Dear Governor Walker,
Congratulations on finally declaring your candidacy for president, which was perhaps the world’s worst kept secret. It’s been pretty clear that, unless you had plans to complete a hostile takeover of Des Moines, you were spending a lot of time in Iowa to start the process of becoming “The Most Powerful Man In The World.” It’s also pretty clear that this is the start of your breakup with the state of Wisconsin. As Dan Bice’s recent story noted, you’re probably on your path to Palin-dom as a political outsider/defender of the faith for Fox News or the chicken-dinner circuit, if this whole presidential thing doesn’t pan out. It’s not us, you’ll tell the good people of Wisconsin, it’s you. It’s a chance to showcase what you have built here for the state, even as you discard it as a “been-there, done-that” event of your life.
Since you’re probably done with Wisconsin, I’d like to ask a question:
Can I have my state back now? I mean, the one I used to have?
Wisconsin was one of the few purple states out there, one in which you had dissent among parties and arguments among family members, but there was always a sense of basic human decency. When Gov. Tommy Thompson tried to take money from the teachers’ pension fund, the courts made him put it back. In doing so, the admonition was enough to let people know that some things were not to be done. When he pushed Welfare-to-Work, some people cheered on the idea of keeping those lazy Welfare Queens hustling for their cash, but others looked into how realistic it was to raise a family with the jobs available to people. Even when Jim Doyle tried to putz around with the tobacco settlement or force furloughs down the throats of state workers, no one really saw this as a great thing. It was just what we had to deal with and the pride of Wisconsin allowed us to grit our teeth and say, “We’re all in this together.”
You changed all of that. You took the purple and separated the red and blue into separate bottles. You created an “us vs. them” scenario on multiple fronts, as you “divided and conquered” those who would oppose you. You led the party that gerrymandered the voting districts so badly that the state is now being sued over this. You made people who once got along, even grudgingly, and made them see the other as an “other.”
Nothing better typified this than your most popular bumper stickers and signs: “I stand with Scott Walker.” For people who embraced this, it was less about slapping a sticker on a truck and more about placing a chip on a shoulder. It drew on the worst of our war-like rhetoric: Are you with us or are you with “them?” This gave people an identity and a feeling of power, even though you’d probably back them over with your campaign bus if it meant another step up the political ladder. Trying to get these people to see this is like trying to get “gun guys” to see that more restrictive laws were better for them if they were, as they always claimed to be, “responsible gun owners.”
Understand, Mr. Walker, this isn’t a Democrat/Republican thing. This isn’t a public-worker/hard-working-taxpayer thing. This isn’t a “I have a Ph.D./you have a walnut for a brain” thing. This is about my state, the one I thought I came home to nearly a decade ago.
In the two other states in which I lived and worked, Democrats and Republicans were constantly at each other. I was in Missouri when people so hated John Ashcroft that they elected a dead guy to the U.S. Senate. I lived in Indiana, a state so conservative that I rarely saw a political ad for the presidential elections. The Democrats were basically going to cede the state to Republicans before a single ballot was cast.
The divides there were more on a local level: The “townies” weren’t thrilled about the “college kids” taking over their local bars or having nicer things than they did. The “college kids” figured they could go out on a date and collectively have more teeth and IQ points than the rest of the diner combined. Still, the kids knew that if it weren’t for the people who lived there, they’d not have a university and the town people knew the university was a major economic driver for the area.
Only now in Wisconsin have I seen this kind of vitriol on a statewide level. It is the reason why, although I spent nine years in college and another 15 in academia, that when people ask me what I do, I tell them, “Oh. I work at the U.” I hope they assume I’m a janitor or something. In other cases, I just tell them that I enjoy refinishing furniture or try to get on to a more comfortable topic. When my dad is bragging to people at a baseball card show or something that “My son is a professor at the U,” I do my best to redirect or deflect the conversation to something safer.
I fear the rage, the disgust or the “hmmph” I’ll get for being “a college professor.”
You have helped galvanize that and direct that rage and you haven’t done so for the benefit of a better state, but rather for your own personal gains. You spoke to the echo chamber until it echoed back what you needed to move on with your life.
Please understand, governor, I’m not threatening to leave this state. I’m trying even harder to get kids to come to my little state-run school. I’m calling former colleagues and trying to get them to apply for jobs here, which is a lot like trying to convince someone to submit to a blowjob from a piranha.
I don’t condone or agree with Sara Goldrick-Rab’s recent Twitter fiasco, because it obscures the real issues. No one is like Hitler, probably not even Hitler himself at this point, given how we tend to attribute anything we don’t like from politicians to umpires as being Hitler-like. I also hate the idea of people saying, “I’m taking my ball and going home.” She’s a brilliant scholar, but she’s coming through to the outside world as a cross between a huffy academic and a screaming cat lady. I feel her anger and I feel her pain, but a 140-character battle of wits with the Internet isn’t the answer.
Understand instead that unlike you, I’ve lived elsewhere. I’ve gone other places and done other things for reasons beyond getting a passport stamp or a false-front understanding of the complexities of international negotiations. I also know that while you apparently want out, I want to stay here.
A few times during your tenure, I’ve been offered jobs in places that were run better, that had more money, that gave me more freedom and that didn’t have a governor who saw me as the enemy. (That last one isn’t entirely true, as I did get an offer from LSU as well…) I’ve thought long and hard about grabbing that lifeboat, setting sail and never looking back. It seems like it would be so easy, but I turned down each one.
The reason is simple. This is my home. It’s where my parents live. It’s where my grandparents are buried. It’s where I learned the value of getting along with people who aren’t like you and where I teach some of the best kids in the world. It’s where so many of my values (shut up and do the work; don’t whine about shitty outcomes; improvise, adapt, overcome; work harder and you can overcome any problem) are exemplified in almost every kid who sits in my class. They come from the families of people you have convinced that I am a lazy Satanist who masturbates to Karl Marx and works 21.8 minutes out of every week. They see me work hard and watch as I force them work hard. They become better. They become inspired. They become grateful. It is in that generation I see hope.
I finally found a home with a workshop and a car for the summer. I finally have a friend who stops by to check in on my wood projects and with whom I drink beer in his garage. I have kids who take classes because I teach them, not because they have to.
I have a life and for the first time in a long time, I don’t have wanderlust.
You don’t get to take that away from me. I won’t let you.
So please, sir, enjoy your run through the primary. Battle it out with the intellectual giants in your party like Donald Trump for the right to face Hillary or Bernie in the second round. Continue to burnish your reputation by telling the story of how you brandished a musket and fended off 1.4 million protestors who were attempting to gut your wife like a deer. I wish you well.
Just give me back what I once had on your way out the door. Sure, it’s a lot worse for wear, but now that you’re essentially gone, maybe we can start fixing it.
Best of luck,