Wisconsin governor Scott Walker on Tuesday beat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a recall election. Walker was only the third governor to ever face a recall election, and he was the first to ever win one. It was a race that received plenty of national media attention; unfortunately, such attention was largely framed in a hyperpartisan fashion and ignored many of the salient issues.
I hope to remedy this with a brief summary of what was at stake and the implications of Walker’s victory. This election was a vivid picture of how much of our politics operates, and should thus be of tremendous interest to all Americans, regardless of their affinity for or disinterest in politics.
Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010 in a cycle that was as bad for Democrats as any prior to the Great Depression. Indeed, the fact that the very conservative Walker could be elected in historically liberal Wisconsin was a sign of just how widespread discontent was for the party of Jackson. He campaigned largely on reforming the state’s public sector unions as a means to help lower the deficit. Given that Republicans now controlled the state Senate and Assembly, Walker set about to do just that.
Over the next year, Walker and his allies got to work. They passed a series of laws that, among other things, forced public sector employees to contribute more money to their pension plans, curtailed their collective bargaining rights, and ended the practice of automatically collecting union dues from paychecks. Union membership plummeted.
At first glance, the reader may think that Walker was just another Republican bashing unions because, well, that’s what Republicans do; they fight for the rich at the expense of the working class. While the governor’s crusade undeniably bettered his reputation with the conservative base, it was not without a good reason.
In this case, public sector union employees received benefits and privileges that most private sector employees do not receive, and may not even be familiar with. Take, for example, defined benefit pensions. Most private sector employees have the option to put some of their pretax earnings into a 401k, which may be matched by their employer up to a certain percentage. This is called a defined contribution plan, because the firm provides a set contribution (say, up to 10% what the employee chips in) to the employee’s retirement fund. It is both fair and sustainable. Public sector employees, however, receive defined benefit pensions whereby, regardless of the state of the government’s finances, an employee receives a set payout.
The reason that public sector unions were able to procure such benefits was purely political. Union dues were automatically deducted from government employees’ paychecks. The unions then used those dues payments to make major campaign contributions to Democrats, who, in turn, protected their undue privileges. Union members also pledged to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And the cycle continued, giving us a prime example of unfair and unethical influence peddling in politics.
When Walker tried to stop it, he ran into another malady of our government: concentrated benefits and diffused costs. By this, political scientists refer to the fact that most government programs help a small minority of stakeholders who fight tooth and nail to keep their benefits. Meanwhile, the individual taxpayer loses very little from each individual program, even if collectively they are harmful.
In this case, public sector unions organized en masse to keep their taxpayer funded largesse. They berated the Walker administration for infringing upon their “rights” of government sanctioned extortion. The very fact that enough signatures were gained to hold the recall election in the first place is a testament to how engaged the beneficiaries of these “concentrated benefits” were. Walker had to spend millions of dollars and months of his life campaigning to keep his office because he pissed off the wrong people. In the end, the conservative incumbent governor won by over six points.
Pundits on both left and right continue to make flawed claims to advance their causes. Liberals seem to think that the loss was a victory in of itself: a Republican governor went after a favored Democratic constituency and almost lost his job for doing so. They’ll know more than to “pick on the middle class” again. The truth: a conservative governor won by 6.8 points in a liberal state, and Americans previously unaware of the sweet deals public unions (which even the liberal F.D.R. despised) had at their expense are far fewer.
Reince Priebus and other GOP talking heads, meanwhile, believe that this election is a sign that Wisconsin is fully in play for Mitt Romney in 2012. This point is entirely without merit. As Nate Silver of the New York Times points out, gubernatorial election results don’t seem to impact presidential contests. The stiff, northeastern, elitist Romney will have a tough time connecting with the minority of Wisconsin’s conservative-minded voters.
What are the true takeaways from Madison, then? First, patronage politics are alive and well. Influence can be bought and maintained relatively effectively, as has been the case since the founding of political parties. Second, electoral coalitions require multiple pieces to succeed. If you’re going to win election based on taking from some and giving to others, the “others” must be of significant numbers. Dedicated as the public sector unions were, they couldn’t convince enough of their traditional liberal allies (African Americans, highly educated whites, or working class/private sector whites) to tag along. Finally, given the ease with which this racket was able to exist in Wisconsin, perhaps we should reconsider how willing we are to allow politicians to control so much.