Scott Walker is taking heat for claiming that supporting equal pay for women “pit[s] one group of Americans versus another.”
Here in Wisconsin, howls of laughter could be heard echoing through the marble walls of the state capitol: after all, this is a governor whose divisive approach has helped make his state one of the most bitterly polarized in the country.
Throughout Walker’s political career, he has mastered the art of pitting one group against another. He has established a pattern of governing by sneak attack, or what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls “a record of dropping bombshells.” And his tenure has left the state divided like never before. Here are a few examples:
- “Haves and Have-Nots.” In late 2010, just weeks after being elected governor on a platform of fiscal responsibility – and never mentioning his plans to attack unions – Walker began seeding his plans for attacking public sector collective bargaining by stoking resentment against the supposedly lavish benefits enjoyed by teachers and snowplow drivers. “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” he claimed. Days after his anti-union “budget repair bill” was introduced, Walker’s political allies began running ads declaring, “state workers haven’t had to sacrifice. They pay next to nothing for their pensions, and a fraction of their health care. It’s not fair.” In the midst of an economic downturn caused by Wall Street gambling, Walker blamed the state deficit on public sector employees, rejected their offers to negotiate over health insurance and pension contributions, and ended public sector collective bargaining rights – despite the protests of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites urging him to reconsider.
- “Divide and Conquer.” Just days after Walker was first sworn-in as governor in 2011, he spoke privately about his plans to “divide and conquer” Wisconsin unions in a videotaped conversation with billionaire GOP financier Diane Hendricks, his single largest donor. “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions….And become a right-to-work [state]?,” Hendricks asks in the January 2011 video. Walker replies: “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.… That opens the door once we do that.” Although in the years to follow Walker would insist that right to work would not get to his desk, in 2015 Wisconsin became the 25th right to work state after he signed the ALEC-inspired bill into law.
- Let’s not “become another Milwaukee.” Walker has consistently generated political support from Southeast Wisconsin’s majority-white suburbs by running against majority-minority Milwaukee. The metro Milwaukee region where he has spent most of his political career is one of the most polarized places in the country, and Walker has used that polarization to his advantage. As a state legislator representing a Milwaukee suburb in the 1990s, he carved out a “tough-on-crime” niche that stoked fear of urban crime. He was elected Milwaukee County Executive in 2002 with deep support from the county’s white enclaves. And as governor, he reversed the paid sick days law that Milwaukee voters had enacted with overwhelming support and eliminated residency requirements for municipal officials. During the 2012 recall campaign, he attacked his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, with racially-charged ads about violent crime in Milwaukee that were denounced as ‘Willie Horton’-style tactics, and warned that people don’t want Wisconsin to “become another Milwaukee.”
- Claims that Democrats Steal Elections. Walker has advanced an entirely unfounded narrative of Democrats stealing elections to push ALEC policies like voter ID, a law that disproportionately affects people of color in the state. “I’ve always thought in this state, close elections, presidential elections, it means you probably have to win with at least 53 percent of the vote to account for fraud,” he told the Weekly Standard in 2012. “One or two points, potentially … I mean there’s no question why [liberals] went to court and fought [to undo] voter ID.” Yet repeated investigations by both Republicans and Democrats have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and federal Judge Richard Posner – a Reagan appointee – found last year that “voter impersonation fraud is virtually nonexistent in Wisconsin.” In fact, the only recent example of major voter fraud in Wisconsin came from a Walker supporter, and wouldn’t have been prevented by voter ID.
- Assertions that Poor People Are Taking Your Money. In the 2014 elections, Walker continued to spread resentment of the poor – particularly those in Milwaukee – by pushing a law requiring drug tests for food stamps and unemployment benefits, and selling it as a paternalistic measure to help the poor find work. In other words, he used low-income Wisconsinites as a scapegoat for the state’s poor economic performance and suggested they are too high to find a job. Other states that have tried these schemes found little evidence of drug use among recipients of public benefits, and actually spent more on the programs by squandering taxpayer funds on humiliating and unnecessary drug tests.
National commentators have picked up on Walker’s divisive ways. Where Republican presidential candidates like Rand Paul and Jeb Bush have focused on expanding the party’s appeal, Walker’s presidential campaign is premised on his being “unintimidated” and uncompromising when it comes to right-wing orthodoxy. As Jamelle Bouie has noted, “If any candidate could run a rigid campaign of polarization – aimed at winning as many white voters as possible – it’s Walker.”
The Wisconsin governor, Bouie writes, offers Republicans “the chance to win without broadening your base or changing your priorities. Victory, but at the price of greater racial polarization. It’s a seductive vision – and an inherently divisive one.”