Friday, March 25, 2011

The Mystery of Scott Walker Explained ? William Cronon and The Republican Party of Wisconsin

What is the Republican governor of Wisconsin all about? Where does he get his marching orders? Who sent this large new group of Nazgul governors out into the world? Who is Sauron?

Just kidding there. But a professor of history at University of Wisconsin, William Cronon, has written an interesting blog post that sheds some light on the Ringwraith governors and their lock-step plans for demolishing unions in every state they have taken over. The relevant post is a long one, but I recommend reading it all the way through. It is worth it. Here's a sample:
If you run across a conservative organization you’ve never heard of before and would like to know more about it, two websites can sometimes be helpful for quick overviews:
Right Wing Watch:
Both of these lean left in their politics, so they obviously can’t be counted on to provide sympathetic descriptions of conservative groups. (If I knew of comparable sites whose politics were more conservative, I’d gladly provide them here; please contact me if you know of any and I’ll add them to this note.) But for obvious reasons, many of these groups prefer not to be monitored very closely. Many maintain a low profile, so one sometimes learns more about them from their left-leaning critics than from the groups themselves.

I don’t want this to become an endless professorial lecture on the general outlines of American conservatism today, so let me turn to the question at hand: who’s really behind recent Republican legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere? I’m professionally interested in this question as a historian, and since I can’t bring myself to believe that the Koch brothers single-handedly masterminded all this, I’ve been trying to discover the deeper networks from which this legislation emerged.

Here’s my preliminary answer.
Telling Your State Legislators What to Do:
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)

If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.


Becoming a Member of ALEC: Not So Easy to Do

How do you become a member? Simple. Two ways. You can be an elected Republican legislator who, after being individually vetted, pays a token fee of roughly $100 per biennium to join. Here’s the membership brochure to use if you meet this criterion:
What if you’re not a Republican elected official? Not to worry. You can apply to join ALEC as a “private sector” member by paying at least a few thousand dollars depending on which legislative domains most interest you. Here’s the membership brochure if you meet this criterion:
Then again, even if most of us had this kind of money to contribute to ALEC, I have a feeling that membership might not necessarily be open to just anyone who is willing to pay the fee. But maybe I’m being cynical here.

Which Wisconsin Republican politicians are members of ALEC? Good question. How would we know? ALEC doesn’t provide this information on its website unless you’re able to log in as a member.

Fascinating stuff. As Cronon points out, ALEC is not doing anything illegal. But organizations of that type might be behind the message coordination of the Republicans. Why do we suddenly find an open war against unions? Why was Planned Parenthood clearly slated to be the first course in the Republican victory dinner after the last election, followed by the NPR, both linked to that Mad Editor guy? Why do we suddenly all discuss the same Republican talking points?

Some of that could be coincidence or just the way the Republican agenda is rolled out. But to me it sounds orchestrated. If you read right-wing blogs (as I do) you find the same topics on many of them on the same day, even when the topic itself doesn't appear to deserve such a strong focus. It's as if the topics are being sent out to the world.

I'm envious, because the liberal/progressive side is like cats all hunting on their own and hissing at each other when their paths cross. And the less said about the message coordination of the official Democratic Party or the Obama administration the better.

How did the Republicans respond to Cronon? Perhaps there is a careful written response somewhere? But what certainly happened to Cronon after that blog post and an OpEd in the New York Times is this:
Wisconsin Republicans have demanded access to his personal email records.

Yes, personal. Cronon has a email address — but nobody, and I mean nobody, considers such academic email addresses something specially reserved for university business. Actually, according to Cronon he has been especially careful, maintaining a separate personal account — but nobody would have considered it out of the ordinary if he mingled personal correspondence with official business on the dot edu address. And no, the fact that he’s at a public university doesn’t change that: when my students take jobs at Berkeley or SUNY, they don’t imagine that they’re entering into a special fishbowl environment that they wouldn’t encounter at Georgetown or Haverford.

But then, we know perfectly well what’s going on here. Republicans aren’t looking for some abuse of Cronon’s position; they’re hoping to find some statement that can be quoted out of context to discredit him. At the very least, they hope that other academics will henceforth feel intimidated.

I'm not sure if Cronon's work e-mail account counts as a personal one within Wisconsin's legal framework. Still, that the Republican Party of Wisconsin decided to seek an open records request to study Cronon's e-mails tells me that he has hit on something important. Either that or the Wisconsin Republicans routinely intimidate everyone who dares to criticize them.

What's quite funny is the second round response of the Republicans to Cronon complaining about the open records request:
Like anyone else who makes an open records request in Wisconsin, the Republican Party of Wisconsin does not have to give a reason for doing so.

“I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.

“Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. The Left is far more aggressive in this state than the Right in its use of open records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media.

“Finally, I find it appalling that Professor Cronin seems to have plenty of time to round up reporters from around the nation to push the Republican Party of Wisconsin into explaining its motives behind a lawful open records request, but has apparently not found time to provide any of the requested information.

“We look forward to the University’s prompt response to our request and hope those who seek to intimidate us from making such requests will reconsider their actions.”

Bolds are mine. It's a lovely, lovely reversal.