On Legacies: Ellis, Moore, and Us
By Tony Palmeri
from the April 2011 edition of THE SCENE
America ain't broke! The only thing that's broke is the moral compass of the rulers. Michael Moore in Madison, March 5th 2011
In office for barely several months, Governor Scott Walker’s already managed to divide our state in ways the late commie hunter Joe McCarthy could not. At least Tail Gunner Joe could be excused as a bumbling alcoholic or inevitable product of anti-Communist hysteria going on at all levels of the federal government in the 1950s. And when the cameras were off McCarthy befriended his political opponents; the New York Times reported recently that he would often have lunch with Milwaukee’s Socialist Mayor Frank Zeidler.
In contrast, Walker breaks bread with supporters or sycophants. He found 20 minutes for a phone chat with a person he believed to be billionaire Republican operative David Koch, yet could not find 20 seconds for any Democrat who could have helped resolve the impasse over the “Budget Repair” bill. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank listened to the Koch call and heard in Walker an “unprincipled rigidity” that sees politics as tribal blood sport featuring a “never-ending cycle of revenge killings.”
One good thing about politicians like McCarthy and Walker is that they force people in a position to influence current events to show their true grit. Well known politicians, pundits, business leaders, educators, and others end up intentionally or unintentionally building an entire legacy around their response to the McCarthy or the Walker.
Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith in 1950 stood up to McCarthy as she delivered her courageous “Declaration of Conscience.” She left a legacy of integrity, arguing that the Republican Party should never ”ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny: Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.” (Someone needs to get that speech to Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee, among others.).
Edward R. Murrow became an icon of American journalism as a result of his WW II radio broadcasts, but his 1954 defense of the right to dissent and denunciation of McCarthyite excesses solidified his legacy as a champion of free speech and free association. Of McCarthy, Murrow said that, “his primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind,” a statement that sounds eerily contemporary as we listen to Mr. Walker’s mantra that the reason the state is “broke” is because of public worker wages and benefits.
The controversy over the Governor’s curtailing of collective bargaining rights and balancing the budget on the backs of the middle class and poor represents a legacy producing moment. Democratic Senators left for Illinois to filibuster the legislation, while their GOP counterparts (with the exception of Dale Schultz) rubber stamped the governor or, like West Bend’s Glenn Grothman, served as his unofficial attack dog. I predict history will judge the Fab 14 more kindly than Walker groupie Glenn.
But I want to single two public figures out for special mention: Neenah Republican Senator Mike Ellis and film maker Michael Moore. Ellis lost, and Moore left, a populist legacy in the state of Wisconsin.
Mike Ellis, who served in the Assembly from 1970 to 1980 and in the Senate since 1982, was always known as an independent Republican. His strong stands against pay to play politics and for good government gave Republican Tommy Thompson heartburn. His ideas for dealing with the state’s structural deficit never included repealing the right of public employees to have a seat at the bargaining table. He’s truly been a source of provocative and often progressive policy ideas.
Until now. When the people most needed Mike’s voice to push an extremist governor to moderation, he chose to shut up. Worse, when he did speak he often spread the stale GOP party line: “pass the governor’s bill or lose 1,500 jobs.” A formerly principled reformer with a populist edge now leaves a legacy as a political hack. Saddest. Transformation. Ever.
In contrast, film maker Michael Moore came to Madison and passionately defined the moment for thousands of rally participants. He demonstrated, in a pointed and clear way, that the current attacks on workers because “we’re broke” represent merely a continuation of the same dynamic that gave us the taxpayer funded Wall St. bailout in 2008. He challenged the mainstream media to just once state a truism:
Right now, this afternoon, just 400 Americans, 400, have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. Let me say that again. And please, someone in the mainstream media, just repeat this fact once. We’re not greedy; we’ll be happy to hear it just once. Four hundred obscenely wealthy individuals, 400 little Mubaraks, most of whom benefited in some way from the multi trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of 2008, now have more cash, stock and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Politifact meter rated Moore’s claim as True. Unfortunately what’s also true is that mainstream media moguls have no intention of repeating Moore’s claim with a frequency that might make it as well known as Charlie Sheen’s Twitter stats or Lady Gaga’s new look.
Moore predicts that the people will fix the broken moral compass of the rulers and “steer the ship ourselves from now on.” That would be a noble legacy for our generation to leave.
Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh