[This post was co-authored by Lisa Mux and Phil Scarr. All spelling or grammatical errors belong exclusively to Phil]
We watched agape as Americans for Prosperity held an “It’s Working Wisconsin Town Hall” meeting at the Waukesha Expo center. And as an added bonus, Lisa got a big hug from Mark Block… It was a magical event!
It was a crisp, bright Saturday morning when eight hundred and fifty Waukesha-area residents gathered under the silver dome of the Waukesha Expo Center to listen to several speakers assembled by the Wisconsin chapter of Americans For Prosperity. They were there to gloat over the “success” of the Republican economic and social legislation. To the assembled throng of Scott Walker acolytes, these reforms are “working.” But they didn’t come to talk politics, they said. They came to “separate the rhetoric from the reality.” We were there to bear witness to this alternate version of “reality” firsthand.
As we sat listening to the pre-event conversations going on around us, quietly whispering “Oh my god, did you hear that?” to one another, a young man passed out bumper stickers. Lisa was shocked to find that her brand new blog business cards were eerily similar (i.e. identical!) to the “God Bless Gov. Scott Walker” bumper stickers we’d just been handed. It was an eerie foreshadowing of the stranger things yet to come.
We settled into our seats behind a woman wearing an Andy Griffith Show t-shirt who said delightedly that she owns twenty such t-shirts. The black and white visages of Andy & Barney looked back at us appearing somewhat bewildered in this strange brew of libertarians, Tea Partiers and Movement Conservatives. The room slowly filled as we bopped our heads to tunes from the Beach Boys, The Beatles and Steppenwolf. Phil began to feel the dissonance resonate behind his eyes as John Lennon belted out his anthem Come Together, rumored to be a political anthem in support of Dr. Timothy Leary’s Presidential bid in 1968.
He wear no shoeshine
He got toe jam football
He got monkey finger
He shoot Coca Cola
He say I know you, you know me
One thing I can tell you is
You got to be free
Come together, right now
Yes, the AFP crowd was humming along to a John Lennon acid trip song, conveniently forgetting that John Lennon was definitely not one of them. Around us, fellow attendees agreed with one another with many an “I know, I know” that the state of our state was dire. The damage done by the unions and the greedy public sector workers was only barely surmountable and that thank the lord that Scott Walker was there to lead them into the sunlit uplands of prosperity! We were through the looking glass where Alice was nowhere to be found. She was hanging out with the Red Queen whom she found eminently more reasonable than any of these folks.
Shortly after 10am, Luke Hilgemann was introduced as the new State Director of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation. Luke served as the Chief of Staff for the Majority Leader of the State Assembly, and helped craft one of the most reactionary legislative agendas in our state’s history, including such gems as Conceal and Carry, Voter ID, and the Castle Doctrine.
Hilgemann said, “This forum is meant to arm you with the facts, so that you can spread the Good News in your neighborhoods and communities. While we welcome opposing viewpoints, we will adhere to a strict zero tolerance policy for outbursts and interruptions of today’s discussion, and we have several law enforcement officers and personal security to help us do so… Unlike Madison, we can and will have respectful dialogue here today.” In other words, get out of line, hippie, and it’s the pepper spray for you.
At that point, Lisa wanted to scream into a pillow.
Phil busied himself by focusing on the Reality Distortion Field that was being constructed before our very eyes from “charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement, and persistence.” And a very, very, very selective use of data.
For instance, we’ve all heard the stories from the right about how the “tools” are working, about how the state managed to avoid thousands of layoffs. We heard speakers tell us how well the “tools” were working and the state managed to avoid thousands of layoffs. We saw a video telling us how well the “tools” were working and the state managed to avoid thousands of layoffs. We heard how this district or that district had saved money or lowered taxes. But the reality is that, across the state, tax bills are up. And not by a little, but sometimes by quite a lot.
But we were told how layoffs were avoided because of the “tools.” The crowd cheered. The crowd knew that these heroes on the stage were the real friends of the workers! It was these men who had saved the teacher’s jobs! And taught them the value of “shared sacrifice” to boot! Civic virtuousness writ large!
This is what “no layoffs” of public employees looks like in Wisconsin.
We don’t know about you, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and falls off a cliff like a duck… I’m willing to bet it’s a duck. Now whether this duck was achieved with pink slips or intimidation, the economic result is the same. More people out of work in Wisconsin. I’m always amazed that Republicans believe that money spent by public sector workers is one color, while money spent by private sector workers is another color. Last time we looked, there weren’t two kinds of money. It was all (mostly) green.
“Wisconsin is stronger than ever,” we heard. But yet there was no mention of the loss of private sector jobs across Wisconsin. The ongoing hemorrhaging of good paying work was unsurprisingly absent from the lectern. Where was this chart, for instance?
“We’re not here to talk about politics. Instead, we are here to separate the rhetoric from the reality on what the budget reforms … have done for our state.”
Apparently anything that can be done for the state can be done to the state, and to the citizens. This brings me to the next linguistic quirk Lisa and we noticed from each and every speaker. The Expo Center was not filled with citizens, it was filled with taxpayers. Understand? This was a room full of victims of greedy unions and public workers, not members of a community.
Citizens versus Taxpayers
The obligations of citizenship were deeply connected into one’s everyday life in the polis. To be truly human, one had to be an active citizen to the community, which Aristotle famously expressed: “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!” This form of citizenship was based on obligations of citizens towards the community, rather than rights given to the citizens of the community. … Also, citizens of the polis saw obligations to the community as an opportunity to be virtuous, it was a source of honour and respect. In Athens, citizens were both ruler and ruled, important political and judicial offices were rotated and all citizens had the right to speak and vote in the political assembly.
