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The “Wisconsin Idea” Strikes Back!  Scott Walker Loses, Truth and the Human Condition Wins!

Photo Source Richard Hurd | CC BY 2.0

Early morning November 7th delivered jolly good news for Wisconsin. Butler (and sometimes Pinkerton) to Wichita’s dirty oil and coal billionaire Koch Brothers, Governor Scott Walker, lost his re-election bid. Late Tuesday night, Rick (aka, “Speculum”) Santorum, sallied forth with a hurrah that GOP Scott Walker was an “unkillable Zombie” on track to win again! With over 97% of the vote in, Walker looked to have another race in the bag in once progressive Wisconsin. But, then 45,000 absentee ballots from urban Milwaukee County came to the rescue, thus knocking off Santorum’s zombie.

The Dairy State has a proud progressive pedigree. It gave birth to the once anti-slavery progressive Republican Party in 1854. During the tragic Civil War, Wisconsin had the highest percentage of any state’s men enlisting on abolitionist grounds. Wisconsin helped give rise to the Progressive movement that overturned the Gilded Age and made government more rational and less special-interest based. Wisconsin served as an incubator for policies advancing the social interest, such as Social Security. Last, but not least, its public land grant university, the University of Wisconsin, was built on the noblest of ideas. It’s hard to imagine today when university presidents are chiefly occupied as: 1) fundraisers flattering the rich in hopes of securing donations and 2) assuring the state’s George Babbitts serving in the State Assembly that the business of the university is strictly business.  But, in 1905, University of Wisconsin’s President Charles Van Hise gave voice to the Wisconsin Idea. Van Hise defined the University’s highest as “searching for the truth” and “improving the human condition.”

Enter Scott Walker. Elected in 2010, this former college dropout whose professors commented on general boredom and lack of curiosity, made it his business to use the Governor’s pen to strike out the language of “truth” and “improving the human condition” from President Van Hise’s University of Wisconsin mission statement, and replace it with “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” In short, “truth” and “improving the human condition” were switched out with subsidizing job training for private business. The state’s George Babbitts were delighted, as would be the Khmer Rouge or Nikita Khrushchev with this practical, no nonsense “mission” for the university.

Walker was bested by Tony Evers, a life-long teacher and school superintendent. Evers exudes a midwestern nice guy earnestness. Moreover, having survived a bout with esophageal cancer, he’s uncharacteristically thin for a diary “stater.” Consequently, Evers looks like a teacher who walked off of an early 20th century Norman Rockwell painting, further contributing to his idealized archetypal Midwestern character.

Yet, Wisconsin has a dualistic character. While it has delivered the progressive traditions enumerated above, it has also given us reactionary figures like “Tail Gunner” Joe McCarthy and John Birch. Moreover, on the fault lines of race, it has frequently failed its progressive traditions. Yet, what forces gave rise to Scott Walker in a state that on balance has been more progressive than not? Events of the 21st century provide the answers.

In 2000, having lost the US election by 500,000 votes, the Republican Party seized the Presidency by contesting the election in Florida. That election night, an irregularity with the ballot type (‘butterfly ballots’ provided the pretext). The terrain selected for this electoral theft was brazen: West Palm Beach. A location disproportionately populated by elderly liberal Jewish retirees, the ballot’s confusing structure led many of these voters to select Right-wing Catholic stalwart and former President Richard Milhouse Nixon speechwriter, “Lock ‘n’ Load,” Patrick Buchannan. Buchannan preceded Donald Trump’s working-class racist nationalism political campaign by 2 decades. Buchannan, normally a “straight shooter” when nothing is at stake, appeared on the election night’s news programs and laughed off the idea that these voters were his. Yet, 24 hours later, as the stakes became evident (the Presidency of the United States) he fell into line and took orders from the GOP’s chain of command that he owned these votes. This, combined with a United States Supreme Court majority appointed by past Republican Presidents, meant the Presidency of the United States would be stolen. The Democratic Party acquiesced to this theft for reasons which the reader can decide whether they were national unity or cowardice. Thus, emboldened by their success, the GOP went for more.

Four years later, another close Presidential contest came down to one state deciding the election: Ohio. Ohio’s election was as mess. Hackable Diebold electronic paperless voting machines were frequently used. Voter suppression methods targeted at urban black communities. A solid, but at present, unprovable, case, can be made that this election too was stolen. The “known, knowns,” however, were that GOP voter suppression measures were in full force.

2008 saw the election of President Obama. The margin of his victory was too large to contest. But, the GOP responded by working to mute possible progressive legislative proposals, which were not forthcoming anyway. By 2010 the GOP regrouped, organized the Tea Party anchored in racist nationalism and doubled down on voter suppression through voter ID laws, scrubbing voter rolls, engineering ballot shortages in select (read: black) communities. This voter suppression strategy (branded as ‘voting integrity’) has seen two past state GOP Chairman (Florida and Pennsylvania) admit to its obvious purpose. Control of the franchise was further mounted in 2010 by the Supreme Court’s Orwellian titled “Citizens United” ruling that cash equals speech in elections, thereby coming under 1st Amendment protections.

2010 continued as a watershed year for the GOP and Walker’s war on democracy. Republicans gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure legislative control even in states where they lacked popular electoral majorities. Gerrymandering was used to devastating effect in its 2012 trial run in Wisconsin, in which Obama’s overwhelming electoral win was matched by the GOP taking 60 of WI’s 99 legislative seats with only 48.6% of the state’s popular vote.

Scott Walker used the above tactics to full effect to gain and maintain control of Wisconsin. Declaring himself the state’s CEO, with all that implies, instead of a public servant, Walker employed the full GOP panoply of voter suppression “tools” (as he was fond of referencing his democracy suppressing policies) and torrents of billionaire cash, both from in state and out. His 8 years in power saw use of loyalty tests (not signing petitions against him) to intimidate opponents. As former chief counsel for President Nixon, John Dean, said of him, “Walker is more Nixonian than Nixon.” Yet, unlike Donald Trump who uses air horns to broadcast his thuggery, Walker favored dog whistles to both communicate his extremism to his authoritarian base, while appearing moderate to others. This recipe kept Walker in power for 8 years.

Yet, Tuesday’s election emphatically asserted that the Wisconsin Idea is alive and back. To its enemies, consider yourselves on notice. Wisconsin is watching and will fight to search for the truth and improve the human condition!

 

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Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public Policy in the Department of African &African Diaspora Studies and a Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model.

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