But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him.A couple preliminary observations:
The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.
1. The protesters and the Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature are making a much bigger show of lacking "neighborliness, decency and mutual respect" than the Republicans, who won the election last fall and are attempting to solve a terrible economic problem. Legislators ran to another state and hid out to obstruct the majority, and the protesters have been chanting unneighborly chants and carrying outrageous signs — depicting Scott Walker as Hitler, etc. — for a month. They took over the Capitol, covering its marble walls with nasty signs, defiling its war monument, and breaking things. They mobbed a state senator. They made death threats! Not all of them. But how can you talk about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect and not acknowledge these things?
2. Cronon's the historian, and he points to Joe McCarthy. But couldn't one also point to Ronald Reagan? Yeah, I know: not from Wisconsin. But he was perceived as "a sternly uncompromising leader" when he was Governor of California. All the college kids — including me — thought he was a demon. Cronon says McCarthy "helped create the modern Democratic Party," but Reagan's role in creating the modern Republican Party is even more dramatic. Walker is much more like Reagan. In fact, Reagan's resemblance to McCarthy is greater than Walker's. Reagan got in front of the camera and said some pretty harsh things back in the late 60s. Walker always comes across as a nice person, making tough decisions and doing what he thinks needs to be done.