A History of the Conservative “Divide and Conquer” Strategy and How Walker Botched It

Madison Protest

The conservative philosophy of government can be summed up by a single passage in historian Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of The United States:

Inasmuch as the primary object of the government, beyond the mere repression of physical violence, is the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the dominant classes whose rights are thus to be determined must perforce obtain from the government such rules as are consonant with the larger interests necessary to the continuance of their economic processes, or they must themselves control the organs of government.

In other words, the interests of the rich must dominate the government through influence or direct control.

The trouble with this philosophy is that it goes against the interests of the vast majority of people. If the lower classes were to unite against the wealthy, it would be difficult to maintain a government that exploited the masses to serve the wealthy. In order to prevent this unification, the wealthy and powerful created and fostered divisions within the people by deflecting frustrations away from themselves.

Divide and Conquer and Union Busting in the 1800s

The strategy of divide and conquer has been used throughout this country’s existence. In 1814, Andrew Jackson as treaty commissioner, “granted Indians individual ownership of the land, thus splitting Indian from Indian, breaking up communal landholding, bribing some with land, leaving others out” (Zinn).

During slavery, “the slaveholders…suspected that non-slaveholders would encourage slave disobedience and even rebellion, not so much out of sympathy for the blacks as out of hatred for the rich planters and resentment of their own poverty” (Genovese). Their solution: “paying poor whites–themselves so troublesome for two hundred years of southern history–to be overseers of black labor and therefore buffers for black hatred” (Zinn).

In the 1800s, anger among the lower classes grew as working conditions became more perilous while wages became less livable. During this period, which Howard Zinn calls “The Other Civil War,” the anger of the people was deflected in multiple directions: “Sometimes there were spontaneous unorganized uprisings against the rich. Sometimes the anger was deflected into racial hatred for blacks, religious warfare against Catholics, nativist fury against immigrants. Sometimes it was organized into demonstrations and strikes.” The economic elite at the time was as good or better at manufacturing conflict than at manufacturing products.

While dividing the foci of the people’s frustrations, the economic elite also fought against another challenge to their power: the formation of organized unions. In 1860, New England shoeworkers via a newly formed Mechanics Association, called a strike and gathered by the thousands to protest low wages:

Police from Boston and militia were sent in to make sure strikers did not interfere with shipments of shoes to be finished out of the state. The strike processions went on, while city grocers and provisions dealers provided food for the strikers. The strike continued through March with morale high, but by April it was losing force. The manufacturers offered higher wages to bring the strikers back into the factories, but without recognizing the unions, so that workers still had to face the employer as individuals. (Zinn, emphasis mine.)

Women weavers formed a union to strike against a 10% pay cut in Fall River, Massachusetts. Their employers held out, knowing that their children needed food and they would have to return to work. To do so, they were forced to sign an “iron-clad oath” not to join a union.

Recent Divide and Conquer Strategy

Since that time, the Labor movement has won major victories, much to the chagrin of today’s economic elite. For the last few decades, conservatives have been utilizing the same divide and conquer strategy as they did 200 years ago.

Conservatives have used the media to foster resentment among non-union workers towards union workers through a clever deflection: instead of looking at how the can gain from unionizing themselves, they look with envy at those workers whose unions have protected them from being exploited as badly as themselves.

The second division is public workers unions and private workers unions. Employers have created a false narrative about greedy, overpaid public workers with their overgenerous benefits. In reality, for all but the lowest paid, non-high school graduating workers, public employers trade lower compensation for greater benefits and job security. Private sector workers are manipulated into seeing public employees as “overpaid” and with “overgenerous benefits” as opposed to realizing that they themselves are underpaid with inadequate benefits.

The third division is within public workers: public safety versus the rest. Conservatives rarely mess with the police and firefighters unions in order to keep them from joining with other public workers, and also because it is much harder to vilify a police officer or firefighter.

Walker’s Botched Strategy

Initially, Gov. Scott Walker was in a powerful divide and conquer position. The media has been pushing a false narrative that public employees are overpaid with overgenerous benefits, the teachers unions being vilified more than any other. His cuts were directed to exempt public safety workers, maintaining the separation between these two factions of public unions. Additionally, he had the cover of media hyperpanic about budget deficits (even though the deficit was created by his own corporate tax cuts and the Wall Street-created recession). His position was so strong that the members of the public unions themselves were agreeing to pay freezes and benefit cuts. His problem was that he did not stop there.

For a divide and conquer strategy to work, you must not take a dramatic action that could galvanize the previously divided groups. His return to the 1800s-era tactic of forcing workers to give up their right to organize did exactly that. While the police and fire unions were exempted from this collective bargaining ban, they realized that if such an act were successful their own ability to collectively bargain would be at jeopardy in the future. Members of private sector unions also sensed the danger, joining in support. Walker’s attempt at divide and conquer had the exact opposite effect: it brought together union members and supporters who have feuded and quarreled for decades.

Walker’s error may prove to be extremely costly in the conservative elite’s war against the working classes. He single-handedly united a divided Labor movement, called into question the prevailing media narrative, and shone sunlight on the relationship between the economic elite (i.e.the Koch brothers) and conservative philosophy.