How Walker Really Won Wisconsin
What the Rest of the US Must Learn
Much ink has been spilt and punditry hot air vented in explaining the failure to recall Scott Walker in this week’s election. Yet nearly all of it fails to address the appeal of Scott Walker and his policies for much of Wisconsin’s working and middle class. Walker was able to capitalize on the frustration over the continued erosion of living standards and insecurity felt by most Wisconsinites. Walker provided a false empowerment to the electorate by transforming them from victims to owners of the system. His campaign rebranded the electorate as “the taxpayer” or veritable stockowners of a company they owned: government. The people would take charge of their lives through a Walker-led movement against government waste by union and bureaucratic “elites.” Walker’s campaign thus took on the hue of a liberatory project.
While the conventional explanations for Walker’s victory have some merit, they fail to explain the nature of victory or the true threat his strategy presents. To be sure, Walker and his billionaires were able to massively outspend their opponents. The peculiarities of the recall election laws and the US Supreme Court’s Citizen Action case permitted him to rain down endless weapons against the Democrats. The Republican National Committee deployed the full weight of their resources on Wisconsin; while the Democratic National Committee was largely AWOL, appearing only at the end to witness Walker deliver the coup de grace to his opponents. It was a historic betrayal of Wisconsin progressives they will not soon forget.
On strategy, Walker’s campaign was a fairly typical deployment of the Powell Doctrine (itself taken from Harry G. Summer’s musings on strategy following the US’s Vietnam debacle) to use overwhelming force against an opponent. Walker’s campaign carpet-bombed media with non-stop television and radio commercials for a half-year. Meanwhile, they positioned what seems to be an army of professional bloggers to control comment forums in the local press. In effect, they crowded out the public and often aggressively spread outright falsehoods on these sites, thus moving the Internet from a place of democratic dissent to use as a tool for reactionary power. This itself represents a major turn in the management of public opinion.
Ultimately, however, the bottom line is that Walker was able to capitalize on the very crisis and long-term economic decline Republicans helped engineer over the past thirty years–with no small help from the Democrats. UCLA’s Robert Brenner described how the Republicans managed to jujitsu the crisis of the 1970s to the GOP’s advantage by turning people’s economic distress over declining living standards to electoral victory. The key was to shift the public’s concerns over the private economy and move them onto government. Ensuring that wage increases match levels of economic growth in the economy is difficult. It requires organizing and unions. In the US only a minority of workers have ever been unionized. This made it difficult to address stagnant wages during the 1970’s crisis, but still possible with union efforts. The GOP innovation was to provide an easier route to fattening one’s wallet: tax cuts. This was first achieved in 1978 through Proposition 13 in California that slashed property taxes, thus providing short-term relief to taxpayers. While people could not control their wages (at least not easily) they could determine their level of taxation, and thus their take home pay. The long run cost of this delusion was the destruction of the state’s educational and transportation infrastructure. Before Proposition 13 California’s schools were ranked number one in the US. They are now typically ranked in the bottom 10% and California’s finances are a mess.
Reagan successfully campaigned, and rode to victory on this model in 1980. Scott Walker has privately declared he takes his inspiration from Reagan. Walker asserted in his now notorious Koch call that Reagan’s strike against the PATCO union workers early in his presidency was his defining moment in office and history. Walker emphasized that this was vital not only to reign in labor, but also to demonstrate to the Soviets that Reagan was no pushover. In Walker’s view curbing labor and displaying his resolve (others say intransigence) are the keys to understanding his agenda and his unwillingness to back off. If Walker survives the John Doe investigation he might be under, he will simply roll over the compromise inclined Democrats and advance his program at any cost. And, he has the financial means to do it.
Yet, Walker, while committed and smart, is hardly deep. His understanding of economics, history, and politics are thin. While he takes at face value the narrative of tax cuts as the key to Reagan’s success, he fails to recognize that Reagan gave up on the cost cutting enterprise as hopeless within two years of assuming office. Indeed, Reagan’s early austerity policies further depressed the economy. Thus, Reagan “corrected” and launched a massive military Keynesian debt-fueled binge that pulled the economy from its torpor. Meanwhile, given the US success in 1970s of getting oil priced in dollars, Reagan was able to press the pedal to the floor on both government spending and the dollar printing presses alike. As Dick Cheney infamously noted, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” For Scott Walker, however, “the Gipper” was an austerity icon.
