Wisconsin—Populist to Fascist in Ten Years

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Jennifer Estrada heard the news about Scott Walker’s election en route to one of her jobs. Jennifer, a lifelong Wisconsin resident, and a full-blown trumpeter for the quality of life in the Badger state, had been working two jobs for as long as she could remember, just to stay afloat. Jennifer’s husband, who had long worked for a local dairy, was typical of many dairy hands in Wisconsin, an illegal immigrant, with experience in farm work. Manuel Estrada, like so many Mexican-Americans, Manuel Estrada came across our southern border looking for work when he was only 17. He soon arrived in Wisconsin where taking care of farm animals on a dairy farm was second nature. As a young boy he had worked as a ranch hand in Mexico. Later on, he and Jennifer met and married and began raising a family. He wanted to earn American citizenship and remain in Wisconsin. But he didn’t count on Scott Walker and Donald Trump, and the growing Fascism in Wisconsin.   

In 2010, life changed in Wisconsin. With the advent of unlimited money that could be spent on political campaigns, under the new “Citizens’ United” law, Scott Walker, a long time ALEC member and a complete roster of similar Republican state representatives, including the leader of the House and the leader of the Senate were elected on a giant wave of money supplied by people like the Koch brothers.   These corporate billionaires  had for decades tried to insinuate their own personal legislation—lower taxes for corporations, less responsibility and liability for their actions, restrictions on voting, and—for their allies, like the NRA, more guns, especially automatic weapons, in the hands of White militant activists.

After 2016, when Trump’s presidency was added to the country’s problems, he added to Wisconsin’s problems. With ICE under orders to pick up anyone with any kind of minor violation and send them back to their country of origin, Manuel Estrada was picked up and sent back to Mexico. As were many other valuable farm hands like Manuel. Jennifer and the family went with him for a while, but for the same reasons that Manuel originally came here, the lack of enough work to survive, she and some of the children returned, and she began working 2 jobs, often 3, to support the family.

Scott Walker was not the first of the very hard-right-wing governors to come out of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) nor the first major politician. Senators have come from ALEC, House members and numerous Republican governors. They all have one thing in common. While in the state legislature, in all 50 states, ALEC makes contact with them, gives them money in the form of huge campaign donations and sends them on vacations, usually to luxury resorts, where they learn what will be expected of them.  In return, these 99.9% Republican state legislators sponsor legislation which the giant corporations wan, people like Home Depot and AT&T and Exxon and outside organizations, like the N/RA or  private prison networks often write for them. Scott Walker, a longtime ALEC member, went to work once he became Senator. He ended the Department of Natural Resources in the beautiful, pristine state of Wisconsin.

ALEC’s corporate owners hate to “waste” money on education. Scott Walker cut $450 million from the state education budget and then cut it again and again. He also decertified the Wisconsin teachers’ union, cut their wages, and cut the state’s participation in their health care plans. He added money to the state budget when it became clear that his policy was to attempt privatization of education while reducing education funding. From approximately 2015 on, he began adding money back into the budget (because he saw that he was losing popularity even among his Republican grunt propagandists) and reducing the total deficit by the end of his second term to only a $200 million deficit, plus the costs of the various educational districts having to pay for part of the teachers’ health insurance policies.   

Although the state turned around somewhat in 2018, with the election of Walker virtually ended collective bargaining in the state. In a video clip, Walker was heard saying to a billionaire Wisconsin campaign supporter, that he would get Right to Work legislation (which assures lower pay for workers) through the legislature through the “divide and conquer” technique. This was the same technique used by Nazis to take over the German Republic and turn it into a dictatorship.

If there is any better reflection of that small-town, friendly mentality and sense of association than Wisconsin, with its dairy farms and simple pleasures, like parades and high school band concerts and wholesome activities built around their kids, it would be very hard to find. Wisconsin is the birthplace of Populism. Robert Lafollette, the governor of Wisconsin, and later Senator, fought hard against the dominant corporations of the mid-1800s, the railroads. The railroads were squeezing the farmers and, with high rail prices, wringing the last dollar of profit out of farming.  Lafollette and other populists like William Jennings Bryan fought the railroads to a standstill.

But in the 21st Century, we have huge funds amassed by organizations like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Institute. Scott Walker and the Republican legislature…and the Republican politicized Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin—a horrible situation for Wisconsin residents, an unstable final appeals court, politically motivated and slanted towards and favoring corporations over people—are all beholden to these organizations. The money is staggering. We know that Scott Walker alone has benefited from the Koch-brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity organization to the tune of somewhere between $3 million and $7 million for his election campaigns. We know that immediately after Walker disbanded the teacher unions in Wisconsin, his organization received large sums of money from this same group.

But what has all this achieved? Walker eventually had to put most of the money back into education, ending up with only about $200 million less into the educational budget than when he came into office. But during the mid-part of his two terms, Wisconsin education, and in particular, Wisconsin teachers and students suffered from larger deficits that the final amounts. Local districts ended up with more of the costs. Private school parents received tax exemptions for part of their kids’ tuition. But during all this the ACT scores of Wisconsin kids dropped from 2nd in the nation to 41st. Is that worth all the sturm and drang?  Of course not. It is clear that Walker and his ALEC legislative teammates only acted to please their corporate sponsors. ALEC was the big beneficiary, and when their loyal followers realize that the people of Wisconsin were getting wise, they began raising money for schools, putting over $500 million back into the system when Walker realized that he might lose.

What did all the money buy the Right Wing billionaires? It bought them a state. It bought them a governor and a state legislature and a state Supreme Court that would do exactly as they were told. And what about the people of Wisconsin, the voters? They were screwed, to put it bluntly.  Wisconsin had a Public Accountability Board. Walker did away with the Public Accountability Board.

