The Corner

Politics & Policy

Scott Walker, the Davos Class, and the Rest of Us

There is a lot that is going to be said about this Claremont Review article, but these lines jumped out:

How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally? If you’re a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted — perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably — your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics.

Scott Walker came up through the Wisconsin state legislature and Milwaukee county government. He was not a creature of Davos, and his Democratic opponents would be bitterly amused at the idea that he thinks of himself as the Washington Generals of anything.

Walker’s campaign implosion is baffling to many, but some of the reasons for his failure are evident in a 2013 interview with the Wausau Daily Herald. With amazing innocence, Walker said:

You hear some people talk about border security, and a wall, and all that. To me, I don’t know that you need any of that if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.

That sentiment was more appropriate for a billionaire speaking at a Davos panel than for a politician about to seek the Republican presidential nomination. So why is Walker expressing these ideas to a Wisconsin newspaper?

I would suggest that Walker got them not from the Davos class but from his interactions with the local Wisconsin business lobbies that have supported him throughout his career. These people aren’t billionaires. They are hotel-franchise owners, building contractors, and landscaping-company owners (to say nothing of restaurateurs, real estate-agents, and others.)

These people aren’t rubbing shoulders with the Clintons at meetings of the global elite. They are running hotels a couple of miles from the highway exit. They work with their crews out in the Sun, and do the paperwork in the evening.

These people agreed with Walker on his Wisconsin reforms, and it worked out pretty well for Walker. They also agreed with Walker on what he no doubt thought of as commonsense, welcoming, pro-growth immigration policy. What Walker could not understand is that the stuff that pleases the local chamber of commerce on federal issues is often politically poisonous among the general electorate. He seems never to have gotten pushback on his who-needs-immigration-enforcement clichés, and that left him unprepared to talk about federal issues.

Walker tried to make a case for restricting immigration, but not only was his message inconsistent, it was also clear that he didn’t mean it, and was repulsed by his intended audience. Not to quote myself, but I once wrote that Walker “embraced immigration enforcement and restriction with all the grace and sincerity of a man who has been stranded among a primitive tribe that is forcing him to participate in ritual cannibalism.”

This disconnect between the local business lobbies and the mass of Republican voters is important because the local business lobbies are the main socializing network for aspiring center-right politicians (white, Evangelical Christian activism is another network, but one that has doesn’t have as much geographical reach). It means that talented, state-level politicians are underprepared for the national stage.

This isn’t a problem just in 2016. Texas governor Rick Perry was similarly blindsided in the 2012 cycle. The constituency that voted for Trump lacks the institutions to make themselves heard between elections. That division among Americans is a much tougher problem than a meeting in Switzerland.  

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