An Open Letter to Those Who Still Stand With Walker

scott walker bumper sticker
Dear Walker Supporters,

I doubt we have much in common.  In fact, I’d bet money on it.  And I wish this were a dia-blog so that this could be a conversation, but given the medium, this will have to serve as a letter to you, to those who still, after every policy this governor has proposed, support him, his policies, and perhaps even see him as a frontrunner for the next Commander-in-Chief.  Because I know you exist.  I know you love this man.  You see him making “tough decisions” and “sticking it to” those you feel caused you financial pain or somehow wronged you in this life.  I want you to know I respect your opinion to support him, defend your right to vote for him or whomever you feel best represents the best interests of you and your own, but I also need to know, truly and honestly, why.  Why you still support him.  Because for the life of me, I can’t think of one justifiable reason anyone who isn’t directly benefiting from him financially (i.e. giant corporations), feels as though this governor and his policies are making their lives better.

As I stated in a previous blog, “To my friends who voted for Governor Walker, all three times, I often asked and still do, has your quality of life improved?  Does me having to pay more for my healthcare make yours any better?  Does weakening my job security strengthen yours?  Did my pay cut help to get you a raise?  Usually I get blank stares, but the point is that the reasons for voting for Governor Walker in the first place run much deeper.  One of the most effective messages Governor Walker used against public sector employees was to tap into the deep resentment that many people feel/felt toward those they perceived to be an elitist class apart.  As he stated, it was a fight between the ‘have-nots’ vs. the ‘haves.’ To many who voted for Walker, it wasn’t about making things better for your fellow Wisconsinites, for Wisconsin’s economy, or improving misguided policies.  Walker supporters wanted to even the playing field through shared misery.  Instead of working together to get better healthcare, job security, and pay in the private sector, instead, voters wanted some kind of justice where everyone suffered equally.  Public workers were and still remain an easy scapegoat with our ‘Cadillac benefits’ and ‘job security for life.’  Even though tenure is not job security for life and those ‘Cadillac’ benefits were bargained for in exchange for lower wages, most have no idea of those realities unless they know someone or personally work in higher education or in the public sector.”

I can understand why you voted for him in 2010.  I can even understand why you supported him in 2014–many of my conservative friends truly had no idea, nor had Walker run on the policies he proposed in his initial budget that have upended workers’ rights in Wisconsin, dismantled public education, and made history by putting Wisconsin on the map for all the wrong reasons.  But now?  I’d like to take a minute to assess the damage this governor has done to this state in an attempt to show you exactly how he has directly and indirectly negatively impacted you, your friends, your families, and your fellow citizens.

Many have called July of 2015 a historic month for progressives.  The United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act survived its second Supreme Court test in three years, and the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 5.3%, its lowest level since April 2008.  But here in Wisconsin, it doesn’t seem as if we’re making the same progress.  It is, in fact, and has felt as though we’ve been living in an alternative universe for years now.  A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Wisconsin’s middle class — households earning between about $34,500 and $103,000 — has shrunk at a faster rate than any other state in the country.  As the Journal Sentinel reported in June, “Wisconsin was 35th out of 50 states in private-sector job growth over the four years of Walker’s first term, according to recently released government data.  The numbers came as no surprise. The state was 35th in 2011, 36th in 2012, 38th in 2013 and 38th in 2014, based on the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. Wisconsin has persistently lagged behind the nation and most nearby states during Walker’s time in office, and a sizable chunk of the state’s voters are aware of that trend, polls show. Walker’s unmet 2010 campaign promise of 250,000 new jobs and the partisan war over his governorship has turned Wisconsin’s employment picture into an ongoing political saga fueled by chronically tepid jobs reports.”  As Christopher Flavelle notes there has been low wage growth, job growth, and “state tax revenue increased just 4 percent between the first quarter of 2011 and the third quarter of last year, compared with a 20 percent increase for the median state. So the news this month that Wisconsin was skipping a scheduled $108 million debt payment, owing to an unexpected budget shortfall, only underlined a trend that’s been years in the making. Of the 40 states with general-obligation bonds, 25 have credit ratings from Moody’s that are better than Wisconsin’s.” In addition, he states that “measured by relative economic outcomes, Walker’s tenure falls somewhere between lackluster and a failure.”

