Volume 24, Number 4

What’s Wrong With Wisconsin Is What’s Wrong With America

Fred Schepartz

Dear Readers: Yes, I know I’ve written about Wisconsin quite a bit since the Wisconsin Uprising began in February, 2011. And yes, I fully understand that Mobius is a publication with a national and even international following. And yes, I do absolutely understand all of this and will once again write about Wisconsin because …

Yes, once again, it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on in Wisconsin because, for absolute sure, what’s wrong with Wisconsin has a lot to do with what’s wrong in America. There is nothing unusual about this. States often function as laboratories for the whole country. Sometimes for good. Sometimes for bad. And sometimes for very bad.

This is especially true in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would like us to believe that it is he who is behind all the radical experiments in reform that are currently being conducted in Wisconsin, but the reality is that these sinister, Frankenstein-like experiments are more about the wishes and whims of those who support Walker with millions upon millions of dollars.

I want to be clear. This is not all about Scott Walker. He is merely the symptom of the disease. He is the coughing-up of the blood following the high fever preceding the utter horror that comes next.

So how does the disease manifest itself?

First, in Wisconsin, the Republican Party has ceased to exist. It has long ago ceased to be the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or even Bob La Follette. That train left the station a long time ago. Sadly, it’s not even the Republican Party of Warren P. Knowles, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, or even Tommy Thompson. As Sen. Dale Schultz, who considers himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, has sadly realized, there is no room in Wisconsin for a moderate Republican who is willing to compromise in order to forge bi-partisan solutions. In fact, there is no room for a Republican willing to listen or for all intents and purposes, govern.

The Wisconsin Republican Party is nothing more than a front for corporations, big business and billionaires.

But that is only part of the story. More symptom than disease.

I am not exactly sure how long ago I came up with this somewhat flippant notion, but a good while ago I decided that the problem with the American political system is that corporations have gone religious, while the religious right has gone corporate.

Specifically, I’m talking about an unholy alliance between the religious right and the moneyed interest of corporations, big business and billionaires.

To again be flippant, one might say this is a match made in heaven.

Big Money provides, ahem, the big money. The religious right provides candidates willing to run for office and the shock troops willing to do what it takes to get them elected, as well as the legions of voters swayed by the kind of wedge issues this alliance specializes in exploiting.

This is not a new phenomenon. We start to see this in the late 1970s. Previously, religious issues tended to stay away from the political realm, but largely through the influence of Jerry Falwell and the formation of the Moral Majority, this begins to change with the discovery that personal issues such as abortion, contraception, sexuality and sexual preference can be exploited for political gain.

In other words, to the average church-going member of the Silent Majority (which is neither), the moral fabric of America was becoming so frayed that they were willing to donate lots of money and vote for candidates who otherwise did not represent their interests.

Seeing the money and the organizing potential (remember direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie?), the Republican Party stood up and took notice and included social/personal issues as part of the 1980 platform.

This was really just the beginning. The Moral Majority’s political influence ended following the 1988 presidential election and ceased to exist as an organization in 1989. But the seeds were sown. Since 1980, the role of the religious right has ebbed and flowed, but it has never gone away, and if anything, sits on a stronger foundation than ever. And the mortar that holds it all together is money, lots and lots of money.

Now back to Wisconsin. I cannot say for sure when this happened, but this big money/religious right alliance has grown extremely strong in the Dairy State. And again, the influence of extreme right-wing Christians in the state Republican Party has been strong for quite a number of years. Ten years ago Democratic Governor Jim Doyle had to keep a ready supply of veto pens in his desk because he had to veto practically everything that came out of the “God, Gays, and Guns” legislature because Republicans controlled both the assembly and the senate and pretty much refused to govern. In a particularly bizarre maneuver, the state legislature refused to debate Doyle’s budget, instead passing one of their own.

Enter Club for Growth and the Koch Brothers, stage right.

Big-time national players of that ilk found Wisconsin quite inviting because, as a purple, strongly independent-minded state with a downright schizophrenic political history, the state is quite vulnerable to strong outside influence that can tip the scales. After all, in the conservative states, why spend a bunch of money, since your people are in power anyway? Conversely, why waste your money in liberal states, since generally you’re just flushing your money down the toilet?

Also, Wisconsin does have a definite conservative streak in some parts of the state as well as, shall we say, some rather atavistic elements.

