I Weep for Wisconsin

I had only been outside its borders once before I went to college. And yet I already knew that Wisconsin did not take up much space in the national consciousness. The coasts seemed more important—the glamor of New York, the sunny promise of California. It did not have the fables of Texas, the loyalties of New England, the energy of Chicago or the bluesy fascination of New Orleans. Even so, I was proud of being from Wisconsin.

The topography did not have the drama of the Rocky Mountains or the Southwestern Desert, but the kettles and moraines of Wisconsin had visual interest that softened the landscape. The state did not have an ocean coast, but it had the Great Lakes with a grandeur that non-midwesterners did not grasp. Lake Michigan is like the ocean, but oh no, it’s not. It’s Lake Michigan with its own majesty. (A friend has just returned from golf at a course on the Lake Michigan shore. He was surprised that the water was blue and clear. He assumed, based on no knowledge, that it was brown. I could see that ignorance about Wisconsin abounds, but since few think about Wisconsin in the first place, the abounding is limited.) Unlike other places, Wisconsin had smaller lakes everywhere—no one in Wisconsin was more than ten or fifteen minutes from several—that afforded fishing, boating, swimming, mists, and soothing, primordial sounds. Perhaps the landscape was not as awe-inspiring as some locations, but it was pleasant and welcoming. And it had walleyes.

The climate, however, while interesting was not always pleasant, but even that could afford some pride. People whose only opinion about the state seemed to come from televised playoff games at Lambeau Field (aka, the frozen tundra) would ask me about the cold (and yes, okay, it was cold). However, I would rather haughtily reply that it was just winter in Wisconsin implying that unlike the questioners, Wisconsinites were tough.

The human institutions, however, were the real cause for my pride. They had led to a better state and society than elsewhere in the country. The public education system was excellent starting, at least for me, with two years of kindergarten culminating in an affordable, flagship university that was considered one of the best in the nation.

Politics, while not totally free of rancor, did not have the bosses or the machines of other places. Local elections were nonpartisan, which helped to reduce blind partisanship. Although rich people were elected to office, money was not necessary to hold office. In the 1980s, William Proxmire spent less than two hundred dollars to get reelected to the Senate.

Wisconsin had a tradition of reform and innovation that others in the country copied to make their states better. It had created the first unemployment insurance program, for example, which acted as a model for other governments, and people from this Wisconsin tradition helped create Medicare. As a recent magazine article stated, “The state’s home-grown social-democratic tradition, which fused support for open government, public institutions, and economic equality, remained largely bipartisan.”

Of course, not everything was wonderful. I was dismayed when I learned that Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. And, of course, Wisconsin produced Joe McCarthy, leader of a movement that took his name and did so much damage to the country. Still, Wisconsin was a place to be proud of. It was a place of clear skies, clear water, and clean, transparent, and sensible politics.

Then something happened. The news that seeps out of Wisconsin now makes it seem as the state has become nearly as corrupt and crazy as many other places. Legislators have been indicted for various acts of corruption, something I do not remember happening in my youth. Money, as elsewhere, has become central to politics. Five million dollars were spent on a state Supreme Court race to defeat an incumbent. Seven hundred million–seven hundred million!!!–is expected to be spent on the 2022 elections. Wisconsin has undermined its educational system. State funding for the University and K-12 education has decreased. A Dean at the University of Wisconsin told me that the school was no longer a public university but a university with some public assistance. Wisconsin has become a leader in attacking and denigrating teachers as well as a leader in corporate giveaways, both in money and in permitting pollution. The state also has become a poster child for partisanship adopting one of the most gerrymandered legislatures in the country. The state has also made it harder to vote, but the gerrymandering means that votes don’t matter that much anyway.

This sort of news made me realize that Wisconsin was no longer a beacon for reasonable government but had become just like many other states.

Then came the aftermath of the 2020 election. The crazy comments and actions escalated—too many for me to summarize, but here’s one for you to consider: Imagine a government official saying that there is no evidence that you did not commit murder last year. Would you be shocked? Outraged? Would you laugh at such idiocy? Would you lose faith in the government official or the government itself? Now consider that one of the six officials on the Wisconsin Election Commission said about the 2020 election in Wisconsin: “There’s no evidence voter fraud did not occur.”

