I am not making a brilliant insight at all when I observe that we are a politically divided nation.
The Washington Post in the past week published dueling explanations. Columnist Chris Cillizza suggested a belief among voters “that America — and American politics — are fundamentally adrift, caught between an old way of doing things that they know is broken and an uncertain future that feels too far away to grasp right now.”
Emory University political science Prof. Alan Abramowicz used polling data to counter that it’s not the system’s fault, it’s that “Democrats and Republicans disagree much more than in the past about what they want government to do. … [T]he data show very clearly that voters like their own party and its leaders as much as ever. They just dislike the other party and its leaders much more than ever.”
Part of this is the result of amped-up campaigns, not just in money spent on campaign ads, but in their tone. Watch and you’ll learn that the incumbent got all these things accomplished by himself or herself, instead of using the words “voted for” in the ad script. Conversely, watch and you’ll find out that the opponent is the devil incarnate, who will steal your home, your money and probably your children too.
You’ll notice in this week’s Letters that the division isn’t always between Democrat and Republican. The 17th Senate District Democratic primary pits Ernie Wittwer of Hillpoint, making his first try for elective office, against Pat Bomhack, who appears to be the not-invented-here candidate — someone state Democratic Party leadership thought would be a better candidate than Wittwer. One assumes there will be Grant County Republicans who will not vote for the incumbent sheriff, Nate Dreckman.
The Bomhack vs. Wittwer schism, if it really exists (and we’ll find out after the primary Aug. 12), suggests division between rural voters and urban voters, the latter of whom (as in Milwaukee and Madison) are the core of the traditional Wisconsin Democratic constituency. Of course, Democrats could claim that Republicans are tied to the eastern half of the state — the Milwaukee suburbs and the Fox River Valley — and thus don’t represent rural areas either.
To witness examples of legislative division, though, you need not go to Madison. The Grant County Board has demonstrated for several years (maybe decades) that there is a faction on the side of the county board chair, and a faction opposite the county board chair, whoever the chair is.
The Journal sits in an area one could describe as purple, given recent votes. Walker lost in this area in 2010, but won in the 2012 recall. Southern Grant County has Democratic representation in Congress, but Republican representation in the state Legislature.
At the risk of inciting still more division, I have a theory that I admit won’t be popular with many readers of your favorite weekly newspaper. State senators and representatives make nearly $50,000 per year. The median household income, according to the U.S. Census, as of 2012 was $46,138 in Grant County, $49,263 in Lafayette County, and $55,900 in Iowa County. At least in this area, a state legislator makes as much money by himself or herself as the majority of his or her constituents’ families, which doesn’t sound exactly representative.
The other factor isn’t just how much legislators make, it’s what they are able to do, and that applies not just to the Legislature, but to county and municipal boards. You will not hear or read anywhere that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke plans on continuing any of the policies of Gov. Scott Walker if Burke defeats Walker Nov. 4. For obvious reasons, four years ago Walker campaigned on ending what his predecessor, Gov. James Doyle, did in Doyle’s eight years in office.
The problem is that politics at any level is a zero-sum game, except for the unanimous votes, which are for obvious answers or irrelevant issues (National Cream Puff Day or something like that). In a zero-sum game, one side wins, therefore the other side loses. No one sees it that way, because each side is convinced it’s right and the other side is at least wrong, if not worse than wrong.
Otto von Bismarck said politics is the art of the possible; German economist Max Weber said politics is the art of compromise. Those are two different concepts; the first suggests whatever a party or coalition is able to accomplish (theoretically almost anything); the other suggests whatever a party or coalition is able to get the votes to accomplish, which might require the votes of people who don’t agree with you all, or even most, of the time.
The politicians and their consultants get the blame because they created the system, which means they create ways to get around the rules and use them to their own advantage over their current and would-be opponents. The natural reaction is also to blame the other side. It is certainly also the parties’ fault because political parties exist to get their candidates elected and reelected. Commentators also blame voters, but I know of no voter who thinks the present system works well.
Cillizza found “only two outcomes to these tensions: (1) One country [Democrat or Republican] wins out or (2) The two countries split in some irreversible way. It’s hard to imagine either scenario coming to pass right now. But, something has to give.” That’s an interesting statement given that the first half of this decade is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Does “E Pluribus Unum” apply anymore?