The third week in December brought two startling stories highlighting the ongoing Dixiefication of the Midwest, a key ingredient in how the GOP, with its aging white male demographic base, is nonetheless strategically outmaneuvering the Democratic Party on multiple fronts. They are sharp reminders of how our politics are being reshaped in state legislatures and on the ground—and how inattentive to basics the Democrats have become since the demise of the 50-state strategy.
The story from Wisconsin concerns the secret signing of two laws, which Common Cause of Wisconsin called an “assault on democracy in Wisconsin,” that “sets good government back to the 19th Century,” while Rep. Terese Berceau, a Democrat, earlier called the bills nothing short of "an effort to create a permanent one-party state."
The story out of Michigan is about the sort of dire consequences that can come from such crippling of democracy: specifically, how the state, via the dictatorial rule of an appointed “emergency manager,” actively, horrifically poisoned the young children of Flint with lead, leading the mayor to declare a state of emergency in hopes of getting the state and federal assistance her citizens so desperately need. It wasn't just the young children, of course, but young children are the ones most heavily impacted, their thinking ability impaired for the rest of their lives. The story from Flint is most shocking and devastating, but it cannot be understood outside of the larger framework, which is why I'll turn to the Wisconsin story first, where that framework itself is the story, and deal with Flint's story in a followup.
First, a short note about what I mean by “Dixiefication.” It's a complex process—economically, a regressive shift toward low-wage, deregulated oligopoly; culturally, an anti-modernist shift toward backwards-looking, fear-infused myth and fantasy obsession; politically, an authoritarian shift toward culture war, demonization, exclusion, and erosion of accountability. It's been reflected in both states in a variety of ways—for example, both Michigan and Wisconsin have become so-called "right to work" states since 2010—a hallmark anti-labor measure pioneered in the South, which severely weakens both the bargaining power and political influence of unions.
But what most clearly situated their Dixiefication in national politics was their key roles in the extreme anti-democratic gerrymandering that helped the GOP keep control of the House in 2012, despite losing the popular vote for House seats by more than half a million votes—which at the same time gave them a stranglehold on state government ever since.
From Union-Busting to Election-Busting
Although other aspects were also present, in Wisconsin its dynamic was centrally driven by its core economic logic, a drive toward a corporate-friendly, low-wage, Deep South-style economy, as described by Ed Kilgore in relationship to Governor Scott Walker's purported “budget bill” aimed at crippling public employee unions. That bill began the story, which culminated in the recent secret bill signings giving free rein to political corruption in Wisconsin—another common feature of Dixiefication.
The budget bill sparked massive protests and a powerful recall movement, which Walker survived with massive outside spending assistance from dark-money groups, which in turn led to a judge-supervised, grand jury-like “John Doe” investigation looking into potentially illegal coordination and campaign contributions between Walker's campaign with outside dark money groups. The probe was halted last July by a controversial 4-2 decision by the ethically compromised Wisconsin Supreme Court, which effectively gutted Wisconsin campaign finance law. Two of the justices involved had received substantial support from Walker's backers, but refused to recuse themselves from the case—a further demonstration of Wisconsin's rapid slide into corruption.
In October, Republicans introduced three bills to consolidate and extend the damage the court had done. The first, passed that month, prohibited John Doe investigations of political corruption. The other two were just signed into law by Walker on Dec. 16, cementing the GOP's power grab into place. One eviscerates state campaign finance laws, retroactively legalizing everything Walker and his allies did, and allowing virtually unlimited corporate spending. The other gets rid of the state's highly respected Government Accountability Board—a nonpartisan body composed of six retired judges overseeing elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying, considered a model for other states—and replaces it with two partisan-appointed bodies, designed for FEC-like gridlock at best.
