On Scott Walker and Demonization in American Politics

I do not know Governor Walker. I have never met him; I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen him in person although Grace Episcopal Church, of which I am Rector, stands opposite the State Capitol of Wisconsin, and over the last four years I have been an eyewitness of the effects of his slash and burn politics.

With re-election in hand and a successful debut on the Iowa Republican stage, Governor Walker now seems to be a legitimate candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He has made some mis-steps, including fumbling responses to questions about evolution and President Obama’s faith on the national and international stage. But today he took it one step further.

In a speech at CPAC, he compared his success at pushing his agenda past 100,000 protestors to his ability to fight ISIS and other terrorists. His campaign quickly tried to make the best of his remark, but it reveals a sad truth in American politics, and in Governor Walker’s worldview. For Walker, and too many American politicians (and their supporters), one’s opponents are not people of good will who look on the world differently and come to different conclusions about what is best for a city, state, or nation. One’s opponents are inveterate evil, savages, barbarians, incapable of rational thought. While these views are present on both left and right, and too often I have heard educated Wisconsinites dismiss Walker as ignorant and evil, such ideas seem to be more prevalent on the right than on the left. One need only to cite Rudy Giuliani’s recent remarks concerning President Obama’s patriotism as evidence.

Still, for Governor Walker to compare, even in passing, Wisconsin’s protestors with ISIS fighters is revealing. To my knowledge, he never attempted to engage protestors, or even Democratic members of the Assembly or Senate in conversation about what might be best for Wisconsin. This weeks developments concerning Right-to-Work legislation is a perfect example. He said while campaigning that such legislation wasn’t a priority, but now, once introduced, he’s ready to sign it. He picks his targets, fires, and worries not about who is directly affected by it nor by what collateral damage might be inflicted. And for him, in some way, the image of ISIS fighters executing Coptic Christians is comparable to Wisconsin teachers protesting budget cuts, and presumably, the same teachers are as evil as ISIS fighters.

Throughout the last four years, I have consistently tried to make a case that Wisconsin, and our nation, needs to create ways of coming together to work toward the greater good of the community. We face significant issues. The racial disparities in our state and county are mind-boggling; the economy continues to create deeper inequalities. These are issues that can only be solved when the whole community, the state, the nation, comes together to develop solutions, and recognizes that individual sacrifices may be necessary to advance the common good. But from what I can tell, Governor Walker, and too many other politicians, are only interested in consolidating their power. They want to divide and conquer.

But when our governor, now a leading Presidential candidate, reveals that his worldview sees his opponents as somehow equivalent to terrorists and ISIS executioners, I despair. I think of all those who came into Grace Church four years ago seeking warmth and solace during the protests–black and white, mothers and fathers from across the state, children, teens, college students, worried about their jobs, worried about their communities, worried about their futures. I wonder whether Governor Walker ever talked to any of them, ever tried to see the face of Jesus Christ in them. I wonder whether he has spoken with UW faculty, administrators, or students, who wonder whether their livelihoods or futures are secure, wonder whether Wisconsin will be a place where they can make a home and a life for themselves. I wonder whether he thinks they are equivalent to terrorists.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the Democrats in Wisconsin have consistently misplayed their hand. They have underestimated Walker’s political skills; they have underestimated the depth of the disaffection among many voters; and they have been unable to articulate a compelling alternate vision of our state’s future. The protests this week were pathetic–not because their goal was wrong, but because they were a faint echo of the protests four years ago; protests that for all their power and energy, failed to prevent Walker’s agenda. 

I fear for our nation. We have seen the relentless attacks on President Obama’s patriotism, his faith, his character. We seem to be more deeply divided than ever. While members of Congress have not taken to pistol-whipping each other on the floor of the house as they did in the years running up to the Civil War, we are in a very dark place. And although we are a year away from the presidential election, I despair about the potential candidates in both parties. I doubt any of them have the ability to unite the people of our nation around common goals and purpose. Instead, I expect the demonization will only continue, the hatred among us only intensify.

National Attention on Racism in Wisconsin

It’s just coincidence, I’m sure, but two national media outlets have run stories on racism in Wisconsin. The first, in The New Republic, focuses on Governor Scott Walker’s rise to power in Milwaukee. It details the deep racial divide between Milwaukee and its suburbs, pointing out that African-American migration came relatively late to Milwaukee (in the 60s). The political consequences of the divide are breathtaking:

During this period, the WOW counties continued to expand. But unlike suburbs elsewhere, they had not grown more diverse. Today, less than 2 percent of the WOW counties’ population is African American and less than 5 percent is Hispanic. According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country. The WOW counties were voting Republican at levels unseen in other Northern suburbs; one needed to look as far as the white suburbs around Atlanta and Birmingham for similar numbers. The partisan gulf between Milwaukee and its suburbs in presidential elections has now grown wider than in any of the nation’s 50 largest cities, except for New Orleans, according to the Journal Sentinel series.

And this:

It is as if the Milwaukee area were in a kind of time warp. Like the suburbanites of the ’70s and ’80s elsewhere in the United States, the residents of the WOW counties are full of anxiety and contempt for the place they abandoned. “We’re still in the disco era here,” says Democratic political consultant Paul Maslin. This has affected the politics of the state in myriad ways. The nationwide trend of exploring alternatives to prison hasn’t reached Wisconsinit has the highest rate of black male incarceration of any state in the country.

The other story focuses on Madison’s Alex Gee and the efforts here to overcome the deep divide between Black and White. It ran on PBS Newshour last night. I think it’s important to see the connections between the two pieces–not in order to praise Dane County and Madison over against Milwaukee, but to recognize that there are deep continuities between the two situations and the political context. Madison and Dane County may be Democratic and Progressive strongholds but the reality of the racial divide calls into question the progressive agenda and politics of many of our political leaders. Their comfortable electoral majorities have resulted in complacency and building coalitions or working with the African-American has not been in their self-interest. The racial divide may not have been exploited here in quite the same way that it has been exploited in Milwaukee, but the results are the same–deep inequities, an unresponsive political system, and white flight.