Posts Tagged ‘Wisconsin’

How progressivism was defeated in its birthplace

November 6, 2019

Wisconsin is arguably the birthplace of progressivism in the United States.  At the dawn of the 20th century, that state enacted the nation’s first workers’ compensation law, its first unemployment insurance program, and the first recognition of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Under the leadership of the great Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state established direct primary elections, banned corporate contributions to political candidates and regulated railroad rates.

He forged a powerful political coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners, defending their interests against corporate monopoly.  In 1910, running for re-election as senator, he won 78 percent of the vote and carried all but one of Wisconsin’s then 71 counties.  After his death in 1926, his two sons carried on his legacy.  From 1901 until 1946, a La Follette was either senator from Wisconsin or governor of the state.

Wisconsin became known for the quality of its public schools, state university and public services.  Much of what was done there became the model for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The La Follette legacy was very much a living memory when I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-56.

Later Wisconsin became known as a leader in protection of the environment.  The state was the home of Aldo Leopold, the noted writer and advocate of soil and wildlife conservation, and Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, who was both governor and senator.

But in 2010, the voters of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker, an extreme right-winter as governor.  He pretty much wiped La Follette’s legacy off the blackboard.  And then, in 2016, Wisconsin’s choice for President was Donald Trump.

I read THE FALL OF WISCONSIN: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics by Dan Kaufman to try to understand what happened.

What I learned from the book is that Wisconsin’s rich and interesting political tradition is irrelevant to what happened.  Scott Walker is not a product of Wisconsin politics.  He was the product of a national right-wing movement that has been building for 40 years.

This movement consists of an interlocking network of corporate donors, tax-exempt foundations and think tanks whose agenda is restore corporate business to a position of dominance.  Their specific goals are tax cuts, budget cuts, reduced pubic services, no public welfare, deregulation of business and regulation of labor unions.  Their claim is that all these things will attract business investment and promote prosperity, but this didn’t happen in Wisconsin or anywhere else it was tried.

The key right-wing institutions mentioned in the book are (1) Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy arm of the billionaire Koch brothers, which among other things funded the Tea Party movement; (2) the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose “weaponized philanthropy” funds conservative think tanks, public interest law firms and opposition research firms; and (3) the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes model legislation to advance the corporate cause.

For them, winning elections is not a goal, but a means of enacting their agenda.  Leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell do not try to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, because the broader the appeal, the more their program would have to be diluted.

They prefer a narrow majority and an extreme program, which includes measures to lock in their power.  They recognize that, inevitably, the tide will turn against them.  Their calculation is that the tide will never go all the way back to where it was before, and meanwhile they will have left things in place that will help them make a comeback.

The problem is that there is no equivalent force to stand in their way.  There is no La Follette coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners left to defend the La Follette legacy..

All three groups have been losing ground, economically and politically, for decades.  None has a powerful voice in Madison (Wisconsin’s state capital) or Washington.  None of the three groups regards either of the other two as an ally or potential ally.

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Scott Walker’s Southern economic strategy

February 25, 2015

right-to-work-2Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is pushing through a right-to-work law, which gives workers protected by union contracts the right not to pay union dues.

It is part of an economic strategy copied from Southern states such as Alabama—to attract branch plants of industries headquartered elsewhere by means of low taxes, low wages and no labor unions.

The price of the strategy is low educational levels, low public services and deteriorating infrastructure—all the things that make a state attractive to entrepreneurial, high-tech and high-wage enteprise.

I think the Walker strategy is a bad one because Wisconsin can’t out-impoverish states like Mississippi, and the USA as a whole can’t out-impoverish nations like Bangladesh.  Even if we could, would we want to?

What we Americans as a nation need to think about is how to add value, and how to distribute the benefits among the working people who create value.

Scott Walker has been a highly successful politician, and looks to be a strong presidential candidate, by distracting attention away from these questions.   Instead he encourages people who are floundering economically to focus their resentment on their neighbors who still have union jobs and good wages, and away from the tiny economic elite who benefit from the low wage, high unemployment economy.

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Who’s writing the laws?

March 31, 2011

William Cronon is an outstanding historian on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin.  I own two of his books, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Both made me see the relation of history to geography and the natural world in a new way.

William Cronon

Recently Prof. Cronon turned his attention to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislative program, and found some interesting things about where they’re coming from.  Among other things, he found that the laws of Wisconsin are being drafted by an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council. I never heard of it before, but evidently it has been drafting model legislation for conservative legislators for 40 years, and claims a good success rate in getting its ideas enacted into law.  Proposals such as Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting law don’t come out of nowhere.  They are part of a concerted nationwide effort.

As Cronon emphasizes, there is nothing wrong with people banding together to advance a political program they believe in.  The rise of the conservative movement in the United States in the past 50 years is a remarkable success story, and worthy of emulation by those of us who want to move the country in a different direction.  At the same time, I wonder why I never heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Cornon posted his findings on his new web log.  I won’t try to summarize his post.  Click on Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here) to read it.   I strongly recommend reading the post in its entirety.

Wisconsin’s Republicans haven’t taken Cronon’s writings lightly.  The Wisconsin Republican Party has used Wisconsin’s Open Records Law to subpoena any of Cronon’s messages on his university e-mail account that may relate to Republicans and politics; they won’t say why.  Click on A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin for the New York Times comment on this.

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The shock doctrine in Wisconsin

March 2, 2011

Naomi Klein in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine described how right-wing ideologues in control of lending institutions and governments took advantage of crises to enact policies that people never would accept in normal times – wage cuts, curtailment of public services, curtailment of worker and consumer protection and the sale of public assets.

This fits what Gov. Scott Walker is attempting in Wisconsin and other Republican governors are trying in their own states.  Here is a quote from Walker’s budget bill, the same bill that curtails the rights of public employee unions.

“Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).”

As I read it, the language of the bill gives Walker the power to sell off Wisconsin public assets at bargain prices to cronies or campaign contributors at next to nothing.  This is not conservatism, libertarianism nor laissez-faire capitalism in the historic meanings of those words. As Naomi Klein says, the proper name for this is corporatism.

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