by Scott Walker with Marc Thiessen
Sentinel HC, 2013, 288 pp.
Unintimidated: Wisconsin Sings Truth to Power
Edited by Barbara Lee With, Nicole Desautels, and Leslie Peterson
Mad Island, 2013, 64 pp.
Readers of Dissent are unlikely to be newcomers to Wisconsin’s recent political saga, including the uprising of 2011, the failure of the 2012 recall campaign, and the subsequent legislative assault on women’s rights, labor rights, and the environment. With oddball events unfolding week by week, however, they may easily have lost track, the way most Americans generally do, merging events and personalities of the Midwest into a vast expanse of middleness, broken up only by Chicago and Detroit. The region used to be symbolized by the Big Ten, but the shutdown factory and the corporate farm are by now more representative.
Prominent American conservatives have not forgotten Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker is a great favorite of Rush Limbaugh, as he rushes to tell us on the back cover of Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. Rush competes for the most flowery tribute blurb with Paul Ryan and Nikki Haley, two possible contenders for cabinet appointments in a Walker White House. (The governor has recently suggested that he considers himself an ideal GOP nominee for 2016 and cannot promise to fill out a second term in Wisconsin.)
A minister’s son, Walker proceeded from a small-town background to Marquette University, where he was criticized harshly by the college newspaper for the dirty tricks he employed in his campaign for class president. Whether he actually quit school or was asked to leave remains unknown (he has declined to make his transcript public), but his student election shenanigans were evidently the precursor to a political career on the dark side. He rose through the ranks of the state Republicans, forging deals with lobbyists while making extravagant moral claims for himself and his mission. Campaign financing violations in his days as Milwaukee County Executive nearly caught up with him several times and may yet do so; they have already sent three of his key aides to jail (the most remarkable incident involved theft from a veterans’ fund by a Walker protégé caught with child pornography). State prosecutors’ recent seizures of computers hold promise of more scandals and potential indictments involving Koch-connected money transfers by assorted conservative funders.
Walker leaves his suburban Milwaukee home for the state capitol and the governor’s mansion less often than for personal appearances and fundraisers across the country. Meanwhile, the legislature carries out his mission, or rather, the tasks proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Unintimidated is not edifying in the usual sense. As with Paul Ryan, who as a vice presidential candidate insisted that the whole idea of a protective government role in Wisconsin had been spawned by immigrant professors during the 1950s and ’60s,* Walker’s apparent ignorance is pretty staggering. His semi–ghost writer, Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, adds no depth, and fact-checking on social media and in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has turned up repeated “pants on fire” claims. But facts don’t appear to be a priority for Walker, whose conception of political history reaches back only a few short years, to a time when unions were allegedly driving taxpayers and business into the ground. The governor promises a similarly short time frame before his policies will bring about prosperity and hope. He even skips over the usual bosh about the Founding Fathers, unless Ronald Reagan is considered part of the pantheon.
The most intriguing claim of the book, certainly the most flattering for the citizens of the Badger State, is that Occupy began here. Few of us on the scene would say so. The sheer terror of the setting described in these pages, of unruly and unsavory citizens (if they were citizens at all) crowding the state capitol and occupying for weeks at a time, sounds like a variant of some third-world struggle. Admittedly, we protesters did look back with admiration toward the opening of the Arab Spring, recalled vividly by the “Walker=Mubarak” signs.
But there are some peculiarities in Walker’s account. He lays the blame for the mob chiefly at the feet of the Democratic state senators, known as the Fab Fourteen, who fled from Wisconsin rather than allow a quorum for the passage of the anti-labor Act 10, which placed extreme limits on unions for state employees. In Walker’s depiction, the “crowd combed the building for the offending legislators,” and a “security disaster” ended only when Republicans successfully hid behind a flight of stairs, moving in and out of the building through a tunnel. Several incidents in the book (for example, demonstrators surrounding him and rocking his car) plainly did not take place, adding to the long list of exaggerations and outright untruths that Walker has peddled as governor.
That Walker hung tough—ignoring the football-inspired sing-along taking place at the capitol (“WISCONSIN FOURTEEN, WALKER ZERO!”), carrying out economic schemes inspired by Milton Friedman, cutting budgets, and putting organized labor in its place—is not in doubt. He was inspired, he says, by Indiana governor Mitch Daniels’s draconian example, and by his advice to “go bold and strike fast.” Indeed, Walker charted his own ALEC-inspired path during his first weeks in office by refusing “Stim Funds” from Washington for a high-speed train line between Madison and Chicago, which promised to offer a way out of the clogged roadways certain to become ever more crowded.
