Unlimited money buys unlimited dumb in Wisconsin and elsewhere
“Dateline NBC” once offered a group of children a breakfast choice: a banana or a rock with a Scooby-Doo sticker on it. Almost all of them chose the rock. Last Tuesday, Wisconsin chose the rock.
Everyone’s looking for the lesson of the failed recall effort. The lesson is that marketing beats brains, perception beats reality, Democrats are useless corporate shills, and people are just too damn stupid to live.
Citizens United allowed Scott Walker to raise some $40 million to manipulate the voting public. For over a year, Walker and the PACs supporting him inundated print, radio, TV, and online media. Walker outspent Barrett more than 7 to 1. The Koch brothers alone spent twice what Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett spent in total. The sad kind of national support Democrats could muster was a tweet from Barack Obama which read: “It’s Election Day in Wisconsin tomorrow, and I’m standing by Tom Barrett. He’d make an outstanding governor. -bo” Hours earlier, the President was in Minnesota speaking at the union-busting Honeywell corporation (this is the same company that recently detained labor journalist Mike Elk because he had the temerity to practice journalism). The DNC barely showed up. And they started framing the loss as meaningless before the polls even opened.
Sure, Bill Clinton came to Milwaukee — a few days before saying the Bush tax breaks on the wealthy should remain in perpetuity. And Barrett himself was a rotten banana, whose only resonant message was that he wasn’t a rock. Before the primary, he brought in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a fundraiser, which unions protested, because Rahm’s a corporate flunky. Under his leadership, Chicago’s seen union-busting “reform,” a Democratic fundraising hotel heiress appointed to (privatize) the school board, and that same hotel turning heat lamps on striking workers during a sweltering summer. And never forget Clinton & Emmanuel are the “liberals” who brought you NAFTA — the worst attack on the middle class since WWII.
So that’s the choice. Rotten bananas or rocks covered with stickers. Neither one is very good. But that’s how populist movements are killed by the electoral process.
The Right’s framing Walker’s victory as a indication of where the country’s headed. Well, we’ve been heading that way for a while. Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson is recollected as a progressive champion. Before entering the Governor’s Mansion, Thompson was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — the group founded with Koch money which produces model legislation primarily in the areas of school privatization, union-busting, and voter ID laws.
If you’re looking for some kind of naive liberal silver lining here, one of the four Republicans facing a recall on Tuesday lost, so Democrats took control of the State Senate. It’s a moot point since the Wisconsin legislature is out of session until after the November general election, when half of the seats are up for grabs, anyway.
Democrats just don’t have a good counterargument, generally, because the entire debate is framed with Republican language and, therefore, it takes longer than 30 seconds to explain why public unions are a public good. And when it comes down to it, the Democratic Party is bought and paid for by corporate interests, too. And in post-Citizens United union-busting America, where the traditional fundraising mechanism is bound to fail, Democrats will invariably go to the corporate trough more than ever.
It’s doom and gloom. It’s civilization’s twilight. What else did you expect?
Our species is fundamentally stupid. We’re biologically inclined to tribalism, magical thinking, motivational reasoning, bias confirmation, and just plain old idiocy. I’d say we’re just dumb apes, but apes know better than to pass on a banana. We’re just kids who want the Scooby-Doo rock. $40 million buys a lot of stickers. It buys a lot of focus groups. It buys empirically tested language and imagery. And it buys a lot of airtime, print ads, and tweets.
The most egregious adverts of this truncated cycle were the NRA’s “Don’t let Barrett recall your gun rights,” the Willy Horton-esque “Crime” — wherein Barrett is blamed for the death of a toddler — put out by the Walker campaign, and also their “Jobs” spot. The first two are horrific on their face, but the “Jobs” ad represents a particularly pernicious aspect of our perverted democracy. Under Walker, Wisconsin has had the worst job record of any state in the nation. But Walker’s advert touts cooked, unverified numbers produced — ignoring the Department of Labor system used by every other state — just in time for the election.
The “Jobs” ad demonstrates the media’s complicity in misinforming the public in exchange for cash (many times they’re awful enough to do it for free). It’s like if McDonald’s devised a new, and unreliable, way to calculate that Big Macs only contain 100 calories. Media in Wisconsin and elsewhere, however, couldn’t take the cash to spread McDonald’s hypothetical lies. It’s illegal to outright lie when selling a product — sure, not every late night infomercial is totally honest, but you can’t use demonstrable untruths in an advert. In politics, for some reason, it’s a different story — and for the media, a very profitable one.
Wisconsin is a schizophrenic place — birthplace to the abolitionist Republican Party, liberal champion “Fighting” Bob La Follette, and The Progressive magazine. But it was also home to Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare, the John Birch Society — cofounded by Fred Koch — is headquartered there, and the state’s been very much a test tube in the last few years for the far-right agenda pushed by Koch (and other rich asshole) money in the form of ALEC, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and extensive focus by the Republican Governors Association. Incidentally, the Democratic Governors Association was out to lunch on this recall, too.
