Dixie Madison Redux

Before we leave the topic of Scott Walker today, my recent ruminations on him as sort of a red-state guy governing a blue state make me wonder how he’s going to behave if and when he gets to the serious red states on the nominating contest calendar. We’ll know soon when he heads to South Cackalacky for some events in mid-March (he’s been there before in 2013, but only to promote Nikki Haley).

So what does he do in the state that’s home to Bob Jones University and where unions–not just public-sector unions, but all unions–have been shown the door by Walker’s buddy Haley? Does he declare himself happy to be in God’s Country, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a conservative Baptist Church, like the ones his father pastored? Does he come right out and say he’s modeling his state’s labor laws and economic development policies on the Palmetto State’s craven forelock-tugging-to-job-creators model of sacrificing all public policies on the altar of a “good business climate?”

It’s going to be something Walker has to think about, if not going into the South Carolina primary, then just before the probable “SEC primary” of other Deep South states. As I observed back in 2011 in a TNR piece entitled “Dixie Madison,” you just cannot miss the slightly rotting swampy smell of Old South thinking around Scott Walker’s signature economic initiatives:

Walker…has an economic vision for his state—one which is common currency in the Republican Party today, but hitherto alien in a historically progressive, unionist Midwestern state like Wisconsin. It is 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. Students of economic development will recognize it as the “smokestack-chasing” model of growth adopted by desperate developing countries around the world, which have attempted to use their low costs and poor living conditions as leverage in the global economy. And students of American economic history will recognize it as the “Moonlight and Magnolias” model of development, which is native to the Deep South.

Just take a look at the broader policy context of the steps Walker is taking in Wisconsin. While simultaneously battling unions and calling for budget cuts, he’s made the state’s revenue quandary much worse by seeking to cut corporate taxes and boost “economic development incentives” (another term for tax subsidies and other public concessions) to businesses considering operations in Wisconsin. This is philosophically identical to the approach taken by new South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who hired a union-busting attorney to head up the state labor department and touted the state’s anti-union environment as a key to its prospects, explaining, “We’re going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it.” Despite large budget shortfalls, she’s also proposed to eliminate corporate income taxes and pay for it by restoring a sales tax on food. The common thread here is the quasi-religious belief that reducing business costs for corporations is the Holy Grail of economic development, while all other public and private goods should be measured strictly by their impact on the corporate bottom line.

During a trip to South Carolina early in her own 2012 presidential campaign, Michele Bachmann said: “For a Minnesota girl, you are a GOP paradise.”

I’m not saying Walker’s going to get off his plane in Columbia and kiss the ground, but you do wonder if he can resist the temptation to style himself as either a convert to or a missionary of the ways of the Old Confederacy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.