I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up.
— “Peter Pan” the musical, 1954
WAUWATOSA, Wis. — This state, the first to let government employees unionize, was an incubator of progressivism and gave birth (in 1932 in Madison, the precursor of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) to its emblematic institution, the government employees union — government organized as a special interest to lobby itself to expand itself. But Wisconsin progressivism is in a dark Peter Pan phase; it is childish without being winsome.
Wisconsin has produced populists of the left (Robert La Follette) and right (Joe McCarthy). On Tuesday, in this year’s second-most important election, voters will judge the attempt by a populism of the privileged — white-collar labor unions whose members live comfortably above the American median — to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
In this Milwaukee suburb, a pro-Walker phone bank is conducting mobilization, not persuasion. Is any voter undecided? For 16 months, Wisconsin, normally a paragon of Midwestern neighborliness, has been riven by furious attempts to punish Walker for keeping his campaign promise to change the state’s unsustainable fiscal trajectory driven by the perquisites of government employees. His progressive adversaries have, however, retreated from their original pretext for attempting to overturn the election Walker won handily just 19 months ago.
He defeated Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. A recall is a gubernatorial election, and the Democrats’ May primary was won by … Barrett.
In 2010, government employees unions campaigned against Walker’s “5 and 12” plan. It requires government employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pension plans. (Most were paying less than 1 percent. Most private-sector workers have no pensions; those who do pay, on average, much more than 5.8 percent.) Walker’s reform requires government employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health care premiums (up from 6 percent but still less than the 21 percent private-sector average). Defeated in 2010, the unions now are demanding, as frustrated children do after losing a game, “Let’s start over!”
Like children throwing a tantrum against the rules of a game going badly, in 2011 petulant Wisconsin Democratic legislators fled to Illinois to disrupt the Legislature. Walker’s reforms included restricting the issues subject to collective bargaining. This emancipated school districts from buying teachers’ health insurance from a provider entity associated with the teachers union. Barrett used Walker’s reform to save Milwaukee $19 million.
In justifying a raucous resistance to, and then this recall of, Walker, the government employees unions stressed his restriction of collective bargaining rights. But in the May primary, these unions backed the candidate trounced by Barrett, who is largely ignoring the collective bargaining issue, perhaps partly because most worker protections are embedded in Wisconsin’s uniquely strong civil service law. Besides, what really motivates the unions and elected Democrats is that Walker ended the automatic deduction of union dues from government employees’ pay. The experience in Colorado, Indiana, Utah and Washington state is that when dues become voluntary, they become elusive.
So, Barrett is essentially running another general election campaign, not unlike that of 2010 — except that the $3.6 billion deficit Walker inherited has disappeared and property taxes have declined. By re-posing the 2010 choice, Wisconsin progressives’ one-word platform becomes: “Mulligan!”
The emblem displayed at some anti-Walker centers is an outline of Wisconsin rendered as a clenched fist, with a red star on the heel of the hand. Walker’s disproportionately middle-aged adversaries know the red star symbolized murderous totalitarianism, yet they flaunt it as a progressive ornament. Why?
Because it satisfies the sandbox socialists’ childish pleasure in naughtiness, as does their playground name-calling (Walker is a “Midwest Mussolini”) and infantile point-scoring: When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsed Walker, Wisconsin’s Democratic Party chair fulminated that six decades ago the Sentinel (which merged with the Journal in 1995) supported McCarthy.
Also, many backward-looking baby boomers want to recapture their youthful fun of waving clenched fists in the face of privilege. Now, embarrassingly, they are privileged.
A January poll found that even 17 percent of Democrats think recalls are justified only by criminal behavior, not policy differences. If, however, Walker loses, regular Wisconsin elections will henceforth confer only evanescent legitimacy. If he wins, progressives will have inadvertently demonstrated that entrenched privilege can be challenged, and they will have squandered huge sums that cannot finance progressive causes elsewhere. So, for a change, progressives will have served progress.