As the former governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker learned firsthand how to confront cancel culture. In 2012, he became the first governor in American history to survive a recall election. His economic recovery plan and budget reforms ultimately proved more popular with voters.
Now, as president of the Young America’s Foundation, Walker is showing the next generation of conservatives how to fight back against the left—and win.
Walker is also on a quest to expand YAF’s reach by engaging a larger number of young Americans on the issues that matter most. He says he is optimistic about the future and believes more young people will reject big-government socialism once they understand the consequences.
Listen to the full interview or watch our conversation on YouTube below. An edited transcript follows.
Rob Bluey: We are focused here in Washington on some of the big challenges our country faces, obviously the last 18 months we’ve endured this pandemic. We now have a new administration in Washington, which is pushing a lot of big-government socialist programs. You have a perspective from leading a state through some tumultuous times of your own, coming out of the recession and having some big budget debates and encounters with unions there.
And now you’re leading an organization that focuses on the future and educating young people about our great country. What is your outlook on our country right now as you interact with these young Americans and hopefully give them a brighter future as to what the days are ahead?
Scott Walker: I’m an optimist, which might sound unusual for a conservative here in our nation’s capital where we sit right now. But I’m an optimist for a couple of different reasons. One, you mentioned my time as governor. I think back, coming off the recession in 2008, 2009, going into 2010. Back when I ran for governor, the unemployment rate surpassed 9.2% in Wisconsin, we had over 133,000 people out of work. We had all sorts of problems. I inherited a budget deficit of about $3.6 billion, which was for a mid-sized state, a pretty significant amount.
The reason I’m optimistic is because I look at with positive conservative reforms, we were able to react to that in a great way. In fact, when I left for multiple years in a row, we had more people working than ever before in Wisconsin’s history. Unemployment was well below 3%. We had budget surpluses every year were in office. And probably most importantly, we put in place reforms at both the state and the local level that allowed our elected officials, the people we duly elect to actually run the governments, to get rid of the, the union control.
That meant that we could staff based on merit. We could pay based on performance. We could put the best and the brightest in the classroom and elsewhere. And that’s really paid off. More than $13 billion worth of tax relief, major reforms, major savings. So, I put that in context as saying it hasn’t happened yet, but I think that will have a major impact, particularly next year, what happens with the electorate and a minimum, at least, with the house. And then I think given time, much as we saw what happened in 2008 led to 2010 and beyond, the positive reforms that came after those elections, I’m hopeful that ’22 and ’24 will lead down that path as well.
The other part is with young people, at Young America’s Foundation, I just see not just our young people who are already motivated and involved, but when we go to college campuses and we give lectures, what I’ve found is that many people look at young people today and they say, “Oh my gosh, what is wrong with them?” And I say, “No, no, no, what’s wrong is that society, all of us, collectively, haven’t done enough to give a balanced perspective.” And while on one hand that’s frustrating because most polls then show that young people lean left, the positive side is given some information, it’s actually not hard to move them in the right direction.
Bluey: Governor, I will say that as frustrated and as worried as people are today, I know that they still have hope for the future. So, I think a lot of them agree with your optimistic attitude. You are here at The Heritage Foundation today to talk about how we can effectively message to not only conservatives, but a lot of Americans who may not affiliate themselves directly with the conservative movement or agree with that label, but really, I think deep down, probably agree with some of the issues that we work on. What advice would you like to share with our listeners about how you’re doing that at Young America’s Foundation?
Walker: One of the best things, and this is not only true with young people, I think it’s true overall with people but particularly young people, is as conservatives we have a tendency to think and talk with our head. The left thinks and talks with their heart. And if we want to succeed we need to think with our head, use our mind, but convey it in ways that come from the heart. And one of the most compelling things we encourage our young people to do at our conferences and even on their campuses is go and seek out people who’ve come here from other countries, particularly people who’ve come from places like Venezuela or Cuba or some of the old Soviet republics. We’ve had, on our campuses and at many of our conferences, people who fit that bill, whether they’re very young or people who have several generations removed from having come here.
But it’s just so powerful because when someone talks to you about Venezuela, a country that just a decade and a half ago was one of the wealthiest in the hemisphere, now nine out of 10 people in that country live in abject poverty. In fact so much so, you can literally see that I think the average Venezuelan in the last few years hass lost something like 20 pound, just because of malnutrition.
You can literally physically see the impact of socialism on them. Or you think a Cuba, where up until last January the minimum wage in Cuba was $17. Not per hour, not per day, not per week, but per month. Now it’s gone up since then, but think about that. Even with free healthcare and we all know that free healthcare means lousy healthcare in Cuba, as we’ve seen in this pandemic, but healthcare and housing and transportation. I tell these kids $17, even at that, how would you even pay for your iPhone let alone anything else? And so sharing, not just the facts, but finding ways to communicate it, either through stories or ideally through firsthand accounts of people who’ve experienced either socialist countries or countries that warrants communist. Really, really powerful.