Oh, Wisconsin, grand old Badger State. What has happened to you? I wanted to think that Joe McCarthy was an aberration, but his insanity now seems to have taken hold.

Musings on Conservative “Populism”

Trump and the Trumpistas have lost lawsuit after lawsuit, but still they have won. A goal of the conservatives has been to plant distrust of the government with their talk of the Deep State, QAnon conspiracies, stolen elections, and fake news. Of course, like many of Trump’s actions and policies, he is not their sole inventor. Instead, the present trend comes out of traditional Republican rhetoric and politics. Probably the two most famous anti-government statements came from Ronald Reagan, who said: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Generations of such diatribes have had an effect, even on many who consider themselves liberal. Think back a few days ago to when the Supreme Court struck down the ludicrous lawsuit the Texas Attorney General filed to overturn various state elections. What was your reaction to the Court’s action? Was part of it relief? Doesn’t that indicate that you don’t fully trust the government? The conservatives are winning.

The roots of the “Deep State” go back well before Reagan at least to Joe McCarthy. The Senator’s unsupported cry that there were Communists in the State Department controlling our foreign policy is almost the same as today’s rant that there is a Deep State in the State Department and elsewhere controlling the functioning of government.

Anti-government feelings have been part of the American makeup probably forever, but the populist movements of yore also had an anti-corporate component that is absent now. Those on the little guy’s side were fighting not just the government but also the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and other plutocrats. Part of the reason to fight the government was because it was allied with the rich to further the interests of the powerful often at the expense of everyone else. Today the populists do not perceive the government as captured by the corporations or other powerful institutions. Instead, they feel that the government has been co-opted by a lower strata of society – a strata of people who are challenging them for their own place in our already unequal society. Corporations, then, evade opprobrium while the middle and lower classes fight among themselves. With this shift in populism, the traditional rich and powerful conservatives win again.

Our country has abandoned a longstanding tenet of our governance. As Jane Mayer says in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right: “From the Republic’s earliest days, the wealthy had always dominated politics, but at least from the Progressive Era the public, through its elected representatives, had devised rules to keep the influence in check. By 2015, however, conservative legal advocates, underwritten by wealthy benefactors and aided by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, had led a successful drive to gut most of those rules. . . . As America grew more economically unequal, those at the top were purchasing the power needed to stay there.”

One of the people Arlie Russell Hochschild talked to for her book Stranger in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right said something that captured the new populism. She lived in a region whose lakes and streams and wetlands and forests had been ravaged by corporate toxic wastes, but she was resigned to the devastation. “With a small, sad shake of her head, Jackie says, ‘Pollution is the sacrifice we pay for capitalism.’” She is conceding defeat, and the traditional rich and powerful conservatives win yet again.

The new populist conservatives do not seek to fight the large corporate food processors who have taken over the local packing plants, pay lower wages and have reduced or have non-existent health benefits. They don’t fight the national trucking companies who pay lower wages than were paid a decade ago. They don’t fight the oil and gas companies who have made landscapes uninhabitable. Instead, these populists rail against internet and social media corporations even though these entities have had little effect on the populists’ economic well-being and even though the Right has used them effectively to strengthen their message.

It is discouraging, nay frightening, for the future of our governing system that over 100 Representatives signed on to the Texas Attorney General’s lawsuit. It is perhaps at least as disheartening that three-quarters of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen. This is so even though the supposed “proof” of widespread fraud has been debunked and rebutted convincingly many times and has been examined by courts repeatedly and rejected by judges around the country. When I watch, listen, or read right-wing media, I understand why the populist conservatives cling to a discredited belief. These media outlets repeat again and again the claims of fraud even after the assertions have been shown to be false. They don’t offer the counter proof; they don’t show why the rebuttals are wrong. These media outlets disregard and fail to mention the countervailing evidence. The consumers of their “information” never get the chance to evaluate the rebutting proof. Distrust is sown and Democracy is the loser.