By: Sean Scallon

There’s a difference between natural conservatism and ideological conservatism and if you really want to understand the meaning of the outcome of Wisconsin’s recent recall election, it’s helpful to know which is which. 

“Natural Conservatism” is the prudence and restraint one shows in matters of public affairs (and all aspects of life for that matter). It’s the conservatism born of experience, wisdom, intuition but also careful study and observation too. It’s the kind of conservatism philosophers like Edmund Burke promoted as a contrast to the radicalism of the French Revolution. 

“Ideological Conservatism” is sets of beliefs, dogmas and certainties in sets of ideas or ideals lain down for society to follow. They are believed to be the natural course of events and thus part of a chain of irrefutable logic. Thus, there can be no dissent or deviation from them.

Observers may well think what triumphed was Governor Scott Walker’s agenda for the state and there’s no question much of his vote was tallied in support of that agenda. 

But Walker would have never won a majority without the support of the natural conservatism of many Wisconsin citizens who had very different reasons for supporting the governor outside of his ideology. 

This “natural conservatism” questioned the wisdom of recalling a governor midway through his first-term in office outside of any reasons of malfeasance in office or other such scandal. It wondered about the fairness of such an act. It recoiled at the possibility that the success of such a recall would trigger other such elections in the future. Elections which, since the Citizens United court decision, could easily be financed by a single person and witness outside money pouring into the state  determing the outcome of said elections (which many feel it did so in this case). It wondered what upheaval s to the state’s electoral system such elections and tactics such as elected representatives abandoning the state capitol to prevent a vote on a bill, could mean for the future. Ultimately the voters’ “natural conservatism” recoiled at the possibility. 

You would have found a lot of those voters in my neck of the woods. In Pepin County where I live Walker won by a 2-to-1 margin and elsewhere by much the same in the rural parts of the state. Not only did Walker win by sizeable margins out here but the voter turnout was much lower than in the ideological regions around Madison and Milwaukee. Not only did many voters turn against the recall, they also didn’t support it by not dignifying it with their presence at all at the polls. 

Voting for Walker did not mean supporting him however. Once again the GOP lost a state Senator to a recall for supporting the Budget Repair Act and exit polls showed evenly split support for collective bargaining. The exit polls also showed solid support for President Obama as well. Indeed, it seems many “natural conservatives” aren’t interested in changing the status quo in Washington D.C. either right now. 

Would another candidate have done better? It tempting to think so but that candidate would have needed a powerful counter-narrative might have changed persons’ minds to the extent they felt a recall was necessary, to go against their natural conservatism. Perhaps it could have been done with a message not only supporting collective bargaining but also a populist fervor alongside it attacking the Koch brothers or attacking the big money that was supporting Scott Walker (something a Paul Wellstone certainly would have known how to do). But that kind of campaign was not run by Tom Barrett so we’ll never know.  

So who are the winners and losers and what are long-term implications of the recall elections? Check back again in 2015. Even if Barrett had won the rules governing collective bargaining would have probably stayed in place for the foreseeable future, until Barrett had solid majorities in the state legislature to overturn them (although with Barrett it’s conceivable he may well have come up with an excuse to continue the changes in collective bargaining. After all, Jim Doyle did the same with appointing the DNR Secretary).  Certainly Scott Walker is now nationally famous  and certainly organized labor took another loss. But better to have fought and lost than to have never fought at all. They’ll be another day for labor and perhaps the recalls may well have prevented the Republicans from putting forth a Right to Work bill in the legislature. Scott Walker is riding high now, but what if he’s the “John Doe” in the ongoing investigation of the Milwaukee County Executive Office? What if the economy still doesn’t improve and the state is still well short of the 250,000 new jobs he wants by 2014 and What if he interprets his election as a broad mandate to go all-in and all-out for an ideological agenda for the next legislative session in 2013? Then it may well be the natural conservatism of Wisconsin voters would be provoked enough to go in the opposite direction in 2014 to stop such radicalism. That’s what the natural conservatism of the Wisconsin voter is all about.

"Published originally at : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact."

Sean Scallon is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter who lives in Arkansaw, Wisconsin. His work has appeared in Chronicles: A magazine of American Culture. His first-ever book: Beating the Powers that Be: Independent Political Movements and Parties of the Upper Midwest and their Relevance in Third-party Politics of Today is now out on sale from Publish America. Go to the their website at to order a copy. He is a regular columnist for Ether Zone.

Sean Scallon can be reached at:

Published in the June 18, 2012 issue of  Ether Zone.
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