Scott Walker’s Failure, Progressive Wisconsin’s Win: Milwaukee’s 2020 Democratic Party Convention

Still smarting from their Wisconsin gubernatorial loss, Scott Walker’s chief publicist/polemicist, Christian Schneider, advanced an Op-Ed last week in the Washington Post  in response to the Democratic Party’s Milwaukee placement of their 2020 convention. The Op-Ed reads like an attempt to position Walker for a political comeback. Milwaukee’s convention threatens Walker’s political future, because despite Milwaukee’s failings, many parts of the city are presently thriving. Walker built his political brand attacking Milwaukee’s progressive past and blowing hard into his dog whistle that called racist voters to his side. John Dean, Richard Nixon’s former chief counsel has called Scott Walker “more Nixonian than Nixon.” A humorless man bereft of the vices that make people interesting, Walker only knows and cares about the algebra of power. It is clear his only goal is to recapture political office. Having only barely lost the 2018 gubernatorial contest by 30k votes, he sees his return readily within reach. The Democrats’ convention will counter his narrative of a city taking the rest of the state down that Walker has disgracefully crafted in the past. Thus, last week, in a typical Nixonian move, Schneider was given the task of taking down the convention, thus leaving Walker above the fray to smile and declare the news of the convention good for the city.

Scheider’s Washington Post Op-Ed attacking Milwaukee and the convention presented 3 themes: 1) Wisconsin leans conservative, not progressive, therefore don’t expect this convention to do the Democrats any favors for the 2020 Presidential contest. 2) Governor Walker delivered a set of policy victories that show progressive policies will be unpopular in Wisconsin. 3) That Scott Walker should take the victory lap for landing the Dems’ 2020 convention, since he supported funding construction of the conference venue.

First, Schneider declared the common wisdom on why Dems lost Wisconsin is wrong (i.e., Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failure to visit WI during the campaign), even while being half right for reasons he does not understand. It’s not that Wisconsinites dislike ‘progressive’ Clinton. It is that they dislike ‘third-way’ DNC establishment Hillary. It’s possible that visits to Wisconsin by HRC’s Hamptons and Hollywood campaign during the general election might not have pushed her to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue via a Wisconsin win. Schneider, however, fails to mention that HRC visited Wisconsin in the primary campaign, only saying she failed to visit in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. It’s the kind of language parsing Walker’s people rely on to construct false narratives, yet maintain plausibility in being able to later deny. The reason HRC’s visit during the general election might not have helped win Wisconsin, however, is because she was indeed unpopular in WI, where Bernie Sanders beat her by a whopping 13% in the primary. Moreover, Jill Stein (considered by many to the left of HRC, regardless of whether one likes her or not) took enough votes from Clinton in the general election to allow Trump’s victory. In short, Wisconsin is strongly “progressive” (contra Schneider’s assertion) even if also strongly conservative. In Wisconsin, it is the political center that is weak. Clinton failed the day in 2016 not because she was considered progressive, as Schneider hints, but because she was considered not progressive at all.

Second, Schneider argues that Wisconsinites unlikely support a progressive agenda, given Governor Walker’s policy “successes.” Schneider asserts Wisconsinites will not support progressive policies, such as Medicare for All, because such a high number of Wisconsinites already have healthcare. Scheider’s alchemy, however, looks to spin gold out of his soggy wool. The reason so many Wisconsinites are covered by private health insurance is because the state was dead last (50th of 50 states) in new business startups Walker. New businesses often lack resources to insure workers. Wisconsin relies disproportionately on old industries for employment, thus a greater percentage of Wisconsin’s workforce in its entrepreneurially starved economy still have private health insurance as they work for legacy  industries. But, as businesses continue shedding costs, who knows how long health insurance will be provided by these older industries? The ‘known known’ is that co-pays and other costs keep rising and healthcare keeps getting less affordable. In short, the private health insurance model has been broken for decades and needs to be dispatched in favor of public provisioned healthcare.

Schneider also blames decades long socialist leadership of Milwaukee as having delivered only hardships to the city. First, under genuinely progressive leadership, Milwaukee re-elected socialist mayor Frank Zeidler by 72% in 1952. In 1958 Fortune Magazine labeled Milwaukee as the 2nd best run city (1st would have been too immodest for Wisconsinites) under socialist rule and wages remained 30% above the national mean even in 1970. Schneider blames progressive “regulation” for Milwaukee’s decline in the 1980s, when in fact the chief hit the city’s economy  took was was when Ronald Reagan moved to halt stagflation with a massive restriction of the money supply. This revalued the dollar upward, thus dealing a devastating blow to Milwaukee’s export-based industries, rendering them uncompetitive on global markets. Moreover, the GOP has been in charge of Wisconsin from the 1980s to present for much of that time, including with Scott Walker as former Milwaukee County Executive where he left a fiscal mess of deferred maintenance costs and slashed budgets for parks, workers and the needy.

Schneider also declares Walker delivered the stadium (the 2020 proposed DNC conference venue) making the Dem’s convention possible. While true that Walker never saw a giveaway to big business (e.g., Foxconn) or big contractors he did not like, the partially public-financed Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum had bipartisan support, even if progressives (such as the authors) opposed this massive deployment of public cash for a privately owned building.

By several metrics, Milwaukee is making a comeback, even though its return has not yet reached many of its minority communities and its white working class. Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP built their brand attacking Milwaukee and people of color. Controlling the narrative of the past and present is essential for their hoped for return to power. Walker and Schneider need to paint Milwaukee as a failed progressive city governed by socialists. Milwaukee’s recovery challenges that narrative, as what people will find if they learn about Milwaukee’s true progressive past (its socialist period).

Meanwhile, cheers to Milwaukee’s socialist past with cautious hope it might return. As for Scott Walker, let’s keep him in retirement…


Jeffrey Sommers is Visiting Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. Christopher Fons is a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher and member of the Executive Board of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA).