The right-wing onslaught Wisconsin endured throughout 2011 should get beaten further back in 2012.
Alas, my last column of the year 2011 — a year, to borrow a phrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt, that at least for Wisconsin will live in infamy.
Throughout nearly all of its 163-year history, Wisconsin was a state whose people, regardless of their political affiliation, would come together to solve the problems and challenges that everyone faced. Its government had a national reputation for innovative and creative ideas that other states frequently copied.
All of that was turned on its head this year. Today, the people of the state are divided like never before. Even the tumultuous early 1950s, when the state’s junior U.S. senator, Joe McCarthy, was embarrassing the state with his witch hunts, were tranquil compared to today.
In order to redo state government to fit an ultra-right vision, a new governor, Scott Walker, and his admirers in the Legislature effectively destroyed the decades of progress that Democratic and Republican administrations had made through the years. And it wasn’t only collective bargaining for public workers, which Wisconsin itself had pioneered, that took an unprecedented hit.
It was rules on air and water pollution. It was dramatic cuts in public education all the way from kindergarten to the University of Wisconsin. It was the usurpation of local power in order to prevent municipal governments from enacting ordinances the Walker administration opposes, like the guaranteed family sick leave approved by Milwaukee voters. It was a draconian voter identification law that will make it harder for citizens to cast ballots next year. It was big tax breaks for corporations while the state forfeited millions of dollars in federal aid that would have put people to work fixing and expanding passenger rail lines.
Then to top it all off, promises that all these new policies would create jobs wound up at the end of the year with Wisconsin finishing last among the states in job creation — even behind Illinois, a state that Walker ridiculed for raising taxes.
Historically, Wisconsin has been a state of the “center.” It was never ultra-left, nor ultra-right. The people typically elected a diverse government. The governor might be a Republican and at least one of the two legislative houses would be led by Democrats or vice versa. Even when the voters saw fit to give one party complete control, the two sides — albeit at times rancorous — typically worked out differences together. That is, until now.
The 2010 landslide that whisked Scott Walker into the governorship and gave complete legislative control to like-minded ultra-conservative Republicans changed everything. This was clearly the chance for what was once a fringe wing of the party to put its stamp on Wisconsin on everything from public workers to the cultural issues — God, guns and gays — that have long been championed by the far right.
Where once a Republican governor like Tommy Thompson sat down with state employee union representatives regularly to discuss issues, Walker refused to even return phone calls. Where once a Republican governor like Warren Knowles fought to expand parks and protect wildlife habitats, this governor sponsored bills to allow wetland development and weaker DNR control over the state’s natural resources.
Where once Wisconsin was looked to as a laboratory of enlightened government, it is now ground zero for the anti-union, big corporate power grab that is trying to wrest control of all levels of government.
But, as our parents used to tell us, you reap what you sow. And Walker is now presiding over a state where neighbors are turned against neighbors, even family members against each other. It’s a state that seems to have lost the values and the outright decency that made Wisconsin a special place throughout its long, proud history.
As we head into the new year, let’s hope that this is but a temporary condition. For in 2012, Wisconsin has a chance to return to the days of which all of us — Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives — were proud.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the opinion section of the Capital Times.)
January 1, 2012
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Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of the Capital Times and a FightingBob.com contributing editor.