State’s rights, as conservatives call it, is a brilliant mechanism to move power away from the people. Even medium-sized corporations can easily bully state governments to loosen environmental regulations, as they have in Wisconsin. “Bully” might not be the right phrase, considering the character of people like Scott Walker and State Senator Scott Fitzgerald, but it is far easier for a company like Koch Industries to get its way on the state level — which is not to say they don’t have the juice ($98 billion in yearly revenue) to attempt to dismantle the EPA.
In the context of what this recall means for November, and all elections to come until the hastened death of our fragile civilization, it’s a preview of the remarkable power that billionaires and Super PACs can now exert on the state level — the same basic strategy to elect Mittens Romney in swing states.
I’m not sure there’s a substantive difference between the Obama and the Romney. While Mittens is a bit more obvious about his lack of principles, we’ve seen nothing but soaring political rhetoric from Obama to suggest he’s even marginally on the right side of history. Talk is cheap. In a lot of sad ways, his first term may as well have been Bush’s third. We liberals are supposed to be impressed that he’s in favor of gay rights, but it’s a naked appeal to the base at its money, pandering to Americans who aren’t totally backward Jesus freaks. The crowning “progressive” achievement of his presidency — one comically derided by the right as “socialist” — was the same kind of health care reform Romney instituted as Governor of Massachusetts. When single-payer was being tossed around D.C. in the mid-’90s, the Republican answer was the Dole Compromise — which is the same insurance and pharma giveaway that is at the core of Obama/Romneycare. Maybe SCOTUS will strike down the individual mandate soon, and that’ll be our back door to single-payer (or more than likely nothing at all).
Again and again, as the country marches diligently to the right, we’ve seen old Republican ideas repackaged as purportedly “liberal” concepts — the most important being cap-and-trade. Back in the ’90s, when it seemed like we might actually take some preventative measures to avoid our species’ suicide, cap-and-trade was presented as the business friendly, Republican alternative to a straight-up carbon tax. Now it’s thought of as a laughably “socialist” idea.
I’d be surprised if Romney were able to connect with the human population. Walker at least has that Christian idiot thing going for him. People can identify with him — no matter that it was against their own economic self-interest. But people are pretty dumb. I know. I’m people, too. Romney comes off as a clip-art elitist, a Mormon Terminator with a $50,000 elevator for his many Cadillacs, but a billion dollar marketing campaign might make Floridians & Ohioans forget all that.
This is a bit of a tangent, but imagine that the next 20 years brings the kind of school privatization ALEC is after. A few months ago, I went down to Tallahassee to speak on a panel about the Koch brothers influence at Florida State University. The same thing’s happening in economics departments all over the country. The Kochs donate money — with strings attached. In some instances, there’s a contract which gives the Koch Foundation the right to hire professors of their choosing, and to make Ayn Rand required reading. I wish I were kidding. And a tangent inside a tangent: one of my fellow panelists had a copy of a school privatization bill presented by a Florida legislator. The guy didn’t even have the wherewithal to remove the “ALEC model legislation” bit from the bottom of the page. Again, I wish I were kidding. Back to the tangent at hand: imagine that instead of merely swallowing the typical American myths, like that George Washington wasn’t a total bastard, our nation’s children will be fully indoctrinated in the ways of CATO Institute and Heritage Foundation “free-market” dogma. Millions of little Paul Ryans running around! Horrific thought, right? Like with global warming, it would create an irreversible, and suicidal feedback loop.
Back to silver linings, this one far more promising, Scott Walker has a $160,000 legal defense fund for a reason. He’s the only U.S. Governor who needs one. There’s been some talk that Romney may even tap Walker for Veep, or that Walker will at least rock the Republican Convention in Tampa. Neither option would be wise to schedule in ink. Walker’s not only embroiled in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s John Doe investigation, which has already resulted in the arrest and conviction of several of his staffers for illegally campaigning on county time and ripping off Iraq War orphans (nice guy, huh?), but he’s now also the target of an F.B.I. probe.
I was in Wisconsin for the recall, and at a Madison GOTV concert when David Shuster broke the news that Walker was officially on the Fed’s radar. Tom Morello, who once played good music with a band called Rage Against the Machine, read Shuster’s tweet to the some 2,000 attendees. And they went wild — even though they were kind of confused. There’s been plenty of local press about the John Doe thing, but not so much about the federal component of the investigation. The sad result was that instead of jumping all over the news, and pushing the MSM to act on the scoop (if possible), the lefty Wisconsin cheese-o-sphere mostly discounted Shuster’s reporting. Maybe it’s doubly stupid to think any amount of empirical facts could have swayed this race one way or the other, but many Badger State bloggers muddled the local John Doe and the FBI case, and basically posted something that went like this: “Duh, we know Walker’s a John Doe target! David Shuster is a Muppet.” He may sound a great deal like Kermit the Frog, but I’ve received independent confirmation that Shuster is, in fact, a human man.
So, yeah. I was in Wisconsin for this horrific slice of history. One more in a moldy loaf of bread. Madison ladies cried. Some men talked of The Brothers Karamazov. Many badmouthed the banana. And everyone tried to wash down the rock with booze. What’s next? What do we do now? Mittens is the Scooby-Doo rock. Barack Obama is the rotten banana. We’re all children. Too stupid to live.
I thought about joining Otis Redding, and jumping into Lake Monona. But I drove home instead. Just because we’re too stupid to live doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. See ya ’round, Madtown.