Center for American Progress

The Contours and Context of the Conservative Class War in Wisconsin

The Contours and Context of the Conservative Class War in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin union battle represents a turning point in American politics, writes Eric Alterman. The question is whether the media can report what’s really going on.

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Pro-union protesters hold up an American flag as they march around the the State Square in Madison, Wisconsin on February 19, 2011. (AP/Andy Manis)
Pro-union protesters hold up an American flag as they march around the the State Square in Madison, Wisconsin on February 19, 2011. (AP/Andy Manis)

When Ian Murphy of the online newspaper Buffalo Beast prank-called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, he was, as he admitted, “wildly unprepared.” But it didn’t really matter. All he had to say were the words “David Koch” and Walker was running off at the mouth about his plans to trick the missing Democrats from the legislature into returning for a phony-baloney negotiating session while the Republicans push through Gov. Walker’s bill to destroy the unions’ collective bargaining rights. (The Murphy/”Koch” suggestion that troublemakers be placed in the crowd is the newsmaker here, but not necessarily the most interesting news.) But whatever the eventual outcome of the Wisconsin struggle there’s no question that it represents a turning point in the shape and contour of American politics.

I warned in two recent Nation columns of the onset of a new “class war” here and here. Conservatives and their billionaire allies, having won enormous victory in shifting the tax burden from the rich to the rest of us, would now seek to use state financial difficulties to destroy public unions who were among the last bastions of money and people-power for progressive candidates.

ACORN was taken down with remarkable ease with the help of a cowed mainstream media as I discussed here and here. Right-wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers were behind almost all of these efforts, among others. They funded phony organizations as well as directed their actions, often unbeknownst to the people holding the signs and chanting.

Eric Lipton of The New York Times notes that the Koch-financed Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, told a large group of counterprotesters who had gathered Saturday at one edge of a union protest, “We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation.” But he failed to mention that a Koch-funded organization was planning to make this happen.

Koch was also a major funder of Gov. Walker, and sent his executives “to try to encourage a union showdown," as Phillips himself explained.

The desire by a coterie of wealthy right-wing activists to gin up conflict for the purpose of rewriting laws to destroy the power of any and all who oppose them on the national stage will set the terms of debate for the final two years of the Obama presidency. The biggest question is whether what remains of the mainstream media will be able to report these stories in context, as Mr. Lipton did.

In an extremely useful Think Progress post we see the long tail of these decades-long investments by wealthy right-wingers to redirect the entire course of American politics toward the power of the wealthy. It notes that:

  • Much of Gov. Walker’s critical political support can be credited to a network of right-wing fronts and astroturf groups in Wisconsin supported largely by a single foundation in Milwaukee: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a $460 million conservative honey pot dedicated to crushing the labor movement.
  • The MacIver Institute is a conservative nonprofit that has provided rapid-response attacks on those opposed to Gov. Walker’s power grab. MacIver staffers produced a series of videos attacking anti-Walker protesters, including one mocking children. Naturally, the videos have become grist for Fox News and conservative bloggers.
  • The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute is a major conservative think tank helping Gov. Walker win support from the media. The institute has funded polls to bolster Gov. Walker’s position, and like MacIver, produced a flurry of attack videos against Gov. Walker’s political adversaries and a series of pieces supporting his drive against the state’s labor movement. Over the weekend, the institute secured a pro-Walker item in The New York Times. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute is supported with over $10 million in grants from the Bradley Foundation.
  • As Think Progress has reported, the powerful astroturf group Americans for Prosperity not only helped to elect Gov. Walker but bused in Tea Party supporters to hold a pro-Walker demonstration on Saturday. The Bradley Foundation earmarked funds in 2005 to help Koch Industries establish the Americans for Prosperity office in Wisconsin. The foundation gave about $200,000 to Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin (also called Fight Back Wisconsin) from 2005 to 2009.

What’s more, I also learned from yet another Think Progress post:

  • The Koch-financed Club for Growth is involved in the alleged “counterprotest” movement as well.
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council, another Koch-funded group, advised Gov. Walker and the GOP legislature on its antilabor legislation and its first corporate tax cuts.
  • American Majority is a Virginia-based front group founded by organizers and funded by millionaire investor Howie Rich.

The Tea Party folks are ready, too. As yet another Think Progress post notes:

National tea party groups like Americans for Prosperity have been bussing conservative activists to Madison, WI to confront protesters there standing up to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) union busting. But Tea Party Nation and Mark Williams, the disgraced former chairman of Tea Party Express, who was forced to resign after making offensive racial comments, are calling for a more radical approach. In an email alert to supporters sent last night, Tea Party Nation promotes Williams’ “great idea” to impersonate SEIU organizers at upcoming labor rallies in an attempt to embarrass and discredit the union.

The memo suggested “plants” to sign up on the SEIU website to be organizers for an upcoming rally, dress up in SEIU shirts, and to then make outrageous comments to reporters covering the events in order to “make the gathering look as greedy and goonish as we know that it is.” (Americans for Prosperity has launched a new website and petition called The new site attacks all collective bargaining, not just for public-sector unions. Koch’s front group also declares: "In fact, every state should adopt Governor Scott Walker’s common sense reforms.")

In finding all this useful information on the Think Progress website, I found myself wondering if the well-documented research would be likely to affect the shape of the public debate over the coming conservative class war in light of the campaign of hysterical lies perpetrated not only on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Wall Street Journal, among others, but also finding their way into the most impressive heights of the mainstream media. (Really, Mr. Santelli? Wisconsin public pensions are the equivalent of Al Qaeda’s murder of 3,000 innocent Americans on 9/11?)

The constant refrain in the media is that Fox, as well as the entire far-right conservative media borg, is somehow offset by the three hours of liberal programming that appears on MSNBC each evening. How odd, therefore, to learn from yet another Think Progress post that Joe Scarborough, the guy to whom MSNBC gives two hours of airtime every morning—and who may be considering a run for the Republican nomination for president—is speaking out of the Walker/Koch/Bradley playbook. The MSNBC host insists that these “greedy” folks are demanding a “free-ride” from taxpayers despite the fact that the unions have already agreed to make the economic concessions necessary to help close the budget gap—while retaining their constitutional right to collective bargaining.

The mainstream media is under threat from two forces simultaneously. One is economic and the other ideological. Together they invite the exploitation of an ill-informed public, as the pundit Walter Lippmann predicted, by “the quack, the charlatan, the jingo and the terrorist.”

My Think Progress colleagues have done yeoman’s work in seeking to ferret out the relevant facts and context to make sense of what is really at stake in the current crisis in Wisconsin. Whether these facts are central in mainstream media reports, however, will prove the blueprint of a constant battle begun by the right decades ago.

But this battle appears to be reaching a kind of culmination as conservative class warriors launch what they hope will be a final assault on the hard-earned rights of working people and their families to fight for themselves and their families against the forces of combined wealth and influence amassed to crush them. The coming weeks may provide our answer.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

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