Bluey: We have heard now for several years, through polling and other just anecdotal information, that more and more young people are gravitating towards socialism. They’re also turning away from free-market capitalism, it seems. When you’ve looked at these issues, what do you find in the polling that you’ve done?
Walker: On the surface, it might appear that way, but it’s interesting. We did a number of polls in this, like others have done, but for example, one of the open-ended polls we did where we said, “Define socialism.” The highest number of people, there was no clear majority, but the plurality at the top was not sure. Nearly 30% of the respondents of young people weren’t even sure.
Get this, a whopping 10% said they thought it was being social, which is amazing because the next two highest groups were both at 11% where they actually gave pretty accurate descriptions. So, about as many people just thought it was being social as anything else.
Conversely, when we ask about free markets, very similar numbers. About 30%, weren’t certain and they were all over the map. So, I go back to the good and the bad. The bad is we’ve got an education system in this country that largely has failed our students if they can’t clear the defined, whether you’re forward against it, what socialism is and what free market capitalism is.
That’s one of the important things too: How do we define it? It’s big-government socialism vs. free-market capitalism, if you want to be clear about the parameters. Because then I think it gets back to the fairness issue. Once we explain what that is, then young people go, “Oh, well, yeah, I’m actually for free markets. I don’t want the government intervening in this. I don’t want them telling me what I can or can’t do.”
And one of the other interesting telling points in one of our polls was we asked, “Do you think the federal government is using taxpayers money wisely?” A mere 26% said yes, about half said no, and about a quarter weren’t certain. So three-quarters of them were either no or weren’t sure. Only slightly more than a quarter actually thought that they were using it right? So, it is a telling issue that we need to go beyond just the superficial headlines that the media jumps over and realize that most young people either don’t know or don’t fully appreciate what socialism is.
Bluey: It makes you also wonder if the left is maybe overplaying its hand here.
Walker: I think they are. But they have a willing accomplice in the media. The media buys into this, I often say, the left and the media, largely indistinguishable, but they buy into it. And I think, actually even worse with the media, it’s not even just that they’re liberal. Some are, for sure, nationally. But I think worse than that, most media outlets are just lazy.
Bluey: In your work at Young America’s Foundation, what issues do you find are resonating most with college students these days? What are they interested in?
Walker: The biggest thing is cancel culture. … We have on our tip line, yaf.org/tips, you can actually give us a tip if you’re a college student or anyone else for that matter. It is amazing how many times we’ll get tips, recorded or otherwise, we have professors saying, “Hey, if you say you’re pro-life, you’re pro gun, you’re pro Trump, whatever it might be, you’re going to flunk out of class. I won’t accept that.”
Well, that’s a clear violation from a not only free speech, but academic freedom standpoint. So, we see it in the classroom and we see it with fellow students. We see it when speakers come to campus where they either outright won’t allow them. Or I remember in the past, for example, the University of California Berkeley, we were helping to bring in Ben Shapiro and the university didn’t technically block him in the purest legal sense, but they put restrictions like he couldn’t be there after three in the afternoon, they couldn’t advertise, the students couldn’t advertise for it. And oh, by the way, they had to charge a security fee that was multiple times more than they charge any other group on campus.
We fought that, we ultimately won in court, just like we’ll fight it anywhere in the nation. But it is mind boggling when you think about free speech, when you think about this is something that constitution guarantees, but it should be the most revered on our college campuses. Yet that’s where it’s most at risk. And so cancel culture, free speech issues, really are top of mind. Then after that, then they want to talk about freedom. Things that allow them to live in a free and just society. They’re very interested in fairness. We shouldn’t back away from that. Fairness and authenticity, I think, can really be on our side. But we’ve had to go beyond the surface and really dig and explain what that means.
Bluey: If we have a college students who are listening to this podcast, or maybe parents or grandparents, what are the resources that Young America’s Foundation can provide them? You mentioned the tip line. Can you talk about other things that you do to help them overcome some of the challenges they might have?
Walker: Individual students, whether you’re a member or not, you can join as a member to at yaf.org, but whether you’re a member, whether you’re part of chapter, or you’re just a conservative student, a lot of times we’ll work with other groups, College Republicans, Students for Life, you name it, we’ll work with others because you don’t just have to be a member to be of interest us.
As well as educators. I would add it’s not just students, but there are a significant number of professors and teachers, not only conservative ones, but just many who just want to be objective and we will stand up and help and defend them. It’s part of our long game plan to broaden out and reach to them as well as to more students.