And on top of that, there’s plenty of big money right here, most notably the conservative Bradley Foundation, which finances lots of propaganda and can give the Koch Brothers a run for their money and the business-lobbying organization, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which essentially bought the Supreme Court by bankrolling the campaigns of the two most recently newly elected justices.

And then the cherry on the top, Citizens United. If ever there was a rock-solid proof that if money corrodes politics, absolute money corrodes politics absolutely, it’s Wisconsin, where Citizens United has had a devastating effect, especially since Act 10, the union-busting bill, which was passed mainly to eviscerate the political power of labor in Wisconsin.

All of this added up to a major change in the political game. Not long ago, the Koch Brothers tended to donate to both Democrats and Republicans. Not anymore. In the post-Citizens United world of politics, those of the big pockets have a real opportunity to sway, if not out-and-out buy elections.

And with the rise of the Tea Party movement, people like the Koch Brothers are seeing far-right candidates who actually share their views. Let’s not forget that during the 1980 election, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket. To the right of Ronald Reagan.

And despite the fact that the Tea Party is supposed to be about keeping the government from infringing on personal liberty (or so my dope-smoking libertarian Tea Party friend would claim, who, by the way, hates the Koch Brothers despite the fact that their front group, Americans for Prosperity, largely bankrolled the Tea Party movement) many of the Tea Party candidates who have taken office since 2010 have no problem with a repressive, religious agenda.

With nothing standing in its way, the agenda of the “God, Gays and Guns” legislature of 10 years ago has pretty much come to fruition, along with a few things even that crowd could not have imagined. Perhaps most notable is the attack on women’s health and reproductive rights. This session, the legislature passed a boatload of some of the most repressive and extreme anti-choice bills in the country. They’ve even gone after contraception, making me wonder if we’ve somehow gone 60 years back in time. Is it 2013 or 1953?

Way-out extremist Christians like Sens. Glenn Grothman and Mary Lazich are finding platforms like they’ve never seen before, and untold opportunities to advance religious agendas that really have no place in the political arena.

But let’s remember. This isn’t politics. This is a crusade, and in a crusade, the ends always justify the means. If a wacko like Mary Lazich gets the opportunity to practically outlaw abortion, well, it’s really no problem to pass a mining deregulation bill that was written by the very mining company that will benefit from said deregulation.

And it’s no problem to kill a train that would have connected Madison and Milwaukee—and Wisconsin to the rest of the Midwest—because the road builders did not want that.

And it’s no problem to kill the growing wind-power industry because the realtors don’t want it. And it’s no problem to kill alternative fuels because the coal industry doesn’t want it.

And it’s no problem to make it more difficult to vote.

And it’s no problem to pass a bunch of stuff cooked up by the American Legislative Exchange Council, because we can pretend that we drafted these bills ourselves. And it’s no problem that ALEC is bankrolled by the Koch brothers, because nobody’s ever heard of the Koch brothers.

You see, it’s all about what’s good for business, because what’s good for business is good for Wisconsin because it’s good for business, even if a pro-business agenda has left Wisconsin lagging behind all other Midwestern states in job creation and economic performance.

It’s all about common cause, not Common Cause.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the issue of school choice, which has become a huge big deal in Wisconsin. It started in Milwaukee several years ago. Last legislative session, it was allowed to expand into a few other cities. This legislative session, school choice expanded statewide, where parents below a certain income threshold received vouchers, paid for by the state, to send their children to the private school of their choice. The program, currently capped at 500 children, is set to expand to 1000, but as they say, that is merely the camel’s nose under the tent. Despite the fact that students in voucher schools perform no better or even worse than their public school counterparts, those caps are likely to go away, unless the political climate in Wisconsin changes—soon. Oh, and it should be noted that almost none of the children who used school-choice vouchers this school year attended public schools last year, so it’s really not about providing greater options for Wisconsin children.

Big money is behind school choice. They say it’s for the children, but the reality of the situation is that it is about profit. There is a great deal of money to be made in education, especially if state governments are willing to let their public schools go to hell and hand all that money over to the people who run for-profit schools.

As for the religious-right legislators, they get to strike a victory against the dreaded secular humanism. They get to see public money pay for children to attend parochial schools where there is daily prayer and where creationism is a strong part of the curriculum. And they even get to accomplish this in liberal, sinful Madison where Christian values are taught and paid for with the taxpayers’ dime at the Lighthouse Christian School.

