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Scott Walker Recalled or Not, Wisconsin's Days of Unity are Gone

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

On the eve of Wisconsin's gubernatorial recall election, political analysts from all over the country have been looking for broad implications of either outcome. Ruth Conniff of Madison's own The Progressive writes that the recall will "test of the possibility of democracy in the Citizens United era," and in the past week we have witnessed a flurry of speculation about what the results might mean for the November election. (Today, it's looking like more outlets will be downplaying the recall's role as a sign of things to come in six months.)

As a born-and-raised Wisconsinite who grew up 20 minutes from the state capitol, I see the recall reflecting a darker national trend: growing divisiveness in government. The state's long history of treading on shared political common ground through cooperation in government has given way to two sharply divided parties whose supporters have lost the civility and respect that once characterized state politics.

Early in the 20th century Wisconsin played a role in shaping federal standards and laws through the Wisconsin Idea, a philosophy lead by Governor (and later Senator) Robert M. La Follette. The Idea’s key tenet was that government should answer to the people, not special interests. It brought us primary elections and the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments -- progressive taxation and direct election of U.S. senators, respectively.

In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt described Wisconsin as “literally a laboratory for wise experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole... All through the Union we need to learn the Wisconsin lesson of scientific popular self-help and of patient care in radical legislation.”

Gov. Walker’s critics see his policies reversing -- or at least minimizing --  the very concepts that the state pioneered over a century ago and that remain a core part of our identity. Anyone who has worked for or studied at a UW system school can tell you that “the University’s borders are the state’s borders;” it is written policy that the school should work to benefit the lives of all citizens.

The emphasis on helping our fellow Wisconsinites has traditionally translated into respect across party lines. Even in Madison, a hyper-liberal bubble known locally as "78 square miles surrounded by reality," I would see protesters march by the Dane County Farmer's Market with graphic anti-abortion placards. No jeers, no booing - even spectators radically opposed to such a display knew to do no more than ignore it.

Compare this with the screaming matches we've been seeing at recall rallies, and you can see how things have changed. As for our politicians, we always associated dirty campaigning, suspicions of election fraud and cronyism with Illinois. Now it is a part of our reality.

Birthplace of the Republican Party and incubator of Progressivism, throughout its history Wisconsin has been defined by apparent contradictions in political identity. For more than two decades, two Jewish senators -- Herb Kohl and, until recently, Russ Feingold -- represented Wisconsin, and we elected the first openly gay non-incumbent member of Congress, Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Go back a few years, and you'll see that we also elected Sen. Joseph McCarthy of HUAC fame, who, incidentally, began his career as a Democrat. While President Obama carried 56% of the state's popular vote in 2008, two years later it swung red, with Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson and five Republican representatives (of eight total) winning their seats.

Where Wisconsin's population was once ruled largely by moderate sensibilities -- how else to explain our longstanding status as a swing state? -- in the weeks running up to Tuesday's election we've seen two extremes unwilling to compromise. Walker's supporters firmly believe that he alone can curb the greedy unions' stranglehold on the state's imperiled economy -- should Barrett win, deadbeat state employees will bleed hardworking taxpayers dry through their runaway salaries and benefits. His opponents see the governor using Wisconsin as a laboratory to test out hard-right policies that might be exported to other states and to D.C., in the process making a name for himself on the national stage. They fear that a Barrett loss means tacit approval of measures even more extreme than 2011's revocation of collective bargaining rights.

Tuesday's election won't do much to curb the animosity coursing throughout the state; the past year of protests, petitions and campaigning has split families (my mother and I are on tenuous speaking terms) and spurred yard sign and bumper sticker wars that will not be forgotten on Wednesday. More troublingly, the deep divisions within the state legislature have left it in a barely functional state. Regardless of who wins, the people of Wisconsin have already lost.

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