Wisconsin moves from progressive “dairyland” to “plutocrats’ paradise”

Wisconsin used to have a reputation as a “progressive” state, but now that is just a footnote in the history books. Wisconsin now boasts a governor, Scott Walker, who is attempting to launch a presidential campaign based on his reputation for union-busting, and a state legislature that draws up proposed legislation to satisfy the needs of a single multimillionaire.

Many who read this must be scratching their heads. Wisconsin?! Isn’t that the birthplace of a whole host of pro-worker reforms from unemployment compensation to worker’s compensation? The answer is “yes.” But a new era of reaction has been opened in the Badger State.

A reactionary is someone who analyses the current crisis and comes to the conclusion that our societal ills, our homeless, our jobless college grads, are not created by a system in which the “haves” exploit and punish the “have-nots,”  but rather that progressive social change is the culprit in all of our problems. In the mind of the reactionary, the solution lies in the simplicity of the union-free, women in the kitchen, kids praying in public school, gays in the closet, African Americans as a permanent underclass, immigrants on the other side of the border, “good ol’ days.” They intend to restore that golden age of “the mighty crush the weak” by repealing all the safeguards and social safety nets that liberal reformers and working people fought for to protect themselves from the ravages of what Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry hypocritically called “vulture capitalism.”

It was Wisconsin Gov. Walker who struck the first blow. It only took Walker a matter of a few months to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights. He hatched his plan at a meeting of the Wisconsin Republican leadership that took place in the basement of the governor’s mansion in Madison. When Walker first proposed destroying 50 years of workers’ rights in one fell swoop, even many of the Republicans were aghast. He sought to put a little steel in their spine by holding up a picture of Ronald Reagan and invoking that president’s attack on PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, as a model. A typical reactionary, yearning for the good old days of anti-Soviet war-mongering, arms race, and counting ketchup as a vegetable in school lunch programs.

Walker got his way in the end. But the reactionaries were not done. They wanted to return to the days when the wealthiest in Wisconsin dictated what bills were drafted into law. Michael Eisenga, a Wisconsin multi-millionaire businessman, felt the courts had ordered him to pay too much in child support. So, what is an honest citizen like Mike to do but to request, and get, a piece of legislation introduced that caps the level of assets examined for child support purposes at $150,000. Pretty convenient if you are Mr. Eisenga, and worth in excess of $30 million.

Of course it is true that Mike could use a little extra pocket change. You see, he has been fined by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating minimum wage laws. He has also had to pay fines to Wisconsin’s Department of Financial Institutions as well as its Department of Revenue, not to mention the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. But it wasn’t these dollars that his state legislator, Joel Kleefish, was concerned with. The money state Rep. Kleefish was more familiar with were the contributions Eisenga made to himself, his wife, Rebecca Kleefish (who happens to be the lieutenant governor), and to Walker as well. The latter clocked in at $15,000. So, in Wisconsin, when you spread that kind of money around you can call up the State Capitol building, get your legislator on the line and have legislation made to order, just as easy as a college kid ordering a pizza. Too bad for Mr. Eisenga that the working people of Wisconsin raised hell and legislator Kleefish withdrew the bill. Better luck next time, Mike.        

Robert LaFollette Sr., the famous progressive known as “Fighting Bob” who served as both Wisconsin’s governor (1901-1906) and U.S. senator (1906-1925), in his memoirs described his first campaign and struggle against the moneyed interests this way: “I felt I had few friends, I knew I had no money, could command the support of no newspaper, but in the end I was determined that Wisconsin would be made free, and in the end, it was so.”

The working people of Wisconsin are going to have to summon that same courage that motivated “Fighting Bob,” or soon they will have to change the motto on the license plates of Wisconsin from “America’s Dairyland” to “Plutocrats’ Paradise.”

Photo: Wikimedia (CC)