“The destruction of the eight-year-old, non-partisan Government Accountability Board was based on completely discredited charges, false premises, character assassination and outright falsehoods,” Common Cause of Wisconsin charged, adding:
The entire process under which Assembly Bills 387 and 388 were first unveiled in October, fast-tracked through a single public hearing in Madison only, and then rammed through committees and rushed to the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly and slammed through, before being stalled for a week in the State Senate, has been among the most abusive, disrespectful, secretive and utterly anti-democratic in the history of the Wisconsin Legislature.
The hurried, haphazard process described, although shocking by traditional Wisconsin standards, is a microcosm of “normal politics” in a Dixiefied state, which the two laws were designed to help foster.
The campaign finance law doubles the limits on direct contributions to candidates, and allows unlimited donations from individuals to political parties. It also allows corporations to give directly to political parties, for the first time in over 100 years in Wisconsin, and it allows candidates to coordinate with outside dark-money groups. In fact, there's not much it doesn't allow.
The GAB was established in 2007, with overwhelming bipartisan support following a major corruption scandal. It passed the State Senate 33-0, and passed the Assembly 97-2. “Twelve Republican State Senators who voted to establish the GAB in 2007, voted to destroy it,” Common Cause pointed out. “Nothing changed in the intervening 8 years except the politics. So these 12 State Senators were all for the GAB before they turned against it.” The politics that changed was all about the money. And to really grasp what the new laws will do, it helps to trace that change, starting just after Walker's election in 2010.
The Role of Money
Even before the union-busting budget bill was taken up, Walker had signed $117 million in tax cuts. When his first two-year budget bill was signed in June 2011, Citizens for Tax Justice reported that cuts to Medicaid and a range of other programs “amount to $2 billion worth of support yanked out from underneath the working poor. Yet, in his frenzy of service cuts, Governor Walker somehow found room for $2.3 billion in tax breaks over the next decade.”
The big picture here is straight out of the scenario Kilgore described when, during the initial union-busting battle, he wrote:
Walker also has an economic vision for his state....based on a theory of economic growth that is not only anti-statist but aggressively pro-corporate: relentlessly focused on breaking the backs of unions; slashing worker compensation and benefits; and subsidizing businesses in order to attract capital from elsewhere and avoid its flight to even more benighted locales..... [S]tudents of American economic history will recognize it as the “Moonlight and Magnolias” model of development, which is native to the Deep South.
But even beyond massive tax breaks, there were plenty of very targeted favors for big donors. In 2010, Walker campaigned on a promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, a target he missed by more than 100,000 jobs. As I've written about before, his primary job growth mechanism was to replace the state commerce department with a private nonprofit, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, but in 2014 it was reported that, “nearly 60 percent of some $975 million in assistance distributed by WEDC went to firms that had contributed to Walker or the Republican Governor’s Association.... Walker received more than $1 million in direct campaign funds and another $1 million via the RGA from WEDC aid recipients.”
This all came in very handy when it came to fighting the recall election. As the Center for Public Integrity reported:
The Wisconsin vote captured national attention, and a flood of out-of-state money. Of the $63.5 million spent, $45 million came from Walker’s campaign and supporters, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The record spending total was made possible thanks to the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision—which had the effect of invalidating Wisconsin’s century-old ban on independent expenditures by corporations and unions—and a state law that allowed unlimited contributions to the incumbent in recall elections.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign listed special interest group spending, including $3.7 million from the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity, $4 million from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and $9.4 million from the Republican Governors Association's Right Direction Wisconsin PAC.
So, to review: Walker comes in with a reverse Robin Hood agenda, cuts billions in support for the working poor, while giving billions away in tax cuts, plus a lucrative side dish of paybacks to funders through the WEDC, and gets floods of money from out-of-state big money interests to fight off a recall by the citizens of his state. It's picture-perfect illustration of Dixiefication in action.