Despite campaign promises to move Wisconsin forward and create jobs, Governor Walker has failed in every way imaginable.  But perhaps the most egregious abuses of power can be found in his budget (fiscal and non-fiscal policy proposals), that have put Wisconsin on the map as perhaps the most dysfunctional state in the union.  Take the budget recently passed by the Joint Finance Committee.  A comprehensive list of policy proposals is here, explained by Nick Fleisher here, and this budget has notably and arguably been labeled by those on both sides of the aisle as the “worst budget Wisconsin has ever seen.”  As Fleisher aptly notes, “It hardly needs repeating at this point, but all of these extremely damaging changes to the state of Wisconsin—the gutting of open records laws, the planned dismantling of the state’s largest school district, the elimination of tenure in the UW System, and much more besides—were developed totally in secret by the twelve legislators who comprise the JFC majority, and passed on party-line votes within hours of being released to the public (or to committee Democrats, for that matter). The open records changes have drawn the harshest and broadest rebuke, but they are emblematic of a broader pattern of brazen disregard for the public that this committee has exhibited throughout the budget process. Chris Abele’s aligning himself with this committee in its attack on Milwaukee Public Schools is unforgivable. UW administrators’ steadfast refusal to question this committee’s false narrative of budgetary strain and scarcity has predictably led to a dire outcome for everyone but those administrators themselves. Meanwhile, legislative leaders invoke cash balances amassed by UW administrators as an excuse for slashing funding, while in the next breath calling for those very same administrators to be invested with newly broadened powers. It is difficult to imagine a moral failure of leadership more absolute than the one we are now witnessing at almost every level in Wisconsin.”

What has garnered the most attention was the issue of open records.  As The Green Bay Gazette, pointed out, strange bedfellows lined up against the open records gutting in the biennial budget including the Center for Media and Democracy, WI Attorney General Brad Shimel (R), State Sen. Robert Cowles, (R-Allouez), The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, One Wisconsin Now, the conservative think-tank, the MacIver Institute for Public Policy and the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.  Not shockingly, none of the lawmakers that slipped the measure in were willing to take credit for it.

Within a span of a few days and facing so much criticism, on July 4th, Governor Walker and legislative leaders announced they would drop the provision from the budget.  However, as State Senator Jon Erpenbach noted, “just the fact that they even tried to do this in the first place should bother everybody in this state.”

So, to you, dear Walker supporters, what will it take?  If a horrible economy, corrupt policies, and a sheer contempt for the state you live in isn’t enough, what will it take for you to stop supporting this man?  Because all of this comes down to voting.  And I fear, to many Walker supporters and many voters in general, facts don’t matter.  We like to create our own facts.  We like to watch news that merely reflects our existing opinions.  In the New York Times this week, David Leonhardt pointed out that “not only are people more likely to believe information that fits their pre-existing beliefs, but they’re also more likely to go looking for such information.”  And, in addition to seeking out information that conforms to our existing narratives, we accept language given to us by others rather than creating our own frames.  As Paul Fanlund points out, in many cases, progressives use the language of the GOP to frame our arguments. He states, “But here’s the thing: By focusing with such zeal on Walker, might we be bolstering his brand by allowing issue debates to occur on the GOP’s rhetorical turf?”  Yes.  Instead of reframing, or using new ways to talk about things like liberty, freedom, and other moral values, we accept and reinforce existing frames.

Citing George Lakoff, he claims, “Lakoff maintains that voters do not choose leaders based on the sum of a candidate’s positions but on this larger, moral frame. Issues must be tied together in this big frame, and conservatives have dominated the moral debate by consistently asking which side best stands for liberty. Progressives should effectively counter ‘liberty’ with ‘freedom,’ Lakoff argues, but have failed to do so. Here, in staccato phrases, is what he’s getting at:

If you get cancer or break a leg and do not have health insurance, you are not free.

If you can’t get a decent education, you are not free.

If you are a woman and do not control your body, you are not free.

If you cannot marry someone you love, you are not free.

If your work largely benefits only the wealthiest of the wealthy and not you, you are not free.

If you are treated with suspicion or disdain because of your race, you are not free.

If a few billionaires determine election outcomes, you are not free.

If you cannot easily vote, you are not free.

If you are not protected from harmful products and fraudulent business practices, you are not free.

If companies are allowed to foul the air you breathe and the water you drink, you are not free.

Get the picture? Government not as the evil enabler of a nanny state, but as an indispensable agent for freedom.”

This is not new.  Think of the ways in which we look at taxes.  The word “taxes,” has become synonymous with something Americans need to be “relieved from” since the phrase “tax relief” was first invented–yes invented–by the same people who decided it would be wise to start using the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it sounded more benign; by the same people who figured out more Americans would oppose the “estate tax” if it were relabeled the “death tax” because that sounded far more insidious. Language is powerful–so powerful that we no longer see the constructedness of these labels–they’re just a given. We see taxation as an affliction or burden and since there is no established frame or language that discusses taxes as an investment or a public good, we default to the idea that tax cuts *are* good–no matter how paltry or insignificant.

