Scott [Sky]Walker: when fiction and politics collide

The central thing that intrigues me about this campaign—and why I started this project—is the disconnect between the candidate on paper and the candidate on tv, in the debates, and in public opinion.  Theoretically, the candidate in their book should be the candidate as most controlled, the candidate who most perfectly matches up with the candidate’s vision of themselves.  Scott Walker in Unintimidated is the hero of his own story, and tells a version of the events in Wisconsin under his leadership that leaves no detail pointed away from his eventual win.  This means that Scott Walker raises one of the most interesting questions of the whole cycle as candidates start to drop out of the race: how do we—the reader, the candidate—reconcile the world of the book with the world of the real campaign?

***

Unintimidated is a force of relentless optimism.  Unlike any of the other books I’ve read so far in this project, the book is primarily narrative, and a familiar one at that.  We can actually overlay the plot of Unintimidated quite easily onto the plot of Star Wars, primarily episodes IV-VI, but also to a certain extent II and III.  I leave it to you and your politics.

First, the overture: Chapter 1, “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, opens with:

Governor, we’ve lost control of the capitol.” (9, emphasis original).

Like any of the Star Wars episodes, we’re dropped from the beginning into an action sequence and left to recover our wits later.  In Unintimidated, the reader is thrown into the visceral, sensory details of the height of the protests against Act 10, Walker’s signature piece of legislation cutting collective bargaining rights for public employees to balance a multi-billion dollar deficit.

“The roar of the crowd was nearly constant.  The sound sometimes reached more than 105 decibels—louder than a Packers game at Lambeau Field… The building was strewn with garbage and empty pizza boxes.  It was so packed with human bodies that there was no way to move around, much less clean.  After a while, the floors became covered with a disgusting film, and the odor of unwashed humanity wafted through the hallways.  The place smelled like a Port-a-John… People were smoking pot inside the capitol.  There were so many sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, and tents that my staff often joked about how many “protest babies” there would be in nine months’ time” (10).

Walker’s tense narration goes on to cover the protestors ripping off doors, breaking in through windows, forcing security forces to drop back to the third floor where the ‘command center’ was located (12).  Decoy vans driven by SWAT teams distract the protestors while the assembly members are smuggled out of the building (14-15).  However, upon actually signing the bill, Walker reminds us, by way of a segue to the actual plot: “I was eager to get back to my number one priority: helping the people of Wisconsin create more jobs” (15).

Act One circles back in time to begin for real in Chapter 2 with Walker’s time as Milwaukee County Executive, in which he was forced by the “union bosses” to lay off county workers to balance a budget deficit (21).  The experience is “agonizing” (23).  The stage is set.  The hero vows that he will never be so powerless again.  We have so many Star Wars parallels to choose from: Luke and Anakin both have arms cut off by foes too powerful, or Anakin returns in a rage from finding his mother already dying in the Raiders’ village.  Take your pick—the point remains that Walker has set up an obstacle to be overcome, and a new stage for testing his powers.  Leadership abilities.  Either way.

Act Two, in chapters 3-16, returns to the primary drama introduced in the Overture, building through Walker’s early governorship and negotiations over Act 10.  The same sensory descriptions of the protests are repeated almost word-for-word in their appropriate narrative sequence, and this time, we know how everything concludes.  The Rebel Alliance blows up the first Death Star, but the initial victory sets the stage for a greater one later.  Walker ends Chapter 16 ominously:

“The unions had failed… but the biggest fight was still to come.

“Now they were coming after me” (139).

In Act Three, chapters 17-22, the early victory is jeopardized—Walker is in danger of a recall election, or, The Unions Strike Back.  The same protestors return, with some overwrought verbiage indistinguishable from the earlier battles, but with the same outcome: Walker is re-elected by a significant margin, his policies vindicated.  Luke receives his artificial hand and the Rebel Alliance lives to fight another day.

But the greatest victory is yet to come. In Act Four, the final act, Walker goes national: “We still had one more election to go: the race for president of the United States of America” (193).  But wait!  This isn’t an overt advertisement for his upcoming campaign.  Rather, “We did our best to help Mitt Romney” (196), Walker sighs, before conducting an autopsy of the 2012 Romney loss.  He ends on a bullet-pointed letter to conservatives about how—Chapter 26—“The Lessons of Wisconsin Can Be Used in the Battle for America.”  This includes everything from his earnest email to Romney—“Repeat your plan,” “Give out more details,” and “show more passion” (201)—to his sub-headings declaring that “A Big Crisis Is a Chance to Do Big Things” (228), extolling “The Benefits of Boldness” (231), or the rallying cry to “Win the Center with Leadership” (231).  Ultimate triumph of Good over Evil awaits: the battle for Endor, or the US Presidency in 2016.

