Scott Walker marched onto the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) stage as the event’s only rock star. He then delivered a postmodern vision for America’s future president by cobbling together pieces of Frank Capra’s and Ayn Rand’s vision for a people’s hero from central casting. The result: Scott Walker as CEO of a company town hitherto known as the United States of America.
This year’s CPAC, held March 14-16 in Washington, DC, otherwise revealed a GOP much divided. Old stalwart favorites such as Karl Rove were booed, presumably for his November election forecasting failures featuring his “new math” (read: “I got a hunch,” versus New York Times blogger and statistician Nate Silver’s hard numbers). Others, such as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, were wheeled out in the hopes of defying Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are “no second acts in American lives.” Reprising their stale repertoire of one-hit wonders from their pop-chart days, they provided yet further evidence that “history repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.” With this cast of characters, CPAC risks becoming to politics what the 1980s television program “The Love Boat” was to show business: a venue for has-beens looking to cash in on nostalgia.
Yet one among them was not from what McCain’s senior presidential campaign adviser called this year’s CPAC’s “Star Wars alien bar scene”: Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin. Unlike most others at CPAC, Walker is still relevant. He also has presidential aspirations that might be realized. Still fresh from defeating labor and Democrats (both small and large d) in Wisconsin’s recall, Walker walked into the hall and quickly assumed command of a CPAC ship hard listing to its fanatic-fringe birther extremists.
Walker is very smart, without being intellectually curious. Known since college for getting others to execute dirty tricks on his behalf, his imagination, to paraphrase a popular religious bumper sticker, is limited to, “What would Nixon do?” He is, however, unlike Nixon in being exceptionally composed, taking any amount of fire from critics in stride. Meanwhile, his delivery is far closer to Reagan’s than Nixon’s.
We’ve learned we are not going to get original ideas from Walker, but retreads and hybrids of past political manikins dressed up in new clothes. Walker makes no mystery of the source of his political inspiration. He has told us heretofore, in his now infamous faux-Koch phone call, that it comes from Reagan. Thus, Walker’s message is a kind endless-loop sampling of Reagan’s 1984 political ad, “It’s morning in America” overlaid with a rap about a cadre of John Galt CEOs leading America forward.
Unlike Paul Ryan’s more rigid adherence to the true (read: frat-boy mean) Galt character, Walker morphs him into a 21st-century compassionate conservative who, in pursuing his own self-interest, is really helping everyone shed the chains of the New Deal. It’s really just warmed over 19th-century Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger characters sampled for the 21st century, but Walker thinks he has found in them the formula for successfully rebranding conservatism as compassionate, contra George W. Bush’s previous failed attempt. Apparently, the answer lies in more libertarian policies that euthanize the New Deal. Walker tells us we will no longer be dependents of the state, but instead, self-empowered individuals possessing dignity.
It looks good on paper, but what we objectively know is that, in countries with minimal government, big money rules and inequality and limited social mobility reign. In short, Walker has a utopian vision in mind that has never existed in reality, but which lives as a dystopian and very real reality in many poor countries of the world.
At CPAC, Walker told us that he was the CEO of Wisconsin, elected to return government to the people from the special interests that held it hostage. This message resonates with many Wisconsinites and likely would with many Americans. Walker capitalizes on people’s frustration with the continued erosion of middle-class living standards. Given the near death of labor unions, people are in no position to address falling wages. Thus, Walker displaces their frustration onto big government and special interests. Moreover, given that unions never fought hard in earlier decades for benefits for all Americans, such as the Canadian United Auto Workers did four decades back with universal health care, Americans perceive their unions (sometimes accurately, sometimes not) as pursuing their members’ own “special” interests only, with the ever poorer taxpayer footing the bill.
But Walker does not merely enrage his audience like an AM radio talk show host. He “empowers” them by transforming them from victims to owners of government. His campaign rebranded the electorate as “the taxpayer,” or veritable stockowners of a company they owned called government. People would take charge of their lives through Walker’s movement against government largesse for unions and bureaucratic “elites.” Walker’s campaign thus takes on an upbeat liberatory character as it undertakes the very business of further eroding middle-class living standards.
Walker presents himself as the CEO of this enterprise in which the electorate is stockowners. Yet what is troubling is that this metaphor is too close to reality for comfort. In a corporation, not all stockowners are equal. If you have only one share of stock in a company with many millions of shares, you are in effect voiceless, given that other stockholders may have thousands or even millions of shares (votes).
In Wisconsin’s recent recall, Walker was able to radically outspend his opponents, and, in corporate fashion, saturated the media environment with 24/7 ads for months in advance of the election. I’m not sure what to call such a system, but it clearly is not democracy and does very much reflect the workings of a corporation. To be sure, this was not the only reason for Walker’s victory. People had to accept the message, and in the end, after it had been carefully crafted and endlessly delivered, they did.
Walker’s constituency – largely the white working classes with no college education – needs a hero. By and large, they have lost health and retirement benefits and have not seen raises in years. The ever-shrinking public sector is an inviting target for them. It’s one of the few places where the working class still receives decent benefits (medical, retirement, etcetera). Instead of asking why they no longer have benefits themselves, Walker’s supporters want to know why the people in their employ (the public sector) still have them? Walker’s supporters largely assume, “We are broke.” They fail to recognize the US economy is larger than ever, but that wages have not risen in tandem with economic growth since Reagan. Everyone must tighten his or her belt, we are told, except the .1 percent, who must routinely loosen their belts after gorging more and more at the all-you-can-eat buffet of productivity gains, prepared by the entire population in a meal otherwise known as profits. Moreover, the public sector (the “enemy”) is disproportionately people of color, thus playing on the racial divide in Walker’s ongoing game of dividing and conquering the electorate.
Walker’s strategy is reminiscent of the corporate shareholder “revolutions” of the 1970s, which took back control of companies from managerial elites and returned it to the owners. That revolution was known for displacing managers focused on long-term investment and replacing them with those willing to wring out big profits now, often by killing off long-term investments. Walker repeats this, but again, reflecting the power dynamics of corporations in which a few own most of the company and the many have only a few shares; thus leaving a political cash-out in the present for big “stockholders” (taxpayers), but at the expense of lack of investment in the “corporation” (the state).
Walker succeeded in selling this vision – with more than a little help from his friends (out-of-state billionaires). To advance his aspiration of becoming America’s CEO in 2016, he must get re-elected as CEO (again, his self-description) of Wisconsin. He has shown a Reagan-Telflon-like capacity for evading scandal. He just narrowly escaped a John Doe investigation that left many of his top aides convicted felons. His next task on the way to becoming America’s CEO in 2016 is to get re-elected to governor in 2014. He promised to create 250,000 jobs. And having been among the worst performing governors in job creation in the United States in the last two years, he asked, “What would Reagan do?” The answer, apparently, was to default to deficit spending. Just as Reagan used military Keynesianism to pull the United States out of the early 1980s recession, Walker has borrowed massively to fund road construction and returned a small part of the borrowed funds to the public (owners) as tax cuts. However, the only thing the public owns are Walker’s debts, which are designed to propel him to re-election and thus eventual victory as America’s CEO.
If Walker prevails, you can welcome yourself to a new America: a company town with Walker as its CEO.