New York Times Op-Ed on “Wisconsin’s Radical Break,” 3/22/2011

I can’t reprint the essay here for copyright reasons, but readers of my Scholar as Citizen blog should be aware of the op-ed of mine published in the New York Times today. It is very much in the spirit of this blog: seeking to use scholarly and historical insights to shed light on contemporary political issues. In it, I explore the several ways in which Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican leadership have broken from longstanding traditions of good government and bipartisan cooperation in their own party.

Here’s the concluding paragraph: “The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.”

Maybe I should add to this blog a single sentence that was omitted from the final paragraph of the blog, which was originally situated right before the penultimate sentence:

One sign at a recent mass protest said it beautifully: “Bad leaders use problems to drive people apart.”

You can read it here:

9 thoughts on “New York Times Op-Ed on “Wisconsin’s Radical Break,” 3/22/2011”

  1. The key part of your Op-Ed came several paragraphs earlier (right before you erroneously stated that Gov. Walker “provoked” this level of divisiveness):
    “Wisconsinites have long believed that common problems deserve common solutions, and that when something needs fixing, we should roll up our sleeves and work together — no matter what our politics — to achieve the common good.”
    By leaving the state, every Democratic senator in Wisconsin completely abandoned the dedication to “work together – no matter what our politics…” thereby firing the first salvos of divisiveness.

  2. @Prof. Young, I think you might be confused The Democrats had to leave the state because the Republicans refused to debate much less agree to possible concessions. It took over 2 weeks of being out of state before the Republicans even pretended they wanted to compromise, which was never their intent. It was merely an attempt to get the Dems to come back so the bill would be voted in as is, without compromise or debate.

  3. Prof Cronin, I read your op-ed earlier this week and sent it to a number of people. As a lifelong Wisconsin resident of a half-century, I’ve been stumbling on words trying to express exactly how shocking this whole episode has been. Your words were absolutely spot on.

  4. I have major disagreements with your analysis in the NYTimes letter and with your initial line of inquiry about ALEC. Before you purge this post, remember the ole plaque on Bascom….sifting and winnowing…..Yeah, I am sure you remember.

    Your assumptions about Walker and Koch are wrong. Did you consider that Walker never had talked to either of the Koch’s before? He said so on TV, but none believed him. Ask yourself, why, if the two were so closely related…why would Walker have to go to such lengths to explain so much to Koch about what was happening? Re-examine the transcript. Doesn’t it give you pause to consider that Walker is talking and talking …as though he HAD NEVER talked to either Koch before?
    If Walker was so closely related to Koch bros., why didn’t he recognize the voice as that of an impostor? Your assumption that Koch pulls the strings that make Walker dance is in error. As an historian, I would have thought you might have considered this possibility. Instead, you see business contributors axiomatically controlling politicians. Possible, yes. In this case? I think not.

    Your analysis of Walker vs Wisconsin tradition and history? Maybe the myth of “common good” is finally hitting the wall of economic and fiscal reality. Remember Commons and SS? Yeah, sounded great..pure genius, just like the early investors with Madoff. Pure genius until the ponzi scheme runs out of new investors. Now the ponzi-scheme nature of SS is appearing on the horizon. Does it still look like genius? Same for collective bargaining. Perhaps, at first, the effects were fiscally benign. Now they are not. No escaping that. Property tax bills, the escalating costs of K-12 education, and even the 9% tuition increases for Madison should cause you to consider that the foundation of Wisconsin ‘ideas’ were hollow and based on Madoff principles. When the sand runs though the hour glass, time is up. Fiscal destiny of bad math and demographics is the current car wreck.

    Suspend your ideology for a moment. Is it possible that Walker and his bold moves is fiscally comparable to Cotton Mather and small pox inoculation? Is it possible that ‘progressive’ assumptions about the virtue of public union bargaining rights are wrong?

    Last year, Madison’s property values declined by about 3%……while school district expenditures are now rising by more than 8%….and UW tuition by more than 9%……while SS recipients received NO cost of living adjustment even as Medicare payments were raised. At some point……economic realities do affect citizens. There is more to the story than ALEC and conspiracy theories.

