Scott Walker: Not Just the Scrouge Of Public Employees

In the past few days, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who is internationally (in)famous for his campaign against the collective bargaining rights of his state’s public employees, signed two pieces of legislation that, while totally in keeping with a conservative agenda, seem to have little to do with the crisis in the state’s finances and economy that he was elected to fix. The first bill, which actually garnered a fair amount of attention after Walker signed it on Thursday, repealed a 2009 law which allowed women who were victims of workplace discrimination to sue their employers for damages. The second, signed on Thursday but only announced by Walker on Friday, mandates that sex education in Wisconsin schools “stress abstinence as the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Now, these two issues — limiting access to the courts to seek redress against employer discrimination and emphasizing abstinence in sex education — are core Republican concerns. What they are not, however, is at all part of some radical reorganization of state finances and spending priorities in order to maintain solvency and limit the size of state government. That Scott Walker, the governor most well known for his agressive actions against state employees as part of his strategy to reorient the state government’s priorities and scope, has signed these two pieces of culture war legislation is particularly vivid demonstration that the portrayal of the Tea Party as somehow unconcerned with traditional social issues was totally out of line with reality.

Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert, in a paper published by the Roosevelt Institute and an article in the Nation, have a more comprehensive look at the Republicans who were swept into statehouses in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party discontent. One of their more telling findings is that the Republicans pursuing the core Tea Party priority of reducing their state’s public workforce were also passing legislation anti-abortion legislation and laws restricting voter registration:

Our analysis has shown that this conservative, anti-public worker agenda works hand-in-glove with both restrictions on reproductive freedom and attempts to curtail voting rights. In 2010, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels argued that conservatives should call a “truce” on culture issues and focus on reducing the deficit. Instead, conservative state governments managed to do both at once: push through a record number of government layoffs while also restricting reproductive freedom and democratic voting rights. As the Guttmacher Institute noted, “issues related to reproductive health and rights at the state level received unprecedented attention in 2011.” Ninety-two provisions in 24 states directly restricted access to abortion services, almost triple the previous record. The midterm turnover gave the anti-choice movement its chance. When asked by the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff about the pro-life’s successes, Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, said, “The most obvious thing was the 2010 election…. When we saw this big wave come in, we were ready to grab the ball and run with it.”

The same pattern emerges in states that have passed voter suppression laws. As The Nation’s Ari Berman described it in Rolling Stone, “a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots.” These laws range from requiring a government-issued ID to vote, to requiring proof of citizenship to register, to not allowing citizens to register on election day and closing the early voting period. They all produce the same result: decreased access to voting and the democratic process.

Many of the states that passed or considered anti-choice, anti-democracy bills were those that targeted public workers. Again, we see that the states that the GOP took over in 2010 are much more likely to pass abortion-related restrictions compared to other non-GOP state legislatures, just as they were more likely to make public sector cuts.

Of course, it seems obvious that Republican state legislators and governors would be interested in passing the whole gamut of conservative legislation. However, if you remember back to 2010 and earlier, when the Tea Party emerged as a political force, it was sometimes portrayed as a spontaneous, grassroots movement that was primarily concerned with fiscal issues and the size of government. I think it has become clear now — and Walker is a particularly telling example — that the Tea Party was mostly a reorganization and relabeling of the conservative base of the Republican party.