"Mr. Walker: Tear down this tearing down!" | WisCommunity

"Mr. Walker: Tear down this tearing down!"

[img_assist|nid=50776|title=Capitol|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=198]Newspapers make a fetish of doing year-end reviews of the previous twelve months of events. Among these roundups is often a look back at  eventful moments in politics. Interestingly, no one is waiting for a year to pass before beginning to examine Gov. Scott Walker's list of accomplishments in just his first few months in office, because he's been a dervish. Haste makes waste, but it also makes news.

In many of the Walker-related lists we've seen in print and on the Web, authors seem aghast at just how much Walker's extremist agenda has altered and in most cases reverted public policy in Wisconsin. This is surprising on one level. Upstaters are always asking me if we in Milwaukee County who knew Walker as a state legislator and county executive saw this coming. Generally speaking: Yeah, we did.

But most voters can be excused for being shocked at just how aggressive and over-reaching Walker's policy choices have been, because Walker  pulled the usual Republican sleight of hand in the campaign and pretended to be a lot more moderate, thoughtful and measured than the man truly is, and has in the past proved to be. And most news media let it happen.

The other, bigger question is this: How could Walker have moved so quickly and done so much damage to the State of Wisconsin and many of its most important institutions in just weeks? From corporatizing DNR to multi-billion-dollar cuts to public education and local governments, Walker has acted with great velocity and in mostly an effective if ham-handed way; and "effective" only in terms of enactment, not mplementation or outcomes.

Part of Walker's effectiveness surely can be explained by his mostly unassailable majorities in both houses of the legislature. Senate Democrats were able to stop, at least so far, the gutting of public employee unions by denying the blitzkrieg Republicans a quorum in that house. In the months ahead, Walker may not always find his own party totally unified, especially at elections draw near. Already there are signs and portents that the tea party effect is on the wane in Wisconsin politics, if only because Republican lawmakers have a strong sense of self-preservation.

But the single biggest factor in Walker's "success" to date in pursuing his nut-ball agenda has to do with entropy. Entropy is the concept in modern physics that the universe and all its processes, left unattended, move toward more chaotic conditions over time. Life is anti-entropic because it requires great organization. The damage from a tornado is highly entropic, because it's unpredictable in its details and chaotic on a very fast and powerful scale.

Tornadoes are very effective -- at destroying stuff. Humanistic, nuanced, thoughtful, long-term policy? Not so much.

Walker and his political party are like a political tornado, disrupting order, thumbing current law and otherwise introducing fear, uncertainty and doubt into the public equation. That's not accidental, it's intentional. Nor is it just limited to Republicans. When John Norquist, an iconoclastic Democrat, ran for mayor of Milwaukee in 1988, his campaign adopted an informal theme of "shake, shake, shake," as in shaking a tree to knock down dead limbs. The Norquist philosphy was that Milwaukee government was calcified by years of statism and needed to be cuffed upside the head to break free and move forward. 

Twenty-five years before Mayor Norquist, a great liberal, progressive and sometimes even radically left-wing movement swept this country as many people, especially college students and young adults, reacted to the Vietnam war, racism and other disturbing events of that era. Some of those protesters quite openly supported "slash and burn" politics, believing social disruption in the form of protests and physical actions were the only tools left available to them in an increasingly repressive, law and order culture. Far more recently, fringe-right groups and tea party followers have taken that notion even farther, openly advocating armed revolution, assassinations and other guerrilla tactics.

I don't mean here to analyze whether such views are in particular circumstances justified. Revolutions sometimes really are necessary.  I'm only noting that  the tactics of chaos are not completely indigenous to Republicans and conservatives. However, it is fair to say that, at this moment in the country's politics, the Republican Party -- aided and prodded by tea party followers and shadowy corporate interests -- has far and away been the party that has pursued the tactics of chaos and disruption in order to achieve its aims. Note that these tactics typically only emerge when a group perceives that it has been almost totally marginalized and that it cannot make headway through normal means. It's rather like encountering a mortally wounded bear, which becomes more dangerous for a brief while.

Walker's draconian policies are a case in point. Most of them can only be implemented quickly, lest the public and even some Republican legislators begin to waver as a complete understanding of the measures and their full impact become widely known, despite initial and misleading rhetoric. Thus, the Walker administration and the GOP legislative leadership ram measures through even at the risk of breaking Open Meetings laws. This tactic is bolstered by the belief that the modern news cycle is so fast that extreme tactics and policies early in an administration will be forgotten or discounted by voters two or four years later. 

But still, some voters have to wonder: How could Walker have already walked back so many of Wisconsin's long-held progressive traditions, laws, and regulations? The answer takes us back to entropy. Here's a good analogy: Build a house of cards. It takes patience and skill, but when it is done its very intricacy and form suggest an organized structure with some permanence. However, it is not at all hard to destroy a house of cards in just a second. Take something clearly more stable, for example a state forest, which does change and evolve but very slowly, on a scale of centuries. However, introduce a couple of lumberjacks with chain saws and that forest will begin to become ecologically incoherent very quickly. Dig a strip mine through that forest and centuries of stability will be erased in months.

Wisconsin's century-plus of progressive legislation is more than a house of cards. It's a vast and relatively stable political eco-system, based for the most part on sound principles and careful planning, although sheer human imperfection plus the many legislative compromises on the way to enactment over the decades have introduced flaws in the design. Nevertheless, even a perfectly crafted set of socially just and fiscally sound public policies that are demonstrably successful could be undone in very short order, if lawmakers who hold nearly absolute power decide to wade in with their figurative chainsaws, shotguns and bulldozers.

It surely is disheartening how quickly something that was so hard to build can so easily be destroyed. But that's not just a theme in politics, it's a fundamental principle in cosmology and physics. That truism translates into this practical truth: Progressives have to work very much harder than conservatives to build the type of society they think best, and they have to keep working hard to maintain that society. Because human entropies like Scott Walker come along all too frequently. On occasion these would-be destroyers also possess vast means to wreak havoc and sow chaos throughout the broad but delicate frameworks that men and women, more subtle and thoughtful, have struggled so long to weave.

The good news is that Walker-style chaos is its own undoing. Everyone can see it happening, everyone reacts. Everyone is energized by each chaotic event, which is inherently loud, noticeable and disruptive. The only issue is whether the damage can be repaired soon enough to restore balance and order and equity before the next Walker comes along. 

In this conflict resides the fate of the tragic king of Greek mythology. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill forever. His task was never done. Neither, probably, is ours. Utopia probably isn't achievable. But while our seemingly endless task may weary us, it also should inspire and inform us, because it is important and good work. We can fix it, eventually.

The very worst possible damage from Walkerism is that it could create lasting enmity, apathy and cynicism in those who are most horrified by it. That we must never allow in ourselves, our friends, and the others misguided into perceiving that Walkerism is a force for good.


June 6, 2011 - 10:12am