Robin Vos, a Republican state representative, was telling television talk show host Mike Gousha how he escaped the "howling and chanting" in Madison this weekend and retreated to his barber shop and bar in Burlington in southeast Wisconsin, where he says "real people" are fully backing him and Gov. Scott Walker.
But more than any talking head, the commercial that followed crystallized the cynical essence of recent days in Madison.
The black-and-white ad featured working-class faces and superimposed newspaper headlines about the economic downturn, asserting that public employees have made no sacrifices while ordinary people have suffered mightily. Concessions for workers at Harley-Davidson, Mercury Marine and Sub-Zero were all cited.
Somber music played. The narrator continued: "But state workers haven't had to sacrifice. They pay next to nothing for their pensions, and a fraction of their health care. It's not fair. Call your state legislator and tell them to vote for Gov. Walker's budget repair bill. It's time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us."
The ad was sponsored by Club for Growth Wisconsin, the far-right business group. When the corporate titans of Club for Growth gather, I'm guessing few in attendance resemble the weathered farmer, the African-American woman or the goggled blowtorch laborer depicted in the ad.
But we all know this is not really about looking out for the private sector little guy.
Nor is the Walker gambit and resulting mass protests that have put Madison on front pages, major websites and prime-time airwaves across the nation about balancing a budget, or making sure public workers pay a fair share for benefits. Nor is it really about the public collective bargaining process per se, important as that is.
Instead, this is about greedy and largely unseen corporate interests seeking to extinguish the voice of public labor unions. That's because those unions, quite inconveniently, provide the most important bulwark of campaign-season defense via volunteers and dollars against the corporate interests' unimpeded domination over elections. (This at a time when court decisions by right-wing judges, who corporate interests either helped elect or indirectly select, allow ever more shadowy and unattributed forms of campaign attack advertising as free speech.)
Evidence of all of this is plentiful. Beyond a group like Club for Growth Wisconsin, consider the role of Charles and David Koch, billionaire oil tycoons, who gave $43,000 directly to Walker's campaign and $1 million more to the Republican Governors Association, which spent millions attacking Walker's opponent, Tom Barrett. According to national media accounts, the Koch brothers despise organized labor and have spent freely to oppose unionism for years whenever their awesome wealth could influence outcomes.
Yes, unions like the Wisconsin Education Association Council do look out for teachers and are easily caricatured, but they also benefit all of us who care about some semblance of a level economic playing field between the rich and poor, about clean air and water, consumer protection, and reproductive and civil rights.
If the demise of public employee unions results in more and more Republicans being elected, will that make Wisconsin a better place for middle-class nonunion citizens with no direct stake in the Capitol Square tumult?
Of course not.
That is especially true given that today's Republicans, who seem as a group utterly devoid of the guiding sense of moderation, respect for others, and, well, basic intellect, that marked the eras of GOP governors with names like Knowles, Dreyfus and Thompson.
Oh, the corporate titans at the Club for Growth Wisconsin or Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce would likely keep their legislative focus where their members prefer: avoiding their fair share of taxes, blocking minimum wage efforts and preventing any "mandate" in environmental or workplace regulation they find inconvenient (it's all "red tape," after all). For them, it's always - and only - about the money.
Ah, but consider the collateral damage.
Their cynical success on economic fronts would raise the boats of a parade of social-issue extremists, the flat-earth types, who deny global warming and the scientific basis for evolution. The forces that oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest and do not want their kids learning about sex education.
A majority of people in this state do not support such views, but given the way Republicans pander to their noisy base, how likely do you think it is that reason and courage will prevail against the most extreme voices in the GOP? Yeah, right.
Robert Reich, the liberal economist and former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration, adroitly summarized the national landscape in an online analysis touching on Wisconsin protests:
"The Republican strategy is to split the vast middle and working class — pitting unionized workers against nonunionized, public-sector workers against nonpublic, older workers within sight of Medicare and Social Security against younger workers who don't believe these programs will be there for them, and the poor against the working middle class," Reich wrote.
"By splitting working America along these lines, Republicans want Americans to believe that we can no longer afford to do what we need to do as a nation. They hope to deflect attention from the increasing share of total income and wealth going to the richest 1 percent while the jobs and wages of everyone else languish."
He continues, "Republicans would rather no one notice their campaign to shrink the pie even further with additional tax cuts for the rich - making the Bush tax cuts permanent, further reducing the estate tax, and allowing the wealthy to shift ever more of their income into capital gains taxed at 15 percent."
Reich is spot on.
Republicans in this state and elsewhere are diabolically effective at pursuing their goals by driving wedges between ordinary people who actually have shared interests - union and nonunion, public and private, gays and straights, urban and rural, people with lots of formal education and those without, people of color and whites, those who practice organized religion and those who do not.
Driving wedges, in fact, is the single most important tactic in the GOP toolbox, but when the economic divide between the haves and have-nots is highlighted, as Reich attempts, they have the audacity to squeal about "class warfare" being waged upon them. For sheer deceit and duplicity, Machiavellian really doesn't cover it.
In the end, unless you're a wealthy industrialist or right-wing extremist bent on making Wisconsin unrecognizable to those of us who take pride in our progressive traditions of balanced government and social justice, there is only one right side in this fight. And that's with the unions, even if Robin Vos doesn't consider their members to be "real people."