him--indeed, his apparent lack of empathy for those whom his policies would injure, impoverish, or possibly even kill would seem to support such a conclusion.

    In these months of turmoil, I've often had occasion to invoke the Biblical saying, "Ye shall know them by their fruits."  The fruits of Walker in his still-brief tenure are polarization, division, discord, conflict, fear, and hatred.  All of these are, to one degree or another, intended consequences of the familiar divide-and-conquer strategy.  Governor Walker's evident willingness to set neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member, private sector worker against public sector worker, and $25-thousand-a-year earner against $50-thousand-a-year earner is surely one of his more reprehensible sins. 
    Still the Republicans' horrifying success in demonizing teachers and other public employees suggests a pathology extending far beyond any individual politician's personal hang-up.  I believe it exposes a psychological weakness in the public psyche that cannot be addressed in exclusively political terms.  An undermining of the American character has occurred since the Reagan era, which touted individual greed and conspicuous consumption over the common good and the frugality Jimmy Carter had recognized as necessary in a world increasingly threatened by scarcity.  One needn't think hard to draw a direct line of connection between President Reagan's dismantling of Carter-era solar panels at the White House and Governor Walker's refusal of federal funds to develop high-speed rail.  Both acts represent an appallingly short-sighted, even childish refusal to act on plainly evident facts (in this case, the predictable end of the oil economy).
    This matter of childishness may provide a key to the otherwise puzzlingly aberrant behavior of today's self-described "conservatives."  Old adolescent resentments against teacher authority figures may be a psychological driver of the attack on teachers' unions and on education in general.  An element of childish ingratitude must certainly power the poisonous hostility toward teachers and unions.  This childishness coupled with an unseemly ignorance of history may explain as well the present inability of some of our fellow citizens to recognize and protect the rights that labor unions have gained for American workers, in both public and private sectors.
    For ingratitude, childishness and ignorance no one can top the Tea Party, whose attention and approval Governor Walker obviously craves.  Almost every policy decision he puts forward is a transparent attempt to strengthen the extreme right-wing segment of his constituency (not least his Tea Party funders, the multi-billionaire Koch brothers).  Like spoiled, self-centered children, this minority constituency vocally insists on lowering taxes at the expense of crucial social services, regardless of the harm to their most vulnerable neighbors. 
    I hold the current vogue in Tea Party circles for libertarian novelist Ayn Rand as evidence of that regression.  When I was in college in the 1960s, Rand's philosophy of radical self-interest enflamed undergraduates, most of who sensibly left Rand's tomes in the dumpster with their discarded dorm furniture.  Wisconsin Republican congressman Paul Ryan's admiration for Rand might be charming in a precocious 13-year-old who knows nothing of life, but in an influential national legislator it is dangerous naiveté.  Conservative columnist Michael Gerson admitted in a recent op-ed piece appearing in the Minneapolis StarTribune on April 24, "The appeal of Ayn Rand to conservatives is both considerable and inexplicable."  He adds that Rand "cherished a particular disdain for Christianity."  Conservative Christians, take note.

    In his book of social criticism, The Sibling Society, Robert Bly presciently warned that childishness would erode civilized standards hard-won over millennia of disciplined struggle.  Republicans' increasing readiness to sacrifice democratic principles to money and power represents a giant step backward to a cruder stage of ethical development.  The libertarian selfishness so enshrined by the American Right has been viewed by most (ironically labeled) "primitive" societies as immaturity best cured by initiation into an adult community identification.  Scott Walker's crass Open for Business slogan now greeting travelers to Wisconsin dishonors the mature values championed by ethically aware Wisconsinites such as Fighting Bob La Follette, Gaylord Nelson, and Russ Feingold, among many others.  In fact, it may be viewed as a symbolic slap in the face of our recent ancestors who worked, sacrificed, and sometimes died to create a more equitable, just society. 
    These ruminations found a focus one day in mid-February when I traveled on an AFSCME-sponsored bus to one of the huge rallies in Madison.  Our connecting point and base in Madison was the impressive Masonic temple a few blocks from the Capitol.  Surrounded by labor supporters in that building's spacious auditorium, singing along with the great old union songs "Union Maid" and "Solidarity Forever," I vividly recalled my grandfather, Harry Smith, both a Mason and a union paper mill worker in my home town of Cornell, Wisconsin, and felt a sudden closeness to him, his life and concerns, like none I'd ever felt before. 
    Being there in that place at that time, amid that up-welling of honest alarm and outrage, was deeply nourishing on an emotional level.  I knew not a single soul among those thousands, yet had bonded with them in a powerful common purpose.  It was as though, out of the fog of our prevalent societal selfishness and distraction, a sun-lit mountain peak had suddenly become visible.  What I glimpsed that February day at the Madison Masonic temple was a standard of adulthood largely lost to us in a consumer society that encourages infantile self-preoccupation at the cost of a generative commitment to the common good.
    I believe that on the whole our grandparents' generation saw that mountain more clearly than we do.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., brought down while defending the Memphis sanitation workers' rights, even visited its summit.  How far from that height, how lost in the fog is smiling Paul Ryan, making nice with his ingratiating good-boy act, while hawking his Rand-ian plan to remove that safeguard of old age, Medicare, thus placing seniors at the mercy of the health insurance corporations.  How far from that height smirking, arrogant Scott Walker, in an unguarded moment discussing over the phone with a cunning David Koch impersonator ideas about discrediting the union cause by planting "troublemakers" in the Madison crowds.  Are these not acts of profound ingratitude to all who fought and even gave their lives to free Americans from fear and want?
    Certainly in the pushback against Walker there are larger matters at stake than simply labor rights, important as they are.  Walker's Budget Repair Bill is in sum a concentrated right-wing attack on the public sphere, from no-bid sales of municipal power plants to a catastrophic defunding of public education.  The "Republican war against education," which Ruth Conniff writes about chillingly in the April Progressive, is an orchestrated, amply funded assault on one of the pillars of American democracy (and uncoincidentally, no small impetus for the turn-out for the Madison demonstrations). 
    In fact, generalizing from Wisconsin to the nation as a whole, we could say that the sea-change of the past year has been the Republicans' abandonment of the formalities of bipartisan governing in favor of a nakedly eliminationist stance toward its old opponent.  Egged on by the Tea Party, the Republicans have effectively declared war on the Democratic Party, foolishly seeking to destroy its base of support in dreams of permanent Republican rule.  The Republican Party is hell-bent on a coordinated effort of unprecedented scale to dismantle the New Deal, in fact, as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson has put it, to repeal the 20th century. 
    With so much corporate money--loosed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling--mobilized to subvert fundamental democratic rights and institutions, let's hope that this winter's awakening of what Michael Moore called a "sleeping giant" is just that, a "Wisconsin Spring" echoing the Arab Spring that overthrew tyranny in Egypt and Tunisia.  Let's hope that 2011 indeed turns out to be a year of national uprising against the less visible masters pulling the strings of Governor Walker and the other radical governors who would replace democratic rule with corporate rule.  And finally we may hope to count among history's ironies this awakening as Walker's most lasting, if unintended, achievement.

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