How Republicans Divided and Conquered Wisconsin

Six years ago on a cold February day, I created a protest sign, my first ever, hastily scribbling the words “Member of the Union of Human Beings. I Stand With Wisconsin Workers.” Although never a union member myself, I reacted with moral indignation when newly elected Governor Scott Walker attacked the collective bargaining rights of our public workers. I joined tens of thousands of Wisconsinites who spontaneously gathered at the Capitol, all of us blindsided by Walker’s unexpected action.

Governor Walker woke me up—and I can honestly thank him for that. I had spent my life blissfully ignorant of the ways in which local, state, and congressional elections affect me. Now I know our democracy is fragile and demands close attention and good citizenship from each of us.

Standing side by side with my fellow citizens during weeks of peaceful protest, I experienced a powerful sense of solidarity. Hardy Wisconsinites marched through snow with temperatures hovering in the teens, more than a hundred thousand of us some days. Farmers joined us, driving their tractors. By showing up in large numbers we hoped to thwart the extreme right wing agenda that our Republican Legislature and Governor were pushing forward with lightning speed.

Unfortunately our historic protests did nothing to influence the actions of the Republican majority. Their obvious disdain for our concerns motivated thousands of us to pour our energy and indignation into recall elections. Along with many of my fellow citizens, I hoped the recall of Governor Walker and six Republican Senators would restore the balance of power and bring moderation to our state government. Yet all of our energy and millions of dollars did not succeed in achieving our goals. The end result is a bitterly divided state that leans even further to the right.

If it was the governor’s plan to divide us, he has been wildly successful. Wisconsin billionaire business owner Diane Hendricks has donated millions of dