It’s been pretty obvious that the vast network of conservative advocates and billionaires backing Scott Walker in his struggle to break public-sector unions and now to survive the inevitable reaction see Wisconsin as a key battleground in their ancient war against collective bargaining and workers’ rights generally. But Walker himself has constantly protested he’s just a conscientious chief executive trying to make state government live within its means.

That pretense just got a lot harder for Walker to maintain, thanks to the release of video footage from 2011 in which Walker told one billionaire supporter that busting public-sector unions was just the first stage in a broader effort that would eventually join Wisconsin to the ranks of overtly anti-union jurisdictions, mostly in the South, that consider unbridled corporate power the key to long-term economic growth.

Jason Stein and Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explain:

A filmmaker released a video Thursday that shows Gov. Scott Walker saying he would use “divide and conquer” as a strategy against unions.

Walker made the comments to Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who has since given $510,000 to the governor’s campaign – making her Walker’s single-largest donor and the largest known donor to a candidate in state history….

In the video shot on Jan. 18, 2011 – shortly before Walker’s controversial budget-repair bill was introduced and spawned mass protests – Hendricks asked the governor whether he could make Wisconsin a “completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work” state. The Republican donor was referring to right-to-work laws, which prohibit private-sector unions from compelling workers to pay union dues if the workers choose not to belong to the union.

Walker replied that his “first step” would be “to divide and conquer” through his budget-adjustment bill, which curtailed most collective bargaining for most public employee unions.

Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation in 1993 as a freshman in the state Assembly, but as governor has consistently downplayed seeking any restrictions on private unions in public statements.

“From our standpoint, it’s never going to get to me,” Walker said of right-to-work legislation in an interview with the Journal Sentinel on April 27. “Private sector unions are my partner in economic development.”

Walker, however, has repeatedly declined to say whether he would sign or veto a right-to-work bill if passed by the Legislature. Supporters say right-to-work bills give more freedom to workers and make it more attractive for companies to invest and hire employees in a state. Opponents say they undermine unions and workers’ wages and don’t help the economy.

The bigger picture here is a sea-change in Republican ideology, evident throughout the 2012 GOP presidential nomination contest, in which total hostility to unions, private-sector as well as public-sector, has evolved from a regional quirk of deep-south conservatives into a national party agenda item. This was made plain by the pounding poor, out-of-step Rick Santorum took in a debate in South Carolina in which he was forced to publicly repudiate a Senate vote against a national right-to-work law.

This in turn reflects the growing national Republican celebration of southern race-to-the-bottom approaches to economic development. Atavistic Republican administrations in states like Mississippi and South Carolina, which make lowering business costs (at the expense of wages and benefits for workers and public services for everyone) a sort of Holy Grail, are being touted as national models for every state and for federal policy as well.

You don’t have to be that old to remember the days when this sort of “low-road” economic strategy had become largely discredited in the South itself, as was the case when I was involved in community and economic development work in Georgia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and even Republicans were talking about better public education and robust public investments being necessary for growth. It’s depressing to see the Old Way being not only revived in Dixie, but lauded as some sort of new wisdom.

But at least now Scott Walker may be forced out of the closet in his desire to hijack his state and put it on the low road to Mississippi.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.