For months, America has heard about how the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election would affect the rest of the country. If Governor Scott Walker were to lose, the argument went, the nation would learn a lesson about union power and what the political landscape might look like in the November elections. So now that Walker has prevailed, what did we learn?

For one, the Wisconsin imbroglio alerted the public to the distasteful system of forced unionization, by which taxpayers essentially make mandatory contributions to keep the Democratic Party in office. In Wisconsin, union membership for many government employees was compulsory; dues levied on these employees went straight to government unions, which used them to elect the same Democratic officials who negotiated their pay and benefits.

Further, America learned that an elected official could take on the big-government unions and survive. For years, Wisconsin limped along facing deficit after deficit, using budget tricks and gimmicks to get elected officials through the next election. Walker has changed that. He recognized that the current state- and local-employee benefit structure was unsustainable, and that collective bargaining, which artificially inflates public-employee salaries and benefits, was largely to blame. If that case can be made in a state with a strong government-union pedigree like Wisconsin, it can be made anywhere.

Though outraged by the governor’s proposals, government unions recognized early on that Walker’s plan to curtail collective bargaining for public employees wasn’t motivating voters. They tried to drum up interest by other means. They focused on the bogus “war on women,” a John Doe investigation of several of Walker’s former county-executive employees, and on anemic state job numbers, discredited weeks ago. It didn’t work.

Finally, we learned that in Scott Walker, Republicans might have the makings of a future party leader. With his win last night, the governor became a standard bearer for political principle. With Walker and Congressman Paul Ryan (who grew up down the road from the governor), liberal Wisconsin has produced two conservative stars. Don’t be surprised if one of them takes his message across the country in a national campaign someday.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next