Lessons from Gov. Walker’s Win

Exclusive: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the new rock-star of the Republican Right, rode a wave of corporate money and anti-union sentiment to a recall victory. But his win could wake up progressives to the need for more media outreach to educate citizens on the dangers of unchecked corporate power, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The victory of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, beating back a recall effort led by labor unions and liberal activists, underscores not only the Right’s structural advantages in terms of money but the failure of the American Left over the past several decades to counter anti-government and anti-union propaganda.

Right-wing attacks demonizing Big Government and Big Labor have gone substantially uncontested by progressives who shut down or sold off much of their media in the 1970s (after the Vietnam War) and have resisted any serious effort to build a media infrastructure since then.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. (Photo credit: Megan McCormick)

Meanwhile, the Right has invested billions upon billions of dollars over the past three decades in building a vertically integrated media machine that makes its case to Americans over a variety of platforms (cable TV, talk radio, well-funded Internet sites, newspapers, magazines and books). The Left simply has nothing to compare. Wealthy progressives have mostly sat on the sidelines.

This media imbalance including attack groups to go after the occasional mainstream journalist who does dare challenge the Right’s propaganda has prevented average Americans, especially middle-class white men, from understanding the danger they face from unrestrained corporate power.

For instance, Wisconsin exit polls showed voters worrying about intrusive government and public-employee unions. A slight plurality favored the Tea Party and a majority supported Walker’s efforts to deny state workers collective bargaining rights. Those attitudes were reflected in the Wisconsin outcome, with Walker besting Democrat Tom Barrett, 53 percent to 46 percent.

Yes, the flood of donations from right-wing billionaires buying up TV air time was important, but those messages resonated in large part because they reinforced the propaganda that Americans see and hear every day when they turn on their TVs or listen to their radios.

Americans are conditioned to the message that the “free market” is magical and will solve their problems if only Big Government and Big Labor are kept out of the way. The countervailing message that the greed of Big Business has become a destructive force, leading the United States and the world toward ruin, is a harder sell because it is rarely heard and thus dissonant.

Today, the Left’s most important media voice is MSNBC, which is owned by Comcast and General Electric. Over the past several years, MSNBC has allowed a block of liberal programming in the evenings, but only after failing in earlier efforts to out-Fox Fox News in competition for the larger audience on the Right. That caused MSNBC to seek out the smaller but still profitable audience on the Left.

In other words, unlike Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which is committed to a right-wing agenda, MSNBC is just tolerating liberal shows for their ratings, a calculation that could easily change if Comcast and General Electric sense that their other corporate interests are being put at risk. Remember, their other major cable TV property, CNBC, is dominated by correspondents shilling for rich investment bankers.

Hard Truth

Because of this national media imbalance, millions of Americans have failed to comprehend the hard truth of their economic situation: Even if there were no recession, corporations simply don’t need as many of us as they used to. The combination of advanced technology and cheap labor abroad has made us expendable as workers (though paradoxically the corporations still want us as consumers).

The contradiction in that reality (that they don’t want to pay us but they do want us to keep spending) is at the heart of America’s economic crisis today.

The Great Recession has made matters worse, reinforcing the conviction among CEOs that their companies can make do with a lot fewer American workers. The recession also gave companies cover for culling their payrolls and announcing their determination to stay “lean” by relying on technology and shifting jobs overseas.

So, even as corporate profits recover, American workers shouldn’t expect companies to hire up. And, the Republican prescription of slashing government payrolls to reduce taxes again mostly for the rich is only going to make the employment crisis worse. The private sector still won’t hire up and there will be more workers competing for the few jobs that are out there.

The good news is that there is an obvious solution to this structural economic problem: The federal government could increase taxes on the rich, i.e., those who have been profiting off cheap foreign labor and advanced technology, and then recycle some of that money back to “expendable” workers via various jobs programs, from repairing the nation’s infrastructure to improving the quality of life.

During some of America’s biggest boom years in the Fifties and Sixties, the top marginal tax rate was 90 and 70 percent, respectively. Now, the top marginal rate is 35 percent on earned income and 15 percent on capital gains. That means, some rich investors are paying tax rates only one-sixth of the top rate under Dwight Eisenhower and less than one-quarter the top rate under John Kennedy.

So, there is no reason to think that higher tax rates on the rich would be “job-killers,” as the Republicans and their media allies say endlessly. Indeed, the Fifties and Sixties were a golden age for American workers, and a more recent experiment with slightly higher tax rates, raised to just below 40 percent under Bill Clinton, was accompanied by the nation’s last major expansion of employment (and a balanced budget).

To protect the overall economy, the government also could impose reasonable regulations on corporations to prevent dangerous excesses and to ensure that workers (and consumers) get a fair shake. It would make sense, too, to strengthen the ability of unions to negotiate for higher pay, rather than marginalize them.

