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Monday, July 13, 2015

What happened to Wisconsin? The spirit of Joseph McCarthy.

Wisconsin is a haunted state. The ghost of Joseph McCarthy haunts the state house.  His spirit has returned to get revenge on those who exposed his claims about communists infiltrating the government as false and thrust him into obscurity for a while.  Without any proof that anyone was subverting the government, his investigations cost more than 2,000 government employees their jobs.  Edward R. Murrow, in turn, investigated McCarthy's claims and showed the nation through television that they were maliciously fabricated and the damage they did to many people and the nation. 

The affinity for destruction has reemerged in Wisconsin politics in the form of Gov. Scott Walker.  Walker has mounted a successful McCarthy-like campaign against public employees, particularly teachers and professors, and has aggressively opened the state up to corporate exploitation.  Even though his efforts to disenfranchise the bargaining rights of public employees were met with massive protests,  he survived a recall election and then was re-elected.  

In his second term he introduced budget bills that called for the dismantling of the the prestigious University of Wisconsin system and the elimination of tenure for professors.  But his most striking move was a budget bill that eliminated much of Wisconsin's open records law.  When the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal exposed that the closing of open records was being proposed in the budget bill just before July 4,  the Governor and his GOP cohorts did quick retreat and removed those provisions from the bill.  The Chicago Tribune reported that  

"The proposed change would have made Wisconsin’s law one of the most restrictive in the country, no longer allowing journalists, activists and others to request to see lawmakers’ e-mails and legislative drafting notes. Such a change, retroactive to July 1, would also have further protected Walker as he enters the presidential race and finds his record under greater scrutiny."

There has been much dissembling and evasion about how much Walker was directly involved in the move to close records off from the public and the press,  but newspapers report that his office helped draft the bill eliminating open records.  However, the national news about Walker focuses on his plans as a presidential candidate, and gives scant mention to his "achievements" in Wisconsin.  He has dismantled much of what has distinguished Wisconsin as a progressive state and proposes more that would change institutions which have made the state a leader in education, environmental protection, and workers' rights.  

The question is, of course, why a majority would support and vote for a man who is destroying the state's legacy.  The answer is in examining the state's political history and factions that once supported and voted for Joseph McCarthy and how those factions resurged into power.  

For many years I had property in the pinelands along the Wisconsin River which are only about 40 miles from Madison.  It was a place where I retreated to work but also provided outdoor relaxation and recreation.    I wrote much of my doctoral dissertation there under the pine trees. During those years, I did moonlighting work in communications consulting and production with a group of associates who were writers, photographers, and graphic producers who wanted to keep their skills active and earn a little extra money.  We used the pinelands as our work studio.  A number of those people had ties with the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and we found that the place and state were conducive to creative and productive work.  The kind of oppressive and destructive atmosphere that Walker represents was not a presence.  How did the political and social atmosphere get so drastically reversed? 

Joe McCarthy  stirred up the nation with accusations of communist pervasion.  As the Cold War progressed, his charges created a paranoia in the populace.  People were made so fearful of communist rule that merely calling someone a communist, whether true or not, could raise the temperature of paranoia and malice among the people to the point where they would revile and destroy anyone so accused.  McCarthy played upon ignorance, fear, and the human tendency to fix blame for the problems they perceive.  He understood what successful dictators use to acquire and maintain power among people who can be fooled and swayed by propaganda that appeals to fear, prejudice, the need to feel superior to others.  He used legislative hearings as a means to disseminate his accusations and publicly humiliate and destroy the reputations of people.  Television was his undoing.  People brought before his hearings denounced his accusations and tactics for their falseness and their maliciousness.  Edward R. Murrow examined the facts and the people he ruined on his news shows.  McCarthy had acquired so much influence that he intimidated Pres. Eisenhower, who disapproved of him but thought it politically unwise to confront him.  However, he eventually backed people in the Senate who censured Mc arthy for conduct unbecoming a U.S. senator.  

Scott Walker uses essentially the same tactics.  When the state faced budget problems, he   blamed the public employees and their unions and eliminated the right to bargain for salaries.  Although collective bargaining is a negotiating process and the state has the right to counter union proposals at the bargaining table, Walker co-opted any voice by employees by eliminating collective bargaining.  He characterized union members as thugs.  This resonated among workers in Wisconsin who were suffering under low wages.  He suggested that the unions were hogging wages in a way that kept non-union workers underpaid.  And so, workers saw unions as the enemy, not the corporations which underpaid them while giving executives lavish salaries and bonuses.  These workers do not understand what the so-called Reagan Revolution did to America's workforce.  They place the blame for their inadequacies of income on the unions, not on the global corporations.  

Rather than collectively bargain for higher pay, workers supported Walker in taking away the bargaining rights of fellow workers.  

Walker's move to dismantle the university system and eliminate tenure is also an appeal to the resentment of the working class which feels that collective bargaining and job protections are unfair privileges.  

Walker has used the kind of false accusation and appeal to misplaced resentment that propelled Joseph McCarthy's rise to power.   His attempt to close off public access to government records fits in that scheme of keeping the public ignorant, misinformed, and in a state of fear and suspicion of fellow citizens.

Walker has tried to move Wisconsin close to what South Dakota is.   South Dakota already has laws which keep public records closed to its citizens.  It is a right-to-work state, which means employers have the right to work workers as hard and with as little compensation and respect as they choose.  Its education system is fettered by corporate and political ties. And it features the lowest remuneration in the nation for any kind of honest work.  

South Dakota is the model for what Scott Walker would like to make the nation.  Joseph McCarthy is the founding father to him.  

UPDATE:  In signing budget  bill,  Scott Walker strips state workers of minimum wage and takes away tenure for professors.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States