Why Wisconsin Became a Hotbed for Political Unrest

Dec 12, 2011

On Monday, we kick-off our Project Milwaukee series, “State of Upheaval.” We look back at the volatile year in Wisconsin politics, from the November 2010 election of Gov. Scott Walker to the effort now a year later, to kick him out of office. In our first segment, WUWM’s Erin Toner explores why Wisconsin became a hotbed for political unrest.

Protesters loom as Gov. Walker testifies before a Congressional committee in April on fiscal problems faced by states.
Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

Observers told her the bad economy helped set the stage for new political leadership and a new style of politics. Wisconsin has captured the national spotlight this year for political protests and recall races, but the state’s troubles are not unique, according to Fred Siegel. He’s an economic historian at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership in New York. Siegel says states and countries for that matter, are attempting to burst bloated deficits by deeply cutting government spending, and struggling workers are pushing back.

“This tension is ubiquitous. There are very few places in the West, including Western Europe and the United States, where you don’t have these problems and what’s going on now with Greece and Italy are in many ways parallel to what we’re seeing in Wisconsin,” Siegel says.

The so-called “austerity measures” some have deployed focus on public sector cuts and tax increases. Gov. Walker did not raise taxes to ease Wisconsin’s $3 billion deficit, but moved decisively to downsize state government. For example, he cut billions from education, grabbed oversight of state regulations, and forced public sector workers to pay more for their health care and pensions. When he also announced intentions to stifle most public unions, thousands of people began demonstrating at the Capitol and Democratic senators left the state to block a vote. But the Republican governor and legislative leaders stood firm, stating voters elected them to improve Wisconsin’s financial picture.

Economist Fred Siegel says the 2010 elections indeed ushered conservative Republicans into power, and their steadfast policies have intensified the political divide in this so-called “purple state.”

“That was an enormous, enormous shift on the legislative level and that’s what produces this confrontation now. So you have two strong forces. Those associated with Dane County and Milwaukee, the public sector unions, and those opposed in a relatively equal balance,” Siegel says.

This heightened level of polarization is a far cry from Wisconsin’s political past, according to Andrew Kersten, a historian at UW-Green Bay. As far as leadership is concerned, he says Gov. Walker appears almost exclusively motivated by his ideology and desire to fashion a more conservative Wisconsin.

“I think over the last 40 years, politicians tend to run to their base in Wisconsin. But then once they’re elected, rule from the center. And that’s been true up until now, where Gov. Walker really hasn’t ruled in the center at all,” Kersten says.

When it comes to labor issues, Kersten says Wisconsin has been a state where the two sides negotiate. He says the practice evolved, in part, because of tough labor battles between business owners and employees over wages and working conditions.

“One of the key moments is 1898 in Oshkosh where there was a general strike against the sash, door and window manufacturers in the city and it was very violent. The results were sort of mixed for the union, but it also planted the seed in peoples’ mind that perhaps there’s a more peaceful way of going about settling these problems,” Kersten says.

Yet, Kersten says political divisions have long simmered in Wisconsin, but recent events caused them to boil.

“It’s a combination of things. It’s a bad economy. People feel worried about the future and are looking for a change in leadership to help provide some answers. I also think this is a political project of outside forces to take a progressive state and turn it into a conservative state,” Kersten says.

Those outside forces include the wealthy Koch Brothers and the anti-tax group Club for Growth. Both have spent a lot of money here promoting Republican candidates and conservative policies. On the other side, Democrats and labor groups have been pumping in millions to bolster liberal leaders and causes. Think tanks of both stripes have also been promoting their studies in hopes of swaying decisions here, knowing Wisconsin is viewed as a litmus test for national leanings.

Jack Norman is research director for the non-profit progressive group, Institute for Wisconsin’s Future. He insists the state is no better off for all the drastic cuts made in 2011.

“Our jobs performance in Wisconsin right now is lagging behind the nation. The nation seems to finally be in some kind of recovery, and we’re not here in Wisconsin. It’s a pretty basic economic fact that when jobs are scarce and the economy is slow that is the absolute worst time to cut back on government spending,” Norman says.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate in October was 7.7 percent – the same as in October 2010 – and Gov. Walker remains far from his goal of creating 250,000 private-sector jobs. Norman says the numbers don’t lie.

Brett Healy insists the governor is still fixing the state’s past structural problems, positioning it for a brighter future. Healy is president of the MacIver Institute, a free-market think-tank in Madison.

“In the past we’ve relied on accounting gimmicks and other short-term fixes to get us through and I think what we faced earlier this year was an honest attempt to put an end to that situation once and for all and to finally put Wisconsin state government on the course to living within its means,” Healy says.

Healy says the Capitol protests this year and the recall effort against Governor Walker, underscore the seriousness of the economic issues Wisconsin is facing. And he won’t guess whether the governor’s aggressive approach will end up costing him his job.

“That is a great question that I guess we’ll all know the answer to soon enough,” Healy says.

Mid-January is recall organizers’ deadline for submitting more than a half-million signatures needed to force a recall.