In just about a month, Scott Walker’s eight years as governor will end. There’s much to be learned from his rise and fall.
Political scientist Katherine Cramer explains Walker’s ascent in her 2016 book “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.” Beginning in mid-2007, Cramer attended and recorded scores of wide-ranging discussions at Wisconsin diners and truck stops.
Cramer defines “rural consciousness”: love of one’s community, coupled with the belief that city-dwellers have completely different values. She summarizes: “People in small-town Wisconsin [told me] that urbanites ignore people in rural areas, take in all of their hard-earned money, and fundamentally disrespect and misunderstand the rural way of life.”
Cramer’s data demonstrate that tax dollars tend to flow from big cities to smaller communities, not the reverse. The broad generalization about disrespect for rural communities overlooks the myriad family, friendship and business relationships between urban and rural Wisconsinites.
Smaller communities have a very legitimate concern: Their lifeblood has been manufacturing and farm-related jobs. Those have diminished drastically in America, while the population is ever-expanding.
In 1979, America had 19 million manufacturing jobs; today it’s about 12.7 million. The number of farms has dwindled from more than 6 million in the mid-1930s to about 2 million today. Globalization, automation, digitization and corporate acquisitiveness have done this, and will continue to do so.
What’s needed now is a strengthening of education and training in smaller communities, particularly for computer and service-related professional skills. Many politicians, however, have chosen to capitalize upon rural resentments, and to undermine, rather than build up, vitally needed education.
Enter Scott Walker into the governor’s race in 2010, the year the tea party started mindlessly raging at Barack Obama, affordable health insurance, and moderate Republicans (“RINOs”). Exploiting the resentment Cramer identified, Walker went on the offensive against “government” and “Madison,” using those words as pejoratives. He continued doing that for his eight years as governor.
Walker’s 2010 campaign promise of 250,000 new jobs went unfulfilled. Public education lost many outstanding teachers, as Walker increased teachers’ health care costs and took away their collective bargaining rights. His quest to undermine the University of Wisconsin’s mission and reputation earned him two different PolitiFact “Pants on Fire” ratings.
Walker turned away nearly $1 billion of federal Medicaid funding; his attorney general joined the lawsuit seeking to dismantle the Affordable Care Act entirely.
During Walker’s eight years, neighboring-state Minnesota had its partisan political battles, but forged enough consensus to significantly surpass Wisconsin in economic growth, job growth, wages and health care coverage.
Some former Walker supporters turned away, seeing Wisconsin’s needs taking a back seat to Walker’s ambition.
Peter Bildsten, a former Walker Cabinet member, is one. He wrote an essay titled “I Respected Scott Walker. Then I Worked for Him.” He traces Walker’s downfall to his high-flying quest for the presidency that crashed and burned. Bildsten writes: “[Walker] took more far-right positions, probably because he thought they would play well with the [national] Republican base. Funding for public education and our University of Wisconsin System was cut dramatically. Our infrastructure continued to deteriorate to the point that we ranked 49th in the nation in the quality of our roads and bridges.”
And then there was Walker’s Foxconn fiasco, with its wildly overinflated claim of 13,000 new Wisconsin jobs (note the post-election updates), its pro-pollution permissions, and its crushing burden on taxpayers, who will be shelling out huge sums to this technology giant well into the 2030s.
Singing the song of resentment, Walker received a 53.1 percent share of the gubernatorial vote in 2010; it slipped to 52.3 percent in 2014. On Nov. 6, voters in urban and suburban areas, angered by Walker’s cuts to UW and the public schools, turned out in extraordinary numbers to support educator Tony Evers. Walker’s vote share tumbled to 48.4 percent.
Nelson Mandela reminded us of this proverb: “Resentment is like drinking poison, and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Resentment doesn’t put food on the table, provide health care, repair roads, protect the environment, or educate us for the global world.
On Jan. 7, Wisconsin gets a fresh start. We’ve sent a message to our elected officeholders: Stop playing the politics of resentment; instead, support education, reset spending priorities, and clean up our environment. Let’s make sure those we’ve just elected have listened carefully.
Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist and family medicine educator in La Crosse.
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