However, to be fair, Wisconsin Republicans may not necessarily be that cynical. Certainly, it is not particularly uncommon for religiously conservative Christians to be politically conservative as well. After all, the John Birch Society, which boasts Koch Industry founder Fred Koch as a founding member, identifies with Christian principles, along with the notion of sternly limiting governmental power as well as a policy of rightwing libertarianism.

And let’s not forget that many are wealthy individuals who feel blessed by god and thus granted superiority over those less fortunate.

That said, I cannot help but feel that there’s a certain degree of Stockholm Syndrome happening when I hear some of this spouting of free-market principles. And when I hear some Fifth Columnist right-wing radio propagandist spouting religious doctrine, I can’t help but think that is the ultimate in cynical pandering.

It’s hypocrisy, pure and simple. It’s 30 pieces of silver.

I sometimes hear the argument that this is all just politics as usual, that both sides have a certain degree of the pay-for-play dynamic with special-interest groups. While there is a certain grain of truth to this argument, I find this notion of moral equivalency to be irresponsible and intellectually dishonest because it ignores the degree to which this is happening and the amount of damage that is being caused.

It fixates on form while ignoring essence.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Because Wisconsin is a classically purple state, rarely does one party get to handle redistricting following the decade-beginning census. A few decades ago, Democrats controlled the legislature and the executive branch. There was talk about gerrymandering, but a few legislators stepped up and said it simply was not the right thing to do.

Fast forward to 2011. Wisconsin Republicans get a chance to redistrict without having to compromise, and they take full advantage of the situation. Much of the work is done behind closed doors. Legislators are sworn to secrecy. The gerrymandering is so severe that it leads to lawsuits, and during the 2012 election, Republicans maintain control of the assembly while winning back the senate, which they had lost during the recalls.

Despite the fact that Democrats garnered more votes statewide than Republicans.

This demonstrates an utter ruthlessness and a willingness to wield power without even a hint of anything resembling a velvet glove concealing an iron fist. But again, it’s a crusade where the ends justify the means. It’s also about paying back the people who put you in power. And doing so without question, which isn’t difficult considering that here in Wisconsin people like the Koch brothers find people to do their bidding who tend not to question because, well, they are apt to take the Gospel as gospel. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a certain amount of paranoia among the religious right who feel like they’ve been under attack from secular humanists for decades, so of course, they’ll be receptive when they hear it said that the goal of liberals is to take power and take it permanently.

And what of Scott Walker?

He’s the preacher’s son. He’s the Eagle Scout. He’s the guy whose official stance on abortion is that it should be illegal in ALL CASES. He’s the guy who mentioned god about a zillion times during his acceptance speech when he was elected governor in 2010. And he’s the guy who said in his recently released memoir that getting punked by Ian Murphy, who pretended to be David Koch in the phone call heard ’round the world, was all part of god’s plan to teach him humility.

And yet, as his presidential ambitions grow, he seems to be stepping back from mentioning god, and it does seem that he’s been keeping at arm’s length from some of the more extreme social and personal legislation. Yes, he signs the bills, but he is not particularly noisy about supporting them.

It does need to be noted that, recently, allegations have surfaced that he got his girlfriend pregnant while a student at Marquette University and urged her to get an abortion. She chose to take the pregnancy to term and raise the child herself. By the way, Walker dropped out of Marquette with a mediocre grade-point average for mysterious reasons.

Certainly, for politicians who choose to spout religion, there is a continuum of how much of their own stated beliefs they actually believe. I have little doubt that Grothman and Lazich are utterly sincere in their stated beliefs. Walker, on the other hand, believes in what will get him up the next rung of the ladder. I think Walker probably considers himself a deeply religious person though I can’t say for sure if he actually has a religious agenda.

But I guess it doesn’t really matter what Walker actually believes, because there’s plenty of zealots willing to do his bidding and thus do the bidding of Walker’s puppetmasters. And again, a Scott Walker is really just the symptom rather than the actual disease.

But most diseases are not terminal. Most diseases have a cure.

In the case of this disease, WE are the cure.

We can organize around Move to Amend. Supreme Court decisions are not the final word. We the people are the final word, but only if we can find a way to amend the Constitution and state once and for all that corporations are not people. We the people are people. Corporations serve and function at our convenience.

And we must do what we’ve been doing in Wisconsin for the past three years. We must keep informed and must be keep active. That is our last and best hope.