    1. It’s foolish (and partisan) to call Social Security a Ponzi scheme. That would make it a swindle. Try telling that to the 75 years of retirees who have avoided a degrading old age because of it. Unlike a Ponzi scheme it worked! It was always public knowledge that your lifetime contributions only supported 7 years of benefits – I think actuarial tables, and a plan designed with a different demographic profile, is hardly a swindle. Now we have a different demographic profile – we need some actuarial adjustments. I bet we are grown-up enuf to do it, if the power-greedy would get out of the way. Simpson-Bowles proposed raising the Max-benefit retirement-age a couple of years over a couple of decades. People screamed without really understanding it. I retired at 65 — I could have retired at 62 or 70, depending on my choice of benefit schedules. Same under the proposed rules. Finally, before we “starve he Beast” (as partisans say, who created the deficit with that intention) recall that that Beast is the senior citizens who have planned their lives under a set of contractual arrangements (not ‘an entitlement” used as a sneer to imply an unearned claim.)

  5. I was turned onto your (Prof. Cronon) blog when I friend posted an Atlantic blog post about it. First, I feel bad that you’ve been asked to turn over emails for what may be purely political reasons. Second, I liked your peace in the NYTimes, but didn’t think that it accurately presented the history. If the history wasn’t accurately presented or understood the points based on it are much weaker.

    Take, for example, your line “Both sides believed the normalization of labor-management relations would increase efficiency and avoid crippling strikes like those of the Milwaukee garbage collectors during the 1950s.” They may have believed it but there were tens of strikes (teachers, included) in the decade that followed the act that granted collective bargaining to municipal workers. They certainly had a right to have a bitter taste left in their mouths after passing it. Also, apparently the history of how the bill passed isn’t well understood, according to Wisconsin’s education association’s history book.

    Another difference that I noticed with a bit of googling is that even though the conservatives of 1959 tried mightily (perhaps) to not let the Act pass, they were there to vote against it, even though they’d lose. They (1959ers) didn’t flee the state, and abdicate their responsibility to work within the body they were elected to serve in.

    I appreciated your NYT piece and the slant (not intended to connote a negative opinion on my part) as it was polite, clear, and critical of people whose actions you opposed. However balanced the piece was, it seems that you could’ve made a more eloquent and accurate case for decency in Wisconsin politics without pretending that conservatives in 1959 supported collective bargaining rights for municipal workers, and with addressing the flight of the state’s Democrats.

  6. I think that Prof. Cronon has failed to mention a critical part of Governor Walker’s agenda. Its all well and fine to discuss a bipartisan past and a long lost progressive Republican wing. What he has not touched upon is that Scott Walker has given a tax break to corporations in a time of great public debt. All the other Republican governors who were recently elected as part of the “tea party” wing of the Republicans are attempting to do the same. Wisconsin giving up over a hundred thousand dollars of state tax income from corporations is not what a fiscally responsible government should be doing, especially during a recession as severe as the current one. If you make the public debt larger you aren’t trying to solve the problem. The attack on public unions is not based on economics. Its based on politics. Labor unions are among the very few large dependable sources of money for democratic candidates. This is part of an effort to ultimately defund the Democratic party by attacking a crucial part of its base. That is what this is about, not only in Wisconsin, but throughout the rest of the country. I wish that the embattled professor had touched on that. I hope he will in the future.

    Additionally, in an effort to see where Scott Walker’s policies will lead, let us look at Texas. Texas is a “right to work” state with very weak unions and has been under Republican control in the legislature and governorship for many years. Texas is facing giant deficits as well. You can’t blame strong public unions for that deficit. You can’t blame liberal Democratic spending either. So a state with weak to nonexistent unions, with no democrats able to pass their agenda and with very pro-corporate public policies is a financial mess. Looks like all the solutions that Scott Walker is advocating and pushing through have not done Texas any favors. Why would those same policies be expected to work in Wisconsin?

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