In an almost kindly spirit, Walker throws a bone to outgoing Democratic governor Jim Doyle, who inexplicably declined, before leaving office, to commit the state to the project. Doyle had apparently paid the Republicans a considerable favor. Leaving behind a state party weakened and demoralized, so determined to cling to disappearing factories that the unions had been shunted aside decades earlier, the Democrats had all but abandoned their working-class and union base over the previous quarter-century. Once the Democratic senators had cleared the way by halting the vote, there was nothing left for the rank-and-file survivors but direct action. Neither Walker nor the Democrats (nor perhaps even the protesters themselves) had expected the passion or size of the turnout, the depth of sympathy from local police and firefighters, or the willingness of veteran unionists, many of them retired, to come for days or weeks from cities and towns across the country, certain that they had to take a stand. For Walker, the crowd could only consist of hapless union members under orders, joined to the Madison riffraff widely known for homosexuality, drugs, and other deviant behavior.
Walker’s description of the struggles that followed has at least one commonality with left-wing accounts: he addresses the prank caller, pretending to be a Koch brother, who ensnared the governor on the radio, getting him to admit that he had pondered sending provocateurs among the crowd, and to gush that a vacation with the Kochs would be a delightful reward for his work. Walker puts the incident into biblical terms: he was being tested. “God was sending me a clear message to not do things for personal glory or fame. It was a turning point. . . .” He would conquer, but he would be humble.
Conquer he did, with the help of SWAT teams, his willingness to ignore rules for assembly and state senate conduct, the voting power of a troubled state supreme court justice,** and, in the longer run, the huge chunks of his budget devoted to the interests of the very rich and very corrupt. The claims Walker makes in Unintimidated about cleaning up the mess and preparing the state for business triumph seem hollow: only a quarter of the jobs loudly promised have actually appeared, and some of Wisconsin’s vaunted local democratic controls have been eliminated or could be soon, in the name of that grand old slogan, “The business of government is business.” Actually, the slogan Walker offers is, “Decency is its own reward.” As I said, it’s not a deep book.
Unintimidated: Wisconsin Sings Truth to Power makes no claim to intellectual sweep or electoral strategy. A gorgeous photo volume with an extended essay by sing-along lyricist Ryan Wherley, the book makes a rather simple point. The Act 10 battle was lost, the recall was lost, but the malefactors cannot get away with driving the dissenters into silence: the sing-alongers still gather each week day, inside the capitol Monday through Thursday and outside on Friday—rain, snow, shine, or otherwise.
They annoy the governor and his cronies more than you would think, but the state’s constitution assures the rights of citizens to assemble within the capitol. The newly appointed chief of the capitol police, an ex-Marine, has tried in assorted ways to get rid of the “occupiers,” as he calls them, but has never quite succeeded—possibly because of the law, but more probably because the singers looked like otherwise average Wisconsinites. The songs so often have a spiritual basis; bashing the singers, especially the grandparents and children among them, just does not seem feasible.
The free speech fight that lasted through the summer of 2011 was punctuated by a rare outright defeat for Walker: his rules restricting non-permitted gatherings in the capitol to three persons turned out to be unconstitutional. That decision was followed by a settlement allowing the singers simply to notify the authorities of their plans. Criminal charges for past offenses were mostly thrown out—and an October court settlement has so far shielded the singers from new charges—but more than three hundred of the singers are still facing civil citations issued in the months before the settlement. As in the ongoing Moral Mondays in North Carolina, protesters have responded with demands for jury trials, leading both judges and prosecutors to call on the administration to end the absurd draw on state resources. Whether and how Walker’s men will find another way to crush dissent is unknown.
The photos of the sing-alongers’ Unintimidated speak so eloquently for themselves that attempting to say more about the book and the feel of the crowd seems superfluous. But the dreadfulness of the assorted state legislation is ongoing. Every week in session seems to bring more bad news. This era of dirty politics has underlined the importance of social media, which has turned up much dirt otherwise concealed. A Walker presidential run would presumably turn up more.
Still, while the continuing tide of lies and the vast sums of television buys on the other side (recent months have seen “Thank You Governor Walker” ads) make anything look like an uphill fight, at least some of the heavily redistricted state legislative seats in Wisconsin are considered within reach. The struggle goes on, and among many tools of resistance, singing has proven an oddly empowering one. How much farther we can go beyond heartfelt opposition and the call for civil liberties remains to be seen.
Paul Buhle is, with Mari Jo Buhle, the editor of It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Line of the New Labor Protest (2012). He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.