Neatly connecting that backstory to the laws just signed, a recent analysis by Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy explained how these monied interests and the politicians they fund were motivated to pass the new laws, the better to hide what they're up to. Regrading the WEDC, Fischer recounted:
In one case, Walker's administration urged WEDC to give a $500,000 unsecured loan to a company owned by Bill Minahan, who a few months earlier had maxed-out on contributions to Walker's campaign. The Minahan loan didn't go through the underwriting required by law, and his company ultimately went bust, with the taxpayer-funded half-million-dollar loan not being repaid.
WEDC handed out hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the form of bonds, grants, loans, and tax credits to Walker donors, and could only account for 5,680 jobs as of 2014, according to a Center for Media and Democracy analysis.
All this was uncovered by the press “because those donations were disclosed,” Fischer wrote. But the new campaign finance law would keep that secret forever. If politicians and donors know what's going on, but the media and ordinary voters don't, that informational imbalance can translate into enormous political power. It's like a basketball game with one team wearing blindfolds.
Fischer went on to cite an example of how this was already working in Wisconsin:
The other centerpiece of Walker's job creation effort was a rewrite of the state environmental laws to pave the way for a Florida-based mining company, Gogebic Taconite, to build an open-pit iron ore mine in a pristine area of Northern Wisconsin.
A year after the proposal became law, documents emerged in the John Doe probe showing that G-Tac's CEO had secretly donated more than $700,000 to a dark money group associated with Scott Walker's campaign. The public and press had no knowledge of these contributions as the hotly-contested mining bill was being debated; the secret donations were more than 22 times the amount of disclosed contributions to candidates.
With the chance of normalizing and legalizing such underhanded dealings, it's not surprising that people oppose what they're trying to do, while Walker's donors eagerly support them. Regarding popular opposition, Fischer noted, “Common Cause Wisconsin has counted thousands of calls and messages from Wisconsinites to state senators urging them to reject these bills,” in line with consistent polling showing that voters in both parties want less money in elections and more transparency about where it's coming from.
On the other side, Fischer noted a small handful of well-funded groups supporting the three laws introduced in October. The only group lobbying to support the bill replacing the GAB was David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, which also lobbied for the bill exempting political corruption from John Doe investigations, along with Wisconsin Family Action, “a group that was implicated in the John Doe probe,” Fischer noted. The third bill's supporters were an instructive bit of a suprise. The avowedly pro-corporate groups stayed out of it, with the forced childbirth group, Wisconsin Right to Life, taking the lead instead. Tellingly, however, their executive director was a former AFP leader.
In summary, Fischer wrote, “[These special interest groups], funded by out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers, are apparently calling the shots within the Wisconsin legislature, regardless of what voters think.” And with these new laws in place, that will only become more commonplace in the years ahead.
The John Doe Backstory
That's the big story, in a nutshell. But naturally there's a great deal more. The controversial way in which the John Doe investigation was stopped by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, for example. It vividly illustrates the rottenness now written into Wisconsin law. The 4-2 ruling split sharply along ideological lines, but corruption as well as ideology were involved: two of the four conservative justices who voted to end the probe had been recipients of similar coordinated outside support, and refused to recuse themselves from the case.
“It is fortunate, indeed, for every other citizen of this great State who is interested in the protection of fundamental liberties that the special prosecutor chose as his targets innocent citizens who had both the will and the means to fight the unlimited resources of an unjust prosecution,” one of those justices, Michael Gableman, wrote in the majority opinion. He made it all sound so lofty, as he shamelessly slobbered over his benefactors.
Another critical analysis by Brendan Fischer put things in a very different, far less flattering light. “The ruling applies to the justices themselves,” he noted, while “two justices [including Gableman] faced serious conflicts-of-interest and didn't recuse.”
On the first point, he pointed out that “Wisconsin Supreme Court elections have become increasingly expensive affairs in recent years, with millions spent by outside groups supporting candidates on both sides,” including Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce—“the same groups that allegedly coordinated with Walker and brought the challenge to these coordination rules.” Their involvement with court elections was hardly a trivial matter, Fischer explained. “Together, these two groups spent $10 million on 'issue ads' helping elect the court’s four-justice conservative majority.” By legalizing “issue ad” coordination, the justices allowed themselves to “work directly with the same groups that were parties to this case.”
