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Bilingualism Scott Walker Style

by JEFFREY SOMMERS and CHRISTOPHER FONS

With only three weeks left in Wisconsin’s historic recall election of Governor Scott Walker, a video has emerged with the potential to reverse the fortunes of this newly anointed star of the American radical conservative movement.

Serious lies have brought down many a politician, and Walker’s duplicity in his remarks to “divide & conquer” Wisconsin that was caught live with a new documentary about the decline of industrial America, may yet prove his undoing.

Many observers, such as former chief counsel to Richard Nixon, John Dean, have referenced what some hold to be Walker’s mendacity, asserting that the Governor’s “lying is notorious” with a style even “more Nixonian than even Richard Nixon himself.”  The implications are significant as Walker’s credibility diminishes with his former top aides immersed in scandal and under investigation by the District Attorney with computers seized by the FBI.

Politicians are famous for being taken down by their vanity. In this case Scott Walker permitted a documentary filmmaker to tail him, and as with so many who came before him eventually dropped his guard. In the process we discovered the different language and messages the Governor delivers to the public and his billionaire backers.

The two recordings of Walker, one with his billionaire and one in his televised address to the public following the outbreak of the 2011 protests shows a “bilingual” Walker deploying two entirely different “languages”: one for his billionaire backer, and one for the public that contradicts the message of the former.  The video with his billionaire funder has the Governor receiving an affectionate, bordering on amorous, hug from his Wisconsin patroness, Diane Hendricks, which surely will displease Mrs. Walker.  Ms. Hendricks is Walker’s biggest Wisconsin backer, having already given him $519,000 and permitting Walker to avail himself of her private plane for campaigning.

This encounter, and a recording of the Governor last year where he thought he was speaking about strategy with one of America’s notorious Right Wing funders, the Koch brothers, shows a sort of bilingual character to Walker, with a folksy, populist language deployed for the public, and another that is Machiavellian and servile with America’s power elite. These languages differ not only in style, but also in substance.

On the one hand, with the billionairess, Walker is asked if “we can work on these unions and become a ‘right to work state.’”  The Governor responds with “we are going to start in a couple of weeks with our budget adjustment bill” and the “first step” with labor will be to “divide and conquer” public and private sector workers.

Walker, to his word, then followed on his promise to Ms. Hendricks by removing the right of public employees to bargain on wages and benefits.  Additionally, were requirements for public unions to annually re-certify. What Walker failed to anticipate are the now famous/infamous (depending on one’s politics) Wisconsin protests that emerged in the winter and spring of 2011. Walker, quick to do damage control, made a televised address to the public after the protests erupted, then asserting that his budget adjustment bill “is not aimed at state workers and it certainly isn’t a battle with unions.”  Then reflecting his previously mentioned “divide & conquer” strategy to his billionaire backer, Walker states we are “not going after the private sector unions.”

This recent incident may be too much for Midwesterners, who although notorious for a German frugality also pride themselves on honesty and straightforwardness in their politicians.  In the video Walker comes off as sneaky, telling a billionaire that his strategy is “divide and conquer” while in public he had claimed the budget bill was about balancing the budget.  His utterance may stick in the craw of a public craving bipartisanship and solution-based politics given the turbulence that has emerged since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010.

Wisconsin, the state that spearheaded both progressivism and McCarthyism, has always been a bellwether for the nation. It reflected the 2010 national right turn with an election that brought Walker and a strong majority of Tea Party Republicans to the state house.  In power they have cut taxes for the rich, curtailed most collective bargaining rights for public employees, cut education at all levels and have declared the state “open for business.”  The policies have created a serious reaction, with unprecedented mass demonstrations and a wave of rarely used recall elections, a process by which elected officials can be made to stand for election before their term expires.  Yet, just as quickly as the fortunes of the radical rightwing Tea Party have risen, they seem to be just as rapidly falling.  The recall of Walker echoes this national trend as well; where polls for the Tea Party American Congress show record low levels of support for that institution.

There are only three weeks to go in this battle that nationally is being billed as a contest between big labor and big money.  Yet, the race is more nuanced, with only 13.3 percent of the Wisconsin workforce unionized, thus suggesting big labor no longer even exists.  Indeed, a majority of Walker’s opposition comes from non-union workers that are simply appalled by the corrupting influence of big money in politics that for them Walker has come to embody.  Conversely, not all Walker supporters are rich.  Many feel he mirrors their fiscal concerns as taxpayers under stress in a time of declining wages for the middle class.

As the race enters the final stretch Walker is neck and neck in a dead heat with his old rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a centrist who has sparred plenty with unions, but who is perceived as honest, even by many Walker supporters. Barrett is running on moderation and bringing an end to Wisconsin’s “civil war,” to use his term, along with a modest record of economic success the past fifteen months that follows much decline in the previous three decades of Wisconsin’s biggest city. Yet, Walker’s suburban and rural supporters see Barrett as too much reflecting ‘urban’ Milwaukee.  The recall’s symbolic importance is immense. If Walker prevails, his rightwing funders will maintain it as a victory encouraging them to go for a coup de grace against the labor movement.  Meanwhile, Walker’s opposition believes his defeat will be seen as a repudiation of politics reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, placed on the steroids of billionaire money in the present.  The electoral outcome of the June 5th recall will do much to inform campaign narratives in the United States generally as the country advances toward its Presidential election in November and thus is being closely watched by all.

At present, Scott Walker’s big money machine is outspending his opponent Tom Barrett by estimates of 3-5 to 1.  Walker’s billionaires are also outspending labor 20 to 1.  Meanwhile, the DNC (Democratic National Committee) seems to be taking a laissez faire approach to support of the recall that is at all odds with the urgency of the situation.  To be ungenerous, it reminds one of Stalin abandoning the Polish resistance to the Germans at Warsaw at the end of World War II.  For anyone wishing to add their voice (think Lincoln Brigade of Spanish Civil War) to the cause, please call the DNC at 202-863-8000 and request they send cash (reinforcements!) NOW!

Thank you!

JEFFREY SOMMERS is an associate professor of political economy & public in Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and visiting faculty at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.  He publishes regularly in outlets such as CounterPunch and the Guardian, and routinely appears as an expert guest in global news programs, most recently on Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk.  He can be reached at: Jeffrey.sommers@fulbrightmail.org

CHRISTOPHER FONS is a Social Studies teacher in Milwaukee and executive board member of the Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association (MTEA). He can be reached at fonsca@gmail.com

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