***

The thing about this kind of narrative is that it takes a messy sequence of events and plugs them all neatly into a causal chain, sometimes playing a bit loose with whether or not this is the only possible interpretation, let alone the most plausible one.  Walker’s logic has three steps: first, Walker is firmly positioned on the side of Good, which in this case is the side of the taxpayer, vs. the side of not-good, which is the Unions.  The formula Taxpayer-v-Union gives way to Management-v-Labor.  Second, Walker is a Manager, a strong individual power advocating for more leeway to manage, and therefore is on the side of Good.  Third, every event of the story is a sign reinforcing this particular conception of the universe.  Let’s look at these in more detail.

First, defining Walker’s universe.  Walker divides the world into Good and Bad, Labor and Management, Unions and Job-Creators.  This characterization is clear and laden with emotionally-charged language.  For example, Walker’s predecessor in the Capitol, Jim Doyle, whose administration had been using “gimmicks” (27) and had “raided” the state’s transportation run and a fund set up for victims of medical malpractice (28).  In Walker’s phrasing, Doyle was “profligate”, or “like a gambler with a new line of credit” (29).  Further, “Like other politicians, Doyle had lined up at the federal trough begging” (35) for federal subsidies.  In three lines, Doyle is a pirate, a gambler, and a pig.

For the real demons of the book, the public-sector unions, Walker draws on established American political imagery, further leaning into specific emotional content.  In Chapter 9, “A Racket, Not a Right”, Walker presents a ten-step cycle by which he claims that through automatic union dues, unions donate to elect pro-union candidates who then expand union power to do things like force school districts to “line the pockets of union bosses through sweetheart deals” (79) over insurance and health care.  As Walker says, “Taxpayers lose tens of millions every year in higher health insurance costs—money that could have gone into classrooms but instead goes to the union bosses” (80).  Wisconsin under the Walker administration becomes a new New York under FDR’s crusade against Tammany Hall: Walker notes that “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had once said that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted in the public service”” (168).

Significantly, though, not all of this comes directly from Walker, but is distanced and legitimized by coming through other sources.  Once, it’s the Daily Caller, when Walker reads their list of “top ten ways to tell if you might be a member of a public-sector union” to his staff, including the memorable line “2. You have a Democratic congressman’s lips permanently attached to your butt” (117).  Once, it’s Charlie Sykes, conservative news personality: “As Sykes put it, the message [of/from the unions] seemed to be: “That’s a nice business you got there.  Pity if anything were to happen to it if, say, you didn’t toe the line and denounce Governor Walker like we’re asking nice-like”” (161).  Once, it’s the Wall Street Journal: “the Wall Street Journal declared, “Wisconsin unions are now getting out the steel pipes for those who don’t step lively to their cause”” (162).    Walker benefits twice over here, by keeping the gloves on for the most marked anti-union statements and by letting others knight him by historical association more legitimately than he could himself.

However, the external quotations only serve to reinforce the fact that Walker is the pivot point of his world.  Of the books I’ve read so far, Walker is the most explicit of them in taking his position and self-image as a manager and elevating it to the central, poetic position of a hero.  Unlike other candidates, he only rarely highlights his team and the people around him, and saves his acknowledgements until the very end—co-author and former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen coming only in the penultimate paragraph of the very last page.  His running mate, Rebecca Kleefisch, is not mentioned until page 57, and even then, only as “standing at my side” (57).  Act 10 is “my budget repair bill” (5, emphasis added), a significant gesture of ownership.  Walker looms literally larger than the people around him, at one point lamenting in Chapter 2 the feeling of being tied down with “the Lilliputian threads of collective bargaining” (24).

Not only does this elevate and enlarge Walker, but circles around to reinforce the moral right-ness of management everywhere, as well as the link between management and taxpayer.  In one of his more telling anecdotes from his time as Milwaukee County executive, he relates a story from the chair of the board of supervisors’ personnel committee, Pat Jursik:

“[She] recalled how some of her colleagues actually wanted to bring the unions in to talk about the contracts before they started the negotiations… She was incredulous.  “We’re management, they are labor,” she told them… Supervisor Jursik had to explain to them the basic premise that they were supposed to negotiate on behalf of Milwaukee County taxpayers, not the unions” (80-81).

Reinforcing this logic—that taxpayers are good, unions are bad, managers work for taxpayers and labor is in cahoots with unions—continues to benefit Walker because of his character’s position, even if it doesn’t necessarily reflect immediately back to him.