In particular, “When Justice Michael Gableman runs again in 2018, his campaign could coordinate with Wisconsin Club for Growth, which spent at least a half-million dollars when he first ran for the court.” Half a million dollars, you say? That brings us to Fischer's second point: the conflicts of interest and failure to recuse. Here's some of what he said:
The two justices who benefited the most from this largesse, Justices Michael Gableman and David Prosser, were specifically asked to recuse by Special Prosecutor Schmitz. In court filings, Walker’s lawyer argued against Schmitz’ recusal motion....
WMC spent five-and-a-half times as much supporting Justice Michael Gableman as Gableman's own campaign in 2008, in a race he won by 20,000 votes, and WiCFG also surpassed Gableman's campaign spending.
If it weren't for WMC and WiCFG spending a combined $3.7 million on Prosser's race, and $2.75 million on Gableman's race, the two likely wouldn't be on the bench.
Well, at least there's a bright side: we don't have to wonder what corruption in Wisconsin will look like in the future. We've already seen it in action.
Other Facets of Dixiefication
As noted above, there's more to Dixiefication than money corrupting politics. Money tends to do that everywhere. But the particular targets of the process—public sector unions, teachers, education more generally, children's health care, etc.—all help to give Wisconsin's turn toward corruption the distinctive flavor of Dixiefication. There were also other key aspects involved, such as the rollback of women's reproductive rights. Last July, while Walker was still in the presidential race, he signed a 20-week abortion ban.
Voter suppression is another hallmark of Dixiefication seen in Wisconsin. Soon after the union-busting budget bill, Walker signed a voter suppression photo-ID law that the ACLU called “among the most restrictive in the nation.” Walker called it a “common sense reform” that would “go a long way to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin.” But, notwithstanding GOP fearmongering, there was no evidence Wisconsin's election integrity was endangered—as was obvious from expert witness Lorraine Minnite's testimony at trial. As Kevin Drum wrote, when the law was struck down:
The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin. The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.
However, an appeals court later overturned that ruling, and although the Supreme Court quickly intervened to block the law temporarily, it eventually declined to hear the case—a decision in line with the Court's general abandonment of voting rights law. The law will now go into effect for the 2016 election, and could prevent a hundred thousands voters or more from voting.
And that would come on top of the impacts of gerrymandering. I've already alluded to the Wisconsin legislature's role in gerrymandering GOP control of the U.S. House, but GOP state legislators also redrew their own district lines, which were key to keeping them in power in 2012, when Wisconsin Watch reported:
This year, Republicans won 56 of the 76 contested Assembly seats in the Nov. 6 election. That’s 74 percent of the seats — which they won with just 52 percent of the 2.2 million votes.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin furnished the Center with data showing that if uncontested races were included in the analysis, Democrats actually received 200,000 more Assembly votes than Republicans. Most uncontested races were in Democratic districts.
The GOP’s new 60-39 majority in the Assembly is nearly the same as it was heading into the election: 59-39, with one independent.
In the state Senate, the GOP did even better against the popular will, winning six of 11 contested races, even though “Democrats actually outpolled the GOP in these contested state Senate elections, winning 50.5 percent of the 941,000 votes cast.”
Add the voter-suppression effects of the voter-ID law to the mix, along with the flood of dark money allowed by the new campaign finance law, and you have all the ingredients for keeping Wisconsin's state legislature firmly in GOP hands, no matter how well Democrats may do in the state's popular vote. This gets at the operational core of how the Dixiefication process works to make democracy irrelevant. All of which helps to set the stage for understanding what's happened next door in Michigan, where the selective extinction of local self-government brought about the lead-poisoning of an entire city of 100,000 people, which I'll take up in my next story.