So when Governor Walker claimed he would hold true to his promised property tax cut that would amount to $10 over the next two years for the owner of a median-valued home, a savings of $5 a year for Wisconsin homeowners who meet this criteria, he made the mistake of including the actual dollar amount. When we hear we’re getting a tax break or a tax cut, the average citizen assumes they’re going to be saving hundreds or thousands of dollars per year. In this instance, many pounced on the idea that the dollar amount was so low, and that the cuts proposed were so deep, they’d gladly give back those five dollars if it meant saving jobs, keeping the UW System in tact, and if it meant not having to make cuts to programs around the state.

Lakoff in his book, “Don’t Think Of An Elephant: Know Your Values And Frame The Debate,” expands on the power of framing here:

“What is taxation? Taxation is what you pay to live in a civilized country-what you pay to have democracy and opportunity, and what you pay to use the infrastructure paid for by previous taxpayers: the highways system, the Internet . . . Taxation is paying your dues, paying your membership fee in America. If you join a country club or a community center, you pay fees. Why? You did not build the swimming pool. You have to maintain it.You did not build the basketball court.Someone has to clean it. You may not use the squash court, but you still have to pay your dues. Otherwise it won’t be maintained and will fall apart” (24-25).

A year ago, Wisconsin lawmakers approved a more than $800 million tax-cut package after budget forecasters projected a nearly billion-dollar windfall in unanticipated tax revenue. Now, the state will collect less than half of the projected $912 million that was the basis for the tax-cut package last year. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau projects the state will end the year with a $233 million deficit after starting the year with a $517 million surplus.

It is the idea that tax cuts will produce revenue, coupled with the idea the we need “relief” from taxes that allowed this to happen. We need to reframe the debate–to look at taxes as an investment, and tell your legislators and Governor Walker that they can keep your $5. That they can keep your $5 and use it to restore funds for counseling services on college campuses. That they can keep your $5 and use it to bring back study abroad programs, jobs, and cuts to public media. That they can keep your five dollars so Wisconsin can rebuild our economy, our infrastructure, and our once enviable educational institutions. 

Walker supporters, if you are not swayed by facts, by frames, by narratives, and by language, then let me attempt to appeal to your most base patriotic notions of what is good, fair, just, and democratic.  In an excerpt from a blog written specifically in regards to the Declaration of Independence and Walker’s policies in Wisconsin, the author writes, “‘Consent of the governed’ is a key phrase, because it implies that in the mind of the Founders legislators would have told the people how they intend to govern, and that people should have approved of the policies and actions that are taking place, likely through elections. Does that sound like this crew, who have governed by surprise and instituted numerous policies in this budget that they never ran on last November . . . .Think about the state’s secretive gerrymandering and numerous examples of the overriding of local initiatives and powers. These moves have skewed the makeup of the state’s legislature and laws to something that does not reflect the views of the state and local areas.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

The most recent example is the gutting of the state’s long-established open records laws last night, but it’s far from the only time Walker and his minions in the Legislature have ‘dropped the bomb’ on numerous initiatives without warning. These last four years have featured plenty of ‘special’ and ‘extraordinary’ sessions to limit debate on non-pressing issues, and this budget session has seen numerous omnibus measures be introduced into the Joint Finance with no formal hearing, no public notice, and little connection to the budget items scheduled to be discussed.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people….

This ‘manly firmness’ not only includes repressive laws against unions and women’s health rights, but it also goes back to the centralizing of power and overriding of local government, which Walker and WisGOP have done time and time again.”

In all reality, those of you who support Governor Walker and his policies will never read this.  But to those who do, I truly ask you to take a look at your life.  At your neighbors’ lives.  And ask yourself, am I proud of the state I live in? Is this the path I want our state to continue on? Is this the future I want for my children, my grandchildren, and for those who will reside in this state long after I’m gone?  Because elections are all we have left.  The damage done to this state was both preventable and is now irreversible.  Those who have all the power will continue to abuse it, use it for their own political and financial gains, and in the end we all suffer together.  History tells us that the pendulum always swings when any party in power is perceived as having gone too far in their overreach.  I have faith that history will repeat itself–that the backlash from so many ill-advised policies will spawn a win for Democrats in 2016.  I’m also a realist.  And I just don’t know what it will take for so many ardent supporters to finally see through this man’s agenda, his willingness to destroy his own state for political gain and a shot at the presidency, and for those supporters to stop voting against their best interests and start voting for those who want this state to thrive again.  Walker supporters, what will it take?  What will you do in the next election?  It is you we need now to turn this around.  It is you we need to step up, put aside falsehoods, stereotypes, misplaced bitterness and anger, and vote for candidates that will restore this state to her glory.  Without you, we continue to suffer together.  Without you, our state remains divided and broken.  And without you, those drunk with power will continue to drive this state and its people further into desolation and despair.