But taxpayers are only obligated and put-upon. A taxpayer is someone forced to pay a tax.
A tax may be defined as a “pecuniary burden laid upon individuals or property owners to support the government […] a payment exacted by legislative authority.” A tax “is not a voluntary payment or donation, but an enforced contribution, exacted pursuant to legislative authority” and is “any contribution imposed by government […] whether under the name of toll, tribute, tallage, gabel, impost, duty, custom, excise, subsidy, aid, supply, or other name.”
Being a citizen is an affirmative state, you are a participant in the social contract, but a taxpayer is a victim of the capricious and avaricious state. The rhetorical use of taxpayer as a replacement for citizen permits conservatives to play the victim, something they have done throughout history to help define themselves.
But I will say this: the sensibility you describe – experiencing or identifying oneself as a victim — is a consistent feature of conservative thought. Regardless of whether the ideologue or camp follower of conservatism sees him or herself as a victim, the idea of victimhood plays a critical part in conservatism. Going back to Burke. Marie Antoinette is the first great victim of the conservative canon. The sovereign who Joseph de Maistre recommends be restored to power once the counterrevolution prevails – someone Maistre describes as being schooled in the ways of adversity, who’s been brought low by fortune and thus learned a thing or two – he’s a victim (and Maistre recommends him to power on the basis of that victimhood). William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man” is another victim. Nietzsche’s master class, in fact, is a victim. So is Nixon’s silent majority. And so on.
Initially, I thought this was all instrumental and cynical: understanding that the lingua franca of democratic thought is the democratic appeal to the masses, the conservative turns the possessor into the dispossessed. But over time I’ve come to think that the victim is a far more fundamental, and sincere, figure in the conservative canon. Because not only does he appeal to us as a figure of compassion or pity, but he’s also someone who has a very particular claim on us: he demands to be made whole. In other words, he’s a rallying figure, someone whose losses – a country house, a plantation, a factory, a white skin – ought to be recompensed.
What’s more, when you turn your privileged class into a group of victims – not just rhetorically but in reality (the French Revolution really did produces losses among the aristocracy; Emancipation really did divest the master class of privilege and property) – they come to possess an attribute that is universally shared: loss. Their loss is quite different from that of the ordinary run of humanity, but loss is loss. I’ve sometimes wondered whether that might not be the right’s singular bid for universalism: it speaks for the loser everywhere.
But as you say, it speaks for the loser not by democratizing society – making things more equal – but by making it more elite, more privilege, more unequal.
It was an amazing experience to hear these folks talk about how the world was against them and how the greed and spite of the unions was driving the state to wreck and ruin. How the unions were stealing their money. In this sense, these folks certainly were not citizens in any way, shape or form.
Naomi Klein Makes an Appearance!
Early on, the audience was told that the forces arrayed against the beleaguered taxpayers told everyone that “the sky would fall” if these budgetary actions were taken. These false victims of the left were lying. The sky did not fall. But they neglected to remind the audience that the entire premise of the “budget repair bill” was based on the belief that… for the lack of a better term… the sky would fall if we didn’t end collective bargaining and crush the public unions. That “Shock Doctrine” of a faux fiscal crisis was used to justify the actions taken by the Republicans. It wasn’t the Democrats or the Unions who said the sky would fall, it was the conservatives!
Naomi Klein was right. The Republicans used the words of disaster capitalism to advance their radical agenda to destroy what makes Wisconsin great, and they then turn aournd and accused their political adversaries of using the rhetoric of disaster when in fact they were the ones who warned of disaster.
They used the Shock Doctrine to impose their radical agenda on the citizens of Wisconsin and then they accuse their opponents of claiming the sky was falling. Hutzpah, indeed!
Taxes Went Up Not Down!
Contrary to the rhetoric of lower taxes, the facts show that taxes in Wisconsin went up. Behold, the lie of lower taxes
MADISON—State-local governments collected $25.9 billion in taxes and fees in fiscal year 2011, 5.4% more than in 2010. This year’s tax burden was the highest since 2006, reflecting 2009-10 tax increases and a modest economic recovery. These findings are from a new Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX) report, “Postrecession Snapshot: Total Taxes in 2011.” WISTAX is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policy research and citizen education.
Where are the Qualified Workers?
Another theme that permeated the discussion of economics was the assertion that many companies can’t find qualified workers. The claim was made that there are 32,000 unfilled positions for skilled workers that employers cannot find. Why? Because we continue to discount the value of education for our workforce, training and re-training has taken a back seat to unprecedented corporate austerity in training budgets.
A recent survey of Wisconsin businesses conducted by the WMC confirms this problem. Training dollars for employees have declined in recent years and this may go a long way to explaining why employers are struggling finding qualified people.
And yet, despite the difficulty of finding qualified applicants, Wisconsin business leaders continue to starve their employees for training.
From a training peak in 2005, training dollars have dropped ever since.
Representative Vos: “When you hear the facts that you have today, and your neighbor or your friend or your spouse, decides to complain about what’s been done, take a moment…and share the facts because the only way we are going to win this argument is because we know the truth is on our side.” Is it, Mr. Vos? Is it really?
On our way out, we thought we might catch a glimpse of Mark Block aka The Smoking Man, and we were tickled to find him in the front of the Expo Center. Confronted with the reality of The Smoking man, we were unable to develop a coherent question, so Lisa loitered nearby as Phil tried to snap a picture. Without warning, Lisa was drawn into his malodorous embrace, and the photo was snapped for posterity.
After this “Close Encounter of the Block Kind,” we rushed for the door, fleeing the shadows of Reagan and GW Bush and darted into the cold winter sunshine. We had survived, bruised but unbroken.