Wisconsin and Beyond: Not Your Father’s Culture War

Posted by Ken Carman for LTS readers.

Written by Bill Berkowitz

Everything the Heritage Foundation has been seeking, thinking about, researching, promoting, marketing, writing about and fundraising for – from destroying unions to putting the kybosh on public education – is now on the table it may not leap out at you, but what’s going on in Wisconsin and several other states is a fusion of Koch-ist free-market fundamentalism, Tea Party swagger, and the Religious Right’s traditional values agenda; think the Heritage Foundation’s full-blown project coming home to roost.


With the stripping away of fifty years of collective bargaining rights for public employee unions in Wisconsin, the culture wars of the past three decades are morphing into something much larger: a rightwing cultural revolution. And while battles over reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and an assortment of other highly-charged social issues will continue to be fought over, the political landscape is dramatically changing.

The “culture wars,” as reported by the mainstream media since the Reagan administration, has been portrayed as mostly being about such hot-button issues as abortion, homosexuality, and prayer in the public schools. And while it is true that those issues, and a slate of similarly divisive ones, have propelled the modern “culture wars” forward, the battle over union rights in Wisconsin and Ohio (with other states likely to follow) is not just another battle in the “culture wars.” Rather it is a redefinition of this country’s social contract and a complete realignment of the political landscape.

What’s going on is a fusion of Koch-ist anti-union free-market fundamentalism, Tea Party bluster, and the Religious Right’s traditional values agenda; think the Heritage Foundation’s nearly four-decade-old mission coming home to roost.

Everything the Heritage Foundation has been seeking, thinking about, researching, promoting, marketing, writing about and fundraising for – from destroying unions to putting the kybosh on public education – is now on the table.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, sees the battle in Wisconsin as a classic example of “shock doctrine” politics in action. Klein quotes the late Milton Friedman as saying that it is a crisis, whether real or conjured, that “produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is out basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Klein pointed out Governor Walker has defined the situation as a sky-is-falling “budget crisis” which Klein said the Governor has “exaggerated” – thus leading to the draconian “solutions” that he’s proposed.

Interestingly, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at the conservative/libertarian Independent Institute, and a supporter of Gov. Walker, kind of confirmed Klein’s view in a recent piece titled “Wisconsin Matters to the World.” Vargas Llosa wrote that, “the battle of Wisconsin … has acquired planetary significance. If the forces of reason prevail, the contagion could spread like wildfire, bringing sanity to Washington and across the nation. If they don’t, the best chance in many years to reverse America’s slow decline will have been missed.”

It is Vargas Llosa’s “forces of reason” that have waged a long-term struggle to destroy all unions. It is those “forces of reason” that has brought wave after wave of “culture war” issues to state after state. And, it is those “forces of reason” that has unleashed a “cultural revolution” in this country.

In order for the “forces of reason” to succeed, they need to have the full complement of conservative forces on board: the nascent Tea Party and its multi-millionaire backers, the conservative think tanks and its economic hit men, and leading Religious Right organizations and its grassroots army. And they all certainly appear to be.
For years, some have called the union between economic conservatives and social conservatives a marriage of convenience and expediency. And it often has been. While there are definite splits within the conservative movement, particularly among hardcore libertarians and the social issues crowd, conservatives have always recognized that they need, and feed off, each other.

While many hypothesized that the growth of the Tea Party movement would adversely affect the influence of the Religious Right in Republican Party politics, it appears that that isn’t quite panning out.

A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found “that Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In addition, they are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues. And they draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.”

Most, if not all, of the potential candidates for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination recognize this. That is why Newt Gingrich, who appears to be ready to set up a presidential exploratory committee, speaks at an Ohio Right to Life banquet one night and a CPAC gathering another.

It was also recently reported that Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Haley Barbour, all potential GOP presidential candidates, intend to participate in what’s being called a “Pastors’ Policy Briefing,” an event sponsored by the Iowa Renewal Project. People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch pointed out that “The Iowa Renewal Project is one of many state-level ‘restoration projects’ that attempt to organize pastors to support conservative causes and Republican candidates.”

A brief scan of a site called ProLifeBlogs. com [1] reveals headline after headline – “Obama, Dems and Union Thugs: Elections Matter Only If Democrats Win,” “Pro-union Demonstrators Assault FNC’s Mike Tobin, Attempt to Shout Down Field Reports,” “Madison Protests – Socialists” – bashing Wisconsin’s public sector union workers.

In Wisconsin, the free-market piece is now the major focus. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s goal, to radically redefine collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, appears – after weeks of mass protests and public opinion polls supporting the workers – has come to pass. As the New Republic’s John Judis recently pointed out, the conservative plan is “to snuff out their [public unions] very existence.” It is not a stretch to see that the destruction of the unions can directly lead to rendering the Democratic Party impotent.

About the author

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.