Wisconsin is quite a place. Much of what is going on today reminds me of my days in Madison as a University of Wisconsin undergraduate and law student in the ’60s.
They were “the good old days” if you were a part of that generation that spent your waking hours doing drugs, demonstrating, occupying campus buildings and dreaming of revolution. In the late ’60s a student was killed when leftist radicals blew up a campus building, students were often prevented from attending classes as protesters and National Guardsmen faced off against each other for weeks at a time, and the smell of tear gas was as pervasive as that of marijuana.
Many of my old radical friends are back now in all their glory. Many of those camped out in the state capitol building and carrying signs declaring their support of “workers’ rights” while comparing their state’s newly elected governor to Hosni Mubarak and Adolf Hitler are gray pony-tailed remnants of a culture most of us thought had vanished into the mists of history. But here they are again, defying orders to clear the capitol grounds while swaying to the folk music of Peter, Paul & Mary’s Peter Yarrow, who can only otherwise be seen on PBS folk revivals with other nearly forgotten guitar-strumming veterans of the ’60s protest movement.
Wisconsin is often referred to as the cradle of modern progressivism. Robert La Follette once trod the halls of Madison’s capitol, and it was here that intellectuals developed what was to become Social Security. AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employee union, was formed in Madison, a modern-day Mecca in the eyes of many leftists or progressives.
Few of those demonstrating against their new Republican governor have any appreciation of the changes in America and Wisconsin since the ’60s. They continue to insist that anyone who opposes them is a soul-mate of Hitler or worse. Their opponents aren’t just wrong but evil and must be crushed lest they destroy the progressive utopianism that Wisconsin is supposed to represent.
They have been joined in their assault on Gov. Scott Walker by outsiders in the media, organized labor and politics desperate to equate reform with evil. Although Walker is doing exactly what he said during his campaign would have to be done to save the Badger State from bankruptcy, he is depicted as a tool of billionaires leading a crusade to destroy organized labor and public service employee rights.
President Obama has joined the fray, and many of those sitting in Madison’s capitol building came at the behest of his very own cadre of organizers and activists even though the “basic rights” he has decried as under attack in Wisconsin are not and never have been enjoyed by the federal employees he oversees as president.
In fact, only 26 other states grant these “basic rights” to their employees, and several of these are considering reforms that go even further than those Walker proposes in Wisconsin. Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) went further than Walker on his first day in office by banning public employee collective bargaining via executive order. Democratic and Republican governors across the country are wrestling with the same problems that plague Wisconsin.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) is demanding that public employees pay not the 12.6 percent of their healthcare costs that Walker wants them to pay in Wisconsin, but 30 percent to put them in the same boat as their private-sector counterparts. Walker says his reforms are designed to avoid firing as many as 6,500 state workers over the next few years; Iowa’s Terry Branstad (R) and New York’s Andrew Cuomo (D), unlike Walker, seem almost evangelically ready to reduce their payrolls, embracing the idea of putting public employees out of work.
So it’s time for Wisconsinites, reporters and outsiders to face up to the fact that Scott Walker is no extremist. He is simply trying to deal with the consequences of allowing public employees to organize predicted by men like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia and Milwaukee’s long-timer, Socialist Mayor Frank Zeidler. That doesn’t make Walker an extremist, but a governor whose state books won’t balance because those who preceded him ignored those warnings and ultimately governed as if the ’60s would never end.
Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.