In Praise of the Public Sector

June 17, 2019

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

(These are the remarks prepared by Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, for his part in a panel discussion on June 17 sponsored by the Wisconsin Coalition to Save Civil Service.)

First of all, I’d like to thank everyone involved in the Wisconsin Coalition to Save Civil Service. And that includes my friend Bill Franks, who is also celebrating his birthday today!

Let’s give Bill Franks a round of applause for all the public service he has performed and continues to perform to this day!

I just wanted to say a word or two about what’s been behind the assault on the civil service in Wisconsin and nationally.

First, Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos never wanted to follow the creed of our civil service. They weren’t interested in “competent personnel who will furnish state services to citizens as fairly, efficiently, and effectively as possible.”

And fairness was the last thing they wanted!

What they wanted, and what they got, was to turn the government of Wisconsin into an ATM to service their donors and their corporate cronies. I’m talking about Diane Hendricks, Richard Uihlein, the Koch Brothers, and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the biggest lobbyist in Wisconsin, which has spent $25 million over the last 10 years on election spending. Throughout those 10 years, Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos have been their dutiful water boys.

Second, let’s take a look at this from a national and historical perspective: There’s been a systematic half-century-long rightwing campaign to sully the reputation of the public sector, to call into question the government’s ability to deliver for the people, and to cast shade on the very idea of “the public,” of “community” and of the “common weal.”

The credo of this rightwing cabal, reduced to its essence, is this: “Everything public is bad; everything private is good.”

This has been the mantra of the Koch Brothers, outlined in Jane Mayer’s book, “Dark Money,” and Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains.”

It’s the mantra of Paul Weyrich and Grover Norquist.

It’s the mantra of Betsy DeVos and her brother, Erik Prince.

It’s the mantra of Reagan, and it’s the mantra of Trump.

In this regard, you can view Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos as simply bit players reading from this script and reciting other people’s lines. They’re the under-studies in some third-rate regional troupe.

And sometimes I wonder whether they even believe what they’re saying; they’re just in it for the power, paltry as it is on any significant scale.

So what do we about this? How do we restore our civil service?

1. Gov. Evers and other Democrats should introduce a bill to repeal Act 150, which did so much to damage our civil service.

2. Evers should do what he can, administratively, to strengthen civil service, and my colleagues on the panel probably have some ideas on that front.

3. We all need to uphold civil servants and salute them when you see them doing a good job, as Madison Mayor Soglin did during the flooding on the Isthmus last summer, and as his old friend Jim Rowen did this winter,praising the snow plow drivers during the polar vortex.

4. We all need to uphold the value of “the public,” “the public sector,” “community,” and the “commonweal.”

5. We all need to denounce the privatizers’ ideology.

Because there’s a hidden purpose behind this ideology.And that is, to eliminate the only two institutions that can put any kind of check on runaway corporate power.

One is democratic government, and its ability to curb corporate predations on the environment or on workers or consumers.

The other is labor unions, which, since FDR, our government has legitimized.

By undermining democratic government, and by savaging unions, rightwing forces are laughing all the way to the bank. They’re winning big time. As Charles Koch told his rightwing billionaire friends last year, “We ’ve made more progress in the past five years than I 've made in the previous 50.”

So this isn’t about what Walker did, or what Vos and Fitzgerald are still doing! It’s so much more than that.

It’s about the national ideological contest between those with money and power – and those without.

Between those who want nothing to stand in their way of maximizing profits, no matter the costs – and those who bear the costs: workers, farmers, consumers, tenants, students, patients, and anyone who wants to drink clean water and breathe clean air.

In short, it’s a contest between those who believe in democracy, and those who are already in the oligarchy or in service to, or in thrall of, the oligarchy.

To beat them, yes, we need to organize and vote.

But we also need to engage in this ideological fight.

So, praise the public sector.

Praise the protectors of our air and our land and our water.

Praise the snowplow driver and the bus driver.

Praise the nurses and the epidemiologists in the public health department.

Praise the park wardens and the public parks themselves, like Wyalusing, and Governor Dodge, and Devils Lake, and Peninsula State Park.

Praise public libraries, like this beautiful library we’re in right now, and the people who work in the libraries.

Praise public schools, and public school teachers.

Praise public sector workers, period.

Praise public sector unions.

Praise unions, period.

Praise anti-pollution regulations on corporations.

Praise the idea of “the public.”

Praise the idea of “community.”

Because that’s who we are as human beings, after all, members of a community.

Let’s make it a democratic community.

Let’s make it a fair community.

Let’s make it a just community.

And let’s do it now.