Lastly, everything that happens to Scott Walker is a quasi-Calvinist sign that he is indeed favored, or right.  The most obvious example is indeed religious.  At the beginning of Chapter 19, “Does Anyone Remember What This Recall Was All About?” he relates a story: Walker and one of his son’s friends are outside raking leaves.  A car goes by and the driver flips Walker the bird.  A few minutes later, two cars go by and give Walker the thumbs-up.  As Walker says, “God had heard my prayer.  It was one of many signs that cheered me up and gave me comfort” (155).  The actions of larger political players can also be signs.  In Chapter 20, “P.O.T.U.S. Is M.I.A.,” Walker interprets President Obama’s absence from Wisconsin during the recall election as an admission of defeat—calling his absence “a smart decision” (172) as it could hurt his re-election chances to be on the losing side (with the unions) in Walker’s do-over election.  Framing Obama’s absence as related to Walker’s actions puts them in the same sphere of influence, reinforcing the universality of Walker’s actions in a larger American struggle.

Finally, public opinion and action also function as signs, but this is where things get tricky.  The twin centerpieces of Act 10, besides limiting collective bargaining, were making public employees contribute a percentage of their salaries to pension and health insurance funds, thus effectively lowering actual pay rates, and making union dues optional.  As Walker put it, “By making dues voluntary, we gave teachers and other public workers a free choice of whether they wanted to keep the money to offset some of the increased health and pension contributions, or give it to the unions” (50).

This incentivizes leaving unions.  I don’t see another way to interpret this.  The decision to stay or leave a union is not strictly a political one here, but a financial one.  But in Chapter 15, Walker argues that “The fact is, when union membership was no longer compulsory and workers were given a free choice of whether to pay dues, well over half chose to quit the union” (129).  Later on:

“The episode demonstrated that the unions were out of touch with many of their own members.  Given the freedom to choose whether to join the union and pay dues, many decided it wasn’t worth it.  In other words, the tens of thousands of protesters banging drums and blasting horns at the state capitol, outraged over our reforms, not only did not represent the majority of Wisconsinites—they did not even represent the majority of Wisconsin union members” (130, emphasis original).

No mention of recouping pension contributions here.

So, the fact was that union numbers went down after Walker incentivized public employees’ leaving unions.  To me, this demonstrates the power of financial incentives in politics.  To Walker, this demonstrates support for his policies among the people most affected, public-sector employees.  To me, this is a moment of slippage, where the Walker universe most obviously departs from the one I live in.

***

When I first read Unintimidated back in early August, I was furious.  Not only with this one logical slip, as there were several other moments of Walker making assumptions about what his reader would agree with that I found sloppy (and I hope to talk about them later, because he’s not the only one making them).  But this one slip seemed like the most blatant, the most obvious and cynical sleight-of-hand, playing on whether or not I was paying attention.

Now that Walker has dropped out and I’ve read some more books, however, I have to wonder.  How much was this unconscious?  Walker’s book is fascinating because of its ideological coherence.  The campaign trail is obviously site of enormous, unfathomable pressures, stacked against a candidate’s energy, willpower, and discipline.  It seems as if entering a race believing in a clear moral universe like the one in the book would look like the easiest thing in the world.  After all, everything else had pointed to victory for Walker before, even the setbacks: in the midst of the recall battle, Walker notes that

“God was sending me a clear message to not do things for personal glory or fame.  It was a turning point that helped me in future challenges, helped me stay focused  on the people I was elected to serve, and reminded me of God’s abundant grace and the paramount need to stay humble” (90).

A setback here points to a new lesson learned, another power mastered to overcome the next challenge.  By contrast, at the end of his campaign, he closed with

“Most of all I want to thank God.  I want to thank God for his abundant grace.  Win or lose, it has always been more than enough.”

At the end, Walker’s defeat points to nothing.

Trying to gauge what’s in a candidate’s head might be futile, and besides the point, since the point is the carefully-crafted candidate as published.  But Walker begs the question of what would it be like to see yourself as Luke Skywalker and then have to admit that the Empire won—or even that you just weren’t the right person to fight?  Or maybe worse, to have this beautifully clear picture of who you are and what you stand for and then watch it go muddy and soft on the campaign trail, watch other people not get it or not believe in it the way you have to.  I don’t have much sympathy, but maybe a kind of existential horror.  The presidential campaign cycle means that candidates have to believe in themselves from the beginning and yet know that, in all likelihood, they will lose.  It’s a lot to expect from people smaller than heroes.

Walker, Scott, and Marc Thiessen. Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. Updated edition. New York: Sentinel, 2014.

One thought on “Scott [Sky]Walker: when fiction and politics collide

  1. Pingback: Taking Stock: a holiday roundup | 2016: to the reader

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