Republicans should consider themselves lucky that they are not facing the same sort of existential crisis that is currently dividing the Democratic (or is it Democratic Socialist?) Party, but the Grand Ole Party is nonetheless facing anew its grand old quandary: What exactly is conservatism?
In the Age of Trump, is it the President’s own flag-waving, trade-warring populism? Is it the more rigorously academic yet far less politically pragmatic theorizing of the last remnants of the #NeverTrump movement? Or is it somewhere in between—somewhere that now embraces Trump fully but was the last state to vote against him in the Republican Primary; somewhere that has cut taxes, reformed welfare, stood up to unhinged bullying when it drained its own version of the swamp, and came out stronger than it ever has been?
What is conservatism? In a word, it’s Wisconsin.
The birthplace of the Republican Party has a century and a half later also been the birthplace of this new form of conservatism that is (and should be) less focused on style than it is on substance and less fixated on how it defines itself in theory than on how it succeeds in practice.
In that sense, Wisconsin has been what conservatism has always promised. Or, more accurately, Wisconsin has proven that only conservatism can fix the failed promises of liberalism. That, at its very essence, is the difference between the two ideologies: Liberalism promises, but conservatism delivers.
After seven years of conservative governance under Governor Scott Walker and a Republican State Legislature, Wisconsin has hit a record low unemployment rate of 2.8% that is significantly lower than the national rate of 3.8%. Its labor force participation rate of 68.9% is the highest it has ever been and ranks fifth highest in the nation.
After seven years of liberal governor Jim Doyle and a Democratic State Legislature, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate stood at a record high of 9.2%. Jobs, especially manufacturing jobs, were fleeing the state in droves. The state’s unemployment insurance trust fund was more than $1 billion in debt.
Today, initial unemployment insurance claims are at their lowest level in 30 years, while continuing unemployment claims are the lowest they’ve been since 1973. Wisconsin ranks second in the nation in the number of manufacturing jobs it’s added this year. Since Governor Walker took office, the state’s addition of more than 45,600 manufacturing jobs ranks in the top 10 nationally.
And that’s even before 13,000 more manufacturing jobs are created now that Foxconn has broken ground on the single largest economic development project in the state’s history and one of the biggest foreign investments ever seen in the United States. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce estimates that when Foxconn’s factory is fully operational in 2020, it will boost the state’s gross domestic product by a staggering $51.5 billion over the 15 years that the state is paying tax incentives to the company. That amounts to $3.4 billion each year and represents an $18 return on every dollar invested.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, conservative management of Wisconsin’s finances turned a $2.7 billion structural deficit into a $579 million surplus in the state’s main account. If ever there were a clearer illustration of the fundamental difference between conservatism and liberalism, it would be this: Governor Doyle almost constantly raided Wisconsin’s transportation fund, eventually transferring more than $1.3 billion to the main fund to plug various budget gaps caused by his and his party’s utter negligence. Governor Walker never had to transfer a dime (and even helped pass a Constitutional amendment banning the practice).
Over the past seven years there has been no budget gimmickry; no outright thievery—only prudential leadership and a conservative philosophy that has proven to be more than the sum of its various reforms. More so than Right to Work legislation, more so than property tax cuts, a partial repeal of Prevailing Wage laws, welfare reform, child tax credits, university tuition freezes, more so even than Act 10’s collective bargaining reform, Wisconsin has recovered from its Lost Doyle Decade of a general embrace of conservatism that allows it to foster a relationship with its private sector based on partnership and not subjugation.
This, more than anything, is what unites Trump and #NeverTrump conservatism and differentiates both from the creeping socialism of the Democratic Party. While liberals cheer a fresh-faced new superstar like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, they are making to the American people an implied promise—that this socialist will finally be the one who gets it right; the one who is finally able to make their philosophy work.
Conservatism, meanwhile, makes no promises. It doesn’t have to. All it has to do is point to Wisconsin and let the results speak for themselves.
Not perfectly, of course. Republicans have failed to enact into the state Constitution permanent controls on government spending and taxes, largely because Republicans believe, just like politicians of any or no party, in getting themselves reelected. The Legislature has failed to increase road spending by cutting other government spending. In fact, government spending hasn’t been cut at all (including school spending, in contrast to Tony Evers’ lie). Wisconsin still has the socialist minimum-markup law. Wisconsin still has too much government any way you measure it — government spending, number of government units, number of government employees, etc. One cannot really call Wisconsin Republicans small-government conservatives.
However, none of the things that have been accomplished this decade would have taken place had Tom Barrett, Mary Burke, any of the Democrats running for governor now or any Democrat been elected governor instead of Walker, and had Democrats been running state government instead of Republicans.
Government is supposed to serve the people, not the other way around. Democrats believe in the other way around. That is why for the foreseeable future I will never vote for a Democrat.