Walker is in for a rude shock when he discovers his austerity policies will only exacerbate recessionary conditions. With no Central Bank at his disposal to create dollars, he will be forced to either admit his error (not his strong suit) or launch even further divisive attacks to, in the fashion of the 1930’s USSR, that define and then hit out at “wreckers” responsible for undermining his policy. Further, in the fashion of Mao, he will launch an attack against educators as “elites” parasitically feeding off the people. Meanwhile, just as Reagan’s Director of the Office of Budget and Management, David Stockman, noted early on that it was “feeding time at the trough” for Reagan’s backers at the public trough. That too will continue under Walker’s billionaire, special interest funded Governorship. Walker’s hardcore followers, however, are zealots. They are aggressive in the extreme and will turn hard on all enemies when their ideology is exposed as a failure for not producing broad-based prosperity. Whatever motivates Walker, it is clear his hardcore supporters represent a kind of aggressive freikorps that one would find in the backrooms with Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon. What makes Walker dangerous is that at minimum he is comfortable in both attracting and using these elements, while he himself appears to many as a decent and reasonable person who much of the public would not imagine Walker associating with.
That said one has to understand Wisconsin in order to further appreciate the broader appeal of Walker’s message. Ironically, under the long Reagan Revolution that Walker has displayed fealty too, Wisconsin disproportionately suffered. For example, its urban workers had wages were 29% over the national average before Reagan took office. Presently, they are under the national average by roughly similar percentages. The Paul Volcker shock Reagan continued to kill inflation and made many of Wisconsin’s industrial exports uncompetitive as the dollar rose. Globalization and NAFTA then buried many of the remaining survivors. For this minister’s son from Wisconsin, however, these reasons are ignored for explaining Wisconsin’s economic decline. Walker instead defaults to the Reagan faith. The crisis is a consequence of government regulation and taxation: provide relief from both and the confidence fairy will return to Wisconsin.
Walker’s comic-book narrative is much easier to grasp than any serious economic analysis. Moreover, Walker is an effective salesman for it. He has carefully cultivated his image for years, presenting himself as the plucky working-class kid made good that still carries a brown-bag lunch to work. It’s a throwback to Frank Capra central casting, and the image works for a public generally desiring an honest politician they can identify with. Much of the suburban and rural population has bought into it. Rather than a tool of billionaires, Walker is perceived as the people’s hero that has enlisted the “job creators” (billionaires) to take on the special interests in the public sector. Thus, merely exposing Walker as on the hook to billionaires will not enlighten them to who he really represents.
Walker’s constituency desperately needs a hero. Who are they? Overwhelmingly, they were the white working classes with no college education. By and large they have lost these benefits. They may have not seen raises in years. The public sector is an inviting target for them. It’s one of the few places where the working and middle class still receive decent benefits (medical, retirement, etc.). This makes them suspect to a population that has largely lost these. Yet, rather than ask why they too no longer enjoy these, instead, Walker’s supporters want to know why the people in their employ (the public sector) still have them? Walker’s supporters largely assume that “we are broke.” They fail to recognize that the US economy is larger than it has ever been, but that wages have not risen with economic growth since Reagan. Everyone must tighten his or her belts. Moreover, the public sector has disproportionately people of color, thus playing on the racial divide.
On one level, Walker’s supporters are right. Medical benefits, as currently constituted in the US, are unsustainable. We pay twice per capita what most other industrial nations pay and we die far younger. Ranked 36th in the world on health outcomes yet 1st on cost, the system is unsupportable. Yet, for Walker’s supporters, we need to get off the lifeline to the state and all buy our own insurance. It has been a massive failure by labor to not see how this would lead to our present moment of a divided working class. For years labor and the Democrats should have been aggressively promoting and educating people on the need for a single-payer option for healthcare. Instead, they have facilitated an “empire strikes back” scenario.
In short, Walker has given voice to the working and middle classes so much hurt by the Reagan Revolution. The people have found their voice in Walker who skillfully and honestly, to his mind, articulates a narrative that resonates with Midwestern sensibilities of hard work and fairness. These concepts may have been distorted beyond all recognition to many observers, but to Wisconsin’s suburban and rural working class they have found their voice in Scott Walker. A ride through their neighborhoods reveals a veritable sea of blue yard signs declaring “I Stand With Walker!” Walker is a formidable candidate and better communicator than Reagan ever was. Analysts and pundits that dismiss his victory as one of simply money over the people do so at their and our peril.
Jeffrey Sommers lives in Wisconsin.