Other than transferring planes at its airport, I’ve never been to Milwaukee, and haven’t read all that much (other than Hunter Thompson’s famously dyspeptic account of his stay at what was then the Sheraton-Schroeder Hotel during the 1972 Wisconsin primaries) about its political history. So I was fascinated by the recent Milwaukee Sentinal-Journal series by Craig Gilbert about the very nearly unique degree of residential segregation that separates the City of Milwaukee from its suburbs, and the corresponding political polarization that seems to operate independently of the national trend in that direction.
Now at TNR Alec MacGillis amplifies that account and relates it very directly to the political career of Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor has prospered consistently from his mastery of—or perhaps more accurately, faithful echoing of—the heavily racialized and partisan-Republican politics of suburban Milwaukee, which has made the whole state a seething, high-turnout battleground where Republicans have an advantage in non-presidential elections even as Democrats carry it regularly in presidential years.
You really should read MacGillis’ whole story, focusing quite a bit on the political role of local talk radio in feeding white suburban resentment of Milwaukee, which in turn sounds even more blatantly racial than its southern analogs (he quotes the Republican chairman of one of the close-in suburban counties as warning him to avoid a particular Milwaukee street as encompassing “the colored section”).
But in contrast to the color and verve of MacGillis’ portrait of Milwaukee race-baiting talk show hosts and ward heelers, the story’s protagonist, Scott Walker, comes across as a sort of plodding career pol who just happened to become the right man in the right place at the right time to succeed in a plodding way, in part because of lavish support from the Koch Brothers’ financial network. The adjective that most came to mind reading about his background and world-view was “unreflective,” a quality I associate with George W. Bush, and sure enough MacGillis calls him “phlegmatic and self-impressed at the same time, with a boyish smirk that can recall George W. Bush.”
MacGillis predicts that if Walker manages to get re-elected this year and goes on to run for president, he may not fare so well outside the “comfortable cocoon” of Wisconsin politics, where there is so little effort at persuasion in elections that he need do no more that utter his team’s bromides and toss out red meat now and then. In truth Walker sounds like one of the less interesting people in American politics. Since circumstances (the decline of Chris Christie, the struggles of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) have conspired to place him in a fortunate position at the starting gate of the 2016 nominating process in neighboring Iowa (where he spent a good chunk of his childhood), he’s a formidable on-paper candidate, perhaps (as I’ve described him earlier) sort of Tim Pawlenty with a nasty streak. But if, as MacGillis suggests, his nastiness is basically a reflection of his immediate environment, it may not travel that well, even across just one state line.
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