Through a mix of smart government investments and checks on corporate hegemony, a reinvigorated middle class could afford to buy goods and, in turn, make businesses more profitable. The alternative of a tiny slice of super-rich living in unparalleled luxury while most people see their modest dreams crushed is not only a recipe for political disorder but ultimately won’t even be good for the rich.

Thus, the answer for middle-class and working-class people should be obvious: Support a democratized and energized government that intervenes on behalf of the broader society and insists that the spoils of a world market and advanced technology are shared more equitably.

After all, many of those business opportunities created by high-tech and free trade were made possible by the U.S. government investing in things like the space program, the Internet, an interstate highway system and global security.

Bad News

But the bad news is that Big Money has now run amok. Corporate chieftains are embracing Ayn Randian theories about the morality of inequality.

To back up this extreme ideology, they’ve also financed a political/media industry that deludes average Americans about the nature of the threat they face. It’s an endless process of waving shiny objects before the eyes of the citizenry and it works.

This political/media structure also can inflict punishments. Politicians and media figures who step out of line pay a steep price. After all, the system’s well-compensated propagandists are very skilled at making their opponents look bad and there’s always some personal failing or professional mistake that can be highlighted, exaggerated and turned into the defining element of a target’s life.

Mainstream journalists, who worry that they too could be targeted by the Right, have adapted to this ugly system by joining in it, focusing on the foibles of the target du jour.

In Campaign 2000, when Al Gore was regarded as a threat (mostly because of his environmentalism but also because he saw benefits in wise governance), the Right and the mainstream media transformed him into “Lyin’ Al,” the delusional boaster about his imaginary accomplishments.

The fact that the press including the New York Times and the Washington Post had to make up quotes for Gore to “prove” the point made a certain kind of sense if you understood the deformed political/media structure that now exists in the United States. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore vs. the Media” or Neck Deep.]

In Campaign 2000, the American Left didn’t help things when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader campaigned on the slogan, “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush. That was arguably the most destructive falsehood in U.S. political history (if one considers the consequences of the Bush presidency and his Supreme Court appointments, think: Citizens United.)

Something similar is underway now with President Barack Obama, whose mild center-left reforms and his rhetorical defense of government as a force for good have infuriated the Right.

A recent Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times summed up the emerging Obama conventional wisdom that seeks to explain his failure to solve the nation’s problems by dissecting Obama’s difficult childhood as a mixed-raced child abandoned by his father and often separated from his mother. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The ‘Blame Obama’ Syndrome.”]

Obviously, the nation’s problems are far deeper than Obama’s personality flaws. But Dowd’s column fits with the broader pattern of blaming anyone who challenges the status quo (even slightly).

So, here’s the conundrum: The United States and the world are confronted with some of the most dangerous challenges ever, including the existential threat of global warming which could dangerously destabilize the Earth’s nations as it gradually makes the planet uninhabitable.

As a rapacious capitalism ravishes the Earth’s diminishing resources, an ascendant Right also is determined to roll back social progress made over the past century or more. And, the gains from technological progress are being claimed by a smaller and smaller percentage of the world’s population.

There is an urgency to reverse these trends. But that will require convincing citizens, especially in the United States, that government and, yes, higher taxes are vital components of any solution.

[To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]  

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

7 comments for “Lessons from Gov. Walker’s Win

  1. Hammersmith
    June 8, 2012 at 09:23

    The people there may be genuinely concerned about fiscal soundness and integrity (using the latter term in it clinical sense).

  2. MikeFoo
    June 7, 2012 at 04:07

    As if it wasn’t obvious before — the President and the Democratic Party leadership consider Progressives a greater threat than Republicans.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    June 6, 2012 at 19:49

    Analyses of the Walker victory to my mind miss the point entirely. At this minute, number one on the Yahoo News top ten list is “Sheryl Crow’s (who’s she?) Brain Tumor”. The Walker campaign isn’t even mentioned. The progressive point of view may be that his democratic opponent was abandoned by his own party, but it seems to neglect the possibility that the votes just weren’t there to start with. Sure, you can probably still buy an election. In this case, it is rumored that Walker spent 88% of the money to get 53% of the votes. But it doesn’t take much money to carry signs, knock on doors, sign petitions, sport bumper stickers or rally in public places.

    We ponder why people repeatedly seem to vote for their own worst interests. They certainly do, but progressives, generally well educated and isolated from the poverty they profess to abhor don’t see the class war the way poor people see it. Another argument is that voters saw Walker’s battle with organized labor in the Reagan tradition: that Walker did nothing illegal did not justify attacking his labor policy. What they forget is that Reagan’s battle against air traffic controllers could be justified as an attack on an illegal strike. Still union busting, I admit, but nevertheless qualitatively different.

