Michigan, it seems, has become a dumping ground for Wisconsin’s leftovers.

Just as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has followed the lead of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker in scapegoating public sector employee unions and gutting education spending in order to pay for corporate tax breaks, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a non-partisan, non-profit organization — has followed Wisconsin’s Republican Party in using spurious Freedom of Information Act requests to demand access to the e-mail accounts of University faculty.

In Wisconsin, the Republicans’ bête noire is Bill Cronon, a prominent professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On March 13, Cronon drafted an op-ed for The New York Times that framed Walker’s assault on public sector unions against the progressive tradition of Wisconsin Republicans like former Wisconsin Gov. Robert LaFollette. In other words, he was practicing his profession. On March 15, he started a blog and wrote his first post about the American Legislative Exchange Council, a low-profile conservative group which likely wrote Wisconsin’s anti-union legislation and then handed it to Republican state legislators. And on March 17, the Wisconsin GOP demanded any e-mail Cronon may have written from his university e-mail account that includes the names of any prominent Wisconsin conservatives. At the end of last week, the Mackinac Center followed suit by submitting FOIA requests for any e-mail sent by various labor studies professors at Wayne State University, Michigan State University and here at the University of Michigan that includes the words “Wisconsin,” “Scott Walker” and MSNBC host “Rachel Maddow.”

One thing is immediately clear: There’s no place in the entire world where university professors have more power and influence than in conservatives’ own minds. To critics, academic faculty are the Supermen of a new era — leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and producing a new generation of radical Marxists and secretly preparing to ban apple pie and put us all in prison camps where we’ll be forced to receive socialized health care and Spanish lessons. As a fellow social scientist in a related field, this is an unending source of comedy to me. Just last fall, I attended the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, where the unofficial, but still wildly depressing, theme of the weekend was whether political science could ever make any contribution to our daily lives. Other than, perhaps, the economists, researchers in the other social sciences rarely have the opportunity to use their expertise to guide the public policy debates of the day. Many of us sometimes doubt whether students remember anything about our courses at all after final exams are turned in.

And yet, here we are. He may be our nation’s preeminent authority on early 20th century Midwestern economic development, but up until two ago, I wouldn’t have recognized Cronon if I ran him over with my car. Now he’s a bona fide public enemy, with the Wisconsin GOP rummaging through his digital trash, hunting for an inevitably out-of-context quote to pin him down as the new boogeyman of a vast liberal conspiracy, somewhere between Bill Ayers and whoever first decided to start putting fluoride in water.

It would be bad enough if Wisconsin Republicans’ fixation on Cronon, or the copy-cat Mackinac Center, simply reflected an unhealthy obsession with the academy. But it’s not just that; it’s a feint, and one more step into a briar patch where billionaires like David and Charles Koch, who helped bankroll Walker’s election in Wisconsin, are viewed with equal suspicion as modest professors like Cronon, or City University of New York Prof. Frances Fox Piven, who somehow found herself the target of death threats from Glenn Beck viewers over a book she wrote in the late 1960s. When no one is beyond suspicion, everyone is a suspect, and the most immediate consequence is that the wealthiest and most powerful political lobbies will be less scrutinized than ever before. It’s most assuredly not an accident that this development comes only a year after Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decision that effectively eliminated even modest limits on campaign spending.

Speaking of political donations — where does the Mackinac Center get its support? Predictably, it’s never made any of its donor lists public. But you can work out at least some of the largest donors based on their own income tax filings. The list includes the heirs to Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart fortune, Amway founder and Michigan Senate Republican candidate Dick DeVos and — drumroll, please — Charles and David Koch.

But hey, at least we’re cracking down on this Bill Cronon loser.

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.

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