What happened in Wisconsin?
Unless you were in Wisconsin during that campaign, it is difficult to assess the precise meaning of this defeat. Many commentators tell us that Gov. Walker's victory was a bad omen for President Obama's reelection. That may well be true. But what else can we make of this?
The country's move towards the right, in this case to hostility to government, labor unions, to paying taxes has not yet come to an end. That is distressing for those of us who are not on the right of the political spectrum.
But much more upsetting is the general air of unrestrained emotionalism and sheer craziness that we can see everywhere. Educational authorities in Arizona continue to purge the libraries and classrooms of books they regard as unsuitable. The state legislature of North Carolina has ordered its climate scientists to ignore the powerful evidence that ocean levels will rise and threaten the Outer Banks. Ignoring facts has now become official state policy in North Carolina. These and many other moves on the part of elected officials are not just conservative – they are plain crazy.
The right-wing agenda clearly has different strands. There are businesses who want to assure continued welfare for big business and, since money is in short supply, agitate to cut benefits for the poor, the elderly, retired people. There are religious Christians filled with hate for gays, appalled by abortions, who want to put women back in the kitchen and the nursery. And then there are millions of people who are not in business and who have no serious religious commitments, who accept the program of the big business-reactionary Christian alliance. Under ordinary circumstances these folks would recognize how crazy the remedies are that they now put their faith in. But today they are willing to give any of them a chance.
If we look at the last century of public decision-making, we see times when the country does well, is aware of the demands of our political ideals, is inventive and forward-looking and generous towards those who suffer. Then there are the times when we all seem to be pointing fingers at each other, and blaming each other for whatever is wrong, when citizens seem to be filled with hate, when groups circle the wagons to defend themselves against threats—both real and imaginary.
It seems clear that we are in one of these periods. We have had some difficult years between the attacks of 9/11, between two failed wars and now a financial crisis that will not go away. Our schools seem to be in a shambles. Health care costs are rising precipitously. What will we do with a rapidly aging population? It is not surprising that people are afraid.
What is worse, no one seems to have any good ideas of how to improve the situation. The fight against abortion rights, the war against contraception unleashed by the Catholic bishops, whose parishioners all practice contraception, the hysteria about immigration, none of them will put people to work or deal with the problems of education, of the environment, or resolve the crisis in health care.
Then there is the enthusiasm for the free markets. For one thing, the anti-immigration movement is saying that we do NOT want a free market in labor. The persistent attacks on labor movements send the same message. In addition, a free market does not tolerate monopolies or government subsidies but free market enthusiasts have no problems with either. What else is cutting taxes on business and their rich owners but a subsidy? Their praise of the free market is not a reasonable economic policy; it is an emotional symbol, it is pure superstition.
With everyone unsure of how to solve our problems, the snake oil salesmen have a field day. When in trouble, we are likely to want to try any weird thing. "Let the free market handle it" some say, "shrink the government" say others. "Lower taxes for the rich, " "ban gay marriage," "make it harder for people to vote," "reverse the gains made by women in the last 50 years," and on and on. Some of these remedies will not work; others are morally repugnant. None of them will solve our current problems.
The real lesson of Wisconsin is this: the country is scared and at its wits' ends.