    When you are poor, and have no way out, all those smug bureaucrats with “comfy” union jobs, safe pensions and health benefits are the enemy you deal with on a day-to-day basis. They are the ones who put your call on hold, keep you standing in line, can’t find your file, tell you to re-submit your paperwork, and consistently demonstrate themselves to the proverbial “eyes of the beholder” as rude, callous parasites who produce nothing while others are forced into wage slavery or prison. This is the fuel upon which fascism feeds. Right at this moment on CNN, apoplexy over security “leaks” with the insinuation that they may have been politically motivated is the current crisis. Fear, paranoia, accusations, and the flimflamming of the public about the real threats to our future is the news du jour.

    But the bottom line on Walker is this: expect more of the same. The last referendum held by Germany’s Nazi Party was 98% favorable. The opposition lost because the votes just weren’t there.

  4. incontinent reader
    June 6, 2012 at 16:32

    Those on the email list to contribute to the Barrett campaign were told from time to time that the national Democratic Party was doing little to help Barrett, and toward the end Barrett was gracious enough to give Obama “face” by saying as president, he had many more important issues on his plate. It also seemed that while the Barrett campaign was seeking funds, the National Committee was trying to skim a portion of it. My sense is that Barrett’s agenda which is solid and people oriented is not in sync with the Wall Streeters in the Administration. It’s hard to know how much the supporters are being told the truth or being played, but in the end it became truth or consequences. It’s too bad about Wisconsin, and the majority of its people will suffer while its wealthy will continue to seize more economic and political control, until the people there realize that they’ve been gamed and that Tom Barrett was the better choice- hopefully he will keep trying; but as H.L.Mencken said “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” So, right now, maybe it is time to pick up the pieces, learn from what went wrong, develop and communicate feasible alternatives, and keep on fighting, while Wisconsin goes to hell in a hand basket. In the end there is no way that several thousand people who call the shots in Wisconsin and elsewhere will ever be safely ensconced for any length of time, if the many millions on the other side understand the inequities of the system and become more active to protect and advance their collective and national interests.

    As for Obama, where his campaign in 2008 was strategically brilliant, many are now seeing through the bullshit.
    And, with foreign policy? Forget it. It is ironic that it is now the Russians and Chinese who are setting the right standard for rule of international law and global stability, while the Administration (and the one(s) before it) have
    been the miscreants, and short term opportunists. And, looking to the future, as every day passes, one thing is becoming more and more clear, i.e., that a Hillary Clinton Presidency would be a global disaster.

    Romney’s crew are gangsters and the rape will continue, but there must be a house cleaning of the Democrats if the
    country is to get on the right track.

  5. lYNNE
    June 6, 2012 at 15:37

    Even though MANY on the right question the President’s birthplace they continue on without consequences. Yet, Dan Rather and his producer were fired and banished when they tried to present the many months when George W was missing during his National Guard service. 1 piece of paper was wrong. The story itself was true.
    Where is the outrage at R’s who filibuster EVERY step Obama takes? How can he be a Socialist when the size of Govt has decreased under his watch, but increased under W? It is ALL about messaging and repetition. The most effective format has been talk radio and frankly it is not the big nationally syndicated shows like Hannity, Rush, Beck etc, but the local rightwing parroting hosts that interact with local people by phone that solidifies the big lie. We all should be calling in to these programs locally. They are our airwaves and we deserve an informed citizenry. Don’t just sit there. Pick up the phone when their hate and divisive words are spewed. Local shows are easy to get on and their lies are easy to expose.

  6. FoonTheElder
    June 6, 2012 at 15:13

    One big lesson that progressives fail to learn is that the national leadership of the Democratic Party won’t offer any support to them when it counts.

    They bend over backwards for any Republicrat who votes with the Republicans constantly, but when it comes to upholding the rights of everyday people, they show themselves as just another group of big corporate Wall Street puppets.

    • June 7, 2012 at 17:09

      “One big lesson that progressives fail to learn is that the national leadership of the Democratic Party won’t offer any support to them when it counts.”

      Agreed. As Lance Selfa and Paul Street say, the Democrats are the second wing of the bird of prey. They’re wings of the same corporate vulture.

      “The pretense in disputed elections is that the great conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is a much bigger conflict that the two parties jointly wage against large numbers of Americans who are represented by neither party and against powerless millions around the world.”
      – Howard Zinn, in an essay titled “Tennis on the Titanic” (from his collection “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress”)

      A lesson that Democratic Party supporters should (but probably will not) learn from Wisconsin is that mere reform is inadequate. Pragmatism and compromising on your demands guarantees that the monied interests will roll back the hard-won protections and achievements.

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