And we’ll partner, we don’t do it alone, we have great allies like Alliance Defending Freedom that helps us when we go to court, we have other legal allies along the way, we’ll work with any other group on campus. Again, we have a long standing tradition. For example, with campus speeches, with College Republican chapters. But if they come to us at yaf.org, let us know. Again, even if you would just want to do an anonymous tip, let us know about something happening or you want direct help. We’ll take it on in a heartbeat.
Bluey: Why did you take the job? Obviously, there are some people who think you should go back into public service and maybe run for another office. How do you want to leave your mark on the Young America’s Foundation?
Walker: Well, I get asked about once a week if I’m going to run again. And you can tell I thought about this answer: I’m a quarter century younger than Joe Biden. So, I got plenty of time. But for the foreseeable future, I’m with Young America’s Foundation. Not only because Tonette and I, my wife and I, have been longtime supporters, we came to the ranch, the Reagan Ranch, which is one of the many things that YAF is involved with, we own and operate the ranch out in Santa Barbara. We came and visited 10 years ago. It was perfect timing because we were sandwiched between the protests and the riots at our state Capitol and the recall election. It was a great reminder that as beloved as Ronald Reagan is today, rightfully so, back in the prime of his presidency, he was under attack quite frequently.
And so it was very reassuring to see, if you’re doing the right thing, you’re going to face attack and it put us in the right mindset. So, ever since then, Tonette and I have been huge supporters. But when Ron Robinson, who has been there more than four decades, think about a tremendous legacy that he’s built. Great staff, great supporters, great students, great alumni. When he came to me a couple of years ago after my two terms were up and said, “Would you be interested?”
His goal was to retire after the inauguration in 2021, which he did. He said, “Would you be interested?” And I said, “Well, if you just want a caretaker, there’s plenty of great talent within.” Said, “But if you and your board are interested in someone who wants to dramatically increase both the number of students we reach and how much sooner we reach them, then I’m interested.”
And the board said, and Ron said, absolutely. And so that’s part of why earlier this year after I, took the position we initiated what’s called the long game. Again, yaf.org/longgame, if people want to copy. The long game is really a 12-point action plan to reach, not just more, but to reach every campus so that we have an outlet to every student in the country and to start younger. We’re in high school and college right now, I want to go into middle school and even give even elementary school parents some support.
And that means building alliances. It’s why we love working with The Heritage Foundation. Because even things like, for example, critical race theory, what I call government sanctioned racism, is a good example. A lot of parents looking for information on that. Those are things we don’t need to duplicate. We can work with young people and then partner with groups like Heritage to not recreate content, but actually disseminate some of the stuff that Heritage is does with the students we’re working with.
Bluey: Ten years ago, some of my colleagues here at The Heritage Foundation traveled to Wisconsin, actually to your home, to do an interview with you at the height of the budget debate that you were having and these protests that were going on in Madison. A year later, you faced a recall election. You were the first governor in American history to survive.
Walker: And the only sane one.
Bluey: Looking back now, a decade later, what did those experiences teach you about political service and ultimately, winning?
Walker: And in a way they’re actually very relatable to the students we work with it at Young America’s Foundation because I tell them, when they sent 100,000 protesters, remember this wasn’t for hours. This was for weeks, almost a month, they occupied our state Capitol. I often joke the Occupy movement did not start on Wall Street. It started on my street in Madison, Wisconsin. But they were trying to intimidate us. They’re trying to marginalize us. They’re trying to minimize us. Not just me and the death threats against me and my family, against our administration, our lawmakers, and others.
And then the recall was the ultimate cancel culture, right? And so I tell our students that we work with, particularly in college campuses, I can relate. The scale may be different. But they’re dealing with the same things. They’re trying to make young people feel intimidated, marginalized as though they’re off on their own.
One of the great things I hear at our conferences are young people who say, “I had no idea other people think like I do.” You probably get that with a lot of the interns and fellows that are involved here at Heritage, many of whom we swap in and hire and work with along the way. But it just was a great reminder why reaching more people, connecting them with good, sound conservative thought, and then not just the ideas, but then bind them together, that there’s strength in numbers and that the left’, really their goal has been for decades, is to intimidate, to marginalize, to make us feel like we’re out on a limb all by ourselves.
And we realize … there’s a lot more people deeply rooted with these strong all-American traditional ideas. To that extent, I think the more we do that, the more we remind people of that, the better off we’re all going to be.
Bluey: You’re certainly right. Well, if you want to learn more, again it’s Young America’s Foundation. The website is yaf.org. Gov. Scott Walker, thanks so much for joining us today.
Walker: My pleasure. Great to be with you.