A retired public school teacher named Sheila Plotkin was not clear why people would want to do with public accountability. So she decided to find out among all lawmakers what percentage of people wrote into the state legislature wanting to do away with the Public Accountability Board. She surveyed all the legislators and got all the cards and letters from people who wrote in, about 4,000. Some people did want to do away with the PUB, about 6%. But 94% said they wanted the PUB to stay right where it was. But that was not what Walker and the ALEC-sponsored Republicans wanted and so the people’s wishes be damned, the board was ended.

 But that was just the beginning. Wisconsin had been a state with some pretty restrictive campaign contribution laws. Walker did away with them. School funding was further diluted by giving parents of children who went to private schools an $8,000 voucher. He did away with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, cutting the entire $4,000,000 out of the budget for state parks. For people like the Kochs, with paper mills and Tom Menard, with lumber mills, it was a recess on enforcement of anti-pollution regulations. “Small business owners” like these groups received tax cuts from Walker, estimated to be in the range of $1.5 million for Menard, which was about the same as the estimate citizens would need to clean up his messes.

But, if Wisconsin voters wanted better air and water and more accountability and higher test scores and fewer campaign contributions, why couldn’t they get it done? The answer is gerrymandering. It is a technique called “stack and pack.” What it means, essentially, is that after the 2010 election, the Republicans then in power, decided to end the two party system, and make it a one-party system in Wisconsin, not unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Gerrymandering means that if you have 100,000 people in a state legislators district, you “stack” the districts, that is,  divide two districts so that neither one has enough Democrats to form a majority in that district.

So Republicans set it up so that if they got 59% of the vote, they would get 59 of the 100 seats in the legislature. But if the Democrats got 56% of the votes, they would still get less than 50 seats in the legislature. Well, what can the Democrats do? They can’t appeal to the legislature because the legislature is not only Republican; it is a Right Wing Republican party beholden to ALEC corporations. ALEC members, through their individual corporations tell the legislators that they will take away their campaign funding and sponsoring of some benefits, like trips to Marco Island in January or Palm Springs in February for “educational” conferences or legislative planning meetings.

The Democrats could not go to the state Supreme Court for help because the state Supreme Court is made up of appointees who are also pre-owned Republicans. And when they appealed to the nation’s federal Supreme Court, they were turned away, with the court stating that re-districting was, and is, a political matter, not a legal matter. Consequently, they sent the matter back to the state. And so, as the 2018 election began to come into focus, the Democrats were not abler to affect change in the state legislature. But the people would be heard.

In 2018 the people of Wisconsin, all being able to vote for state wide offices, elected a Democratic Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Treasurer. But the gerrymandering continued to plague the state. The Democrats won 54% of the votes for state assembly but because of gerrymandering, they were able to fill only 36 seats. Not satisfied with that, Walker and his Republican/Fascist legislature decided to pull an old Fascist trick. Before they would leave office they would drop a poison pill into the works.

Immediately after the election, but before the new governor took office, Walker signed legislation that prohibited the new Governor, Tony Evers, from accomplishing many of the standard functions of a sitting governor. In addition, the legislation prohibited the new Attorney General from investigating or suing the old state legislature. Normally, this kind of thing would be tossed out by the state Supreme Court. But this court was not a normal court. It was a kangaroo court, set up by Walker and some of his financial backers.

At this point, enter, once again, Sheila Plotkin. Sheila could not believe that the fair-minded people of Wisconsin could approve of such a thing. So, again, she petitioned and received every single card or letter on this subject from individual citizens to their state legislators. The totals were 730 in favor of the lame-duck legislation. And 43,934 individuals voted with their comments against the legislation.

And what more specifically did this Walker and lame-duck-legislator law do? It removed the new governor’s job creating ability for several months. It shortened early voting periods to make it harder for students (mostly Democrats) to get home and back during election periods and for the elderly to vote. It imposed a work requirement on recipients of Wisconsin’s bastardized version of Medicaid, called Badger Care. If you were poor, you needed to show somehow that you had a job or you couldn’t be treated.

The lamed-duck law made it impossible for the new Attorney General to investigate or indict former members of the state legislature. It also gave the state legislature, the majority of which naturally was Republican/Fascist, the right of approval over any government contracts signed by the Attorney General.

This is exactly what happened in Germany in 1932. A large plurality, not a majority, of Germans voted for members of the Nazi party. Coordinating with other parties, the Nazis gained enough for a majority, which they needed to elect a Chancellor from their party. They did. His name was Adolph Hitler. Within a month, he had declared himself “Fuhrer” or “Leader” or “Dictator” whichever you choose, for life. At that point, it became law to follow the laws as laid down not by government but by Hitler himself, and breaking those laws was punishable by death. This is how quickly a cultured society (and by comparison, we are a nation of monkeys) can be turned into a divided, hate-filled country, ready to imprison or murder on the street millions of people because they are somehow different from you, calling them vile names and occasionally hiring gangs to beat or murder them in their homes or offices.

It is not too late to stop intolerance and bigotry and hatred and the closing off of the structure of government from one whole segment of society. We must elect only people who are kind, who see government as a service to the people and not only to giant global corporations and their owners. Corporations are not people, no matter what the Supreme Court has said. People are people and corporations are not. They are individual businesses which have corporate legal structure in order to make those businesses function more easily in society for stockholders, stakeholders, managers, employees, and the citizens adjacent to plants or customers of the business. They are businesses, groups of people banded together to make some product or deliver some service. But they are not individual humans nor should they have any special privileges because they are a business.

Wisconsin is an example of a lovely state, in which, because of propaganda, large amounts of political campaign contributions, and individual corruption, the citizens have lost control of the election process and the distribution of public services to functionaries for corporations. It is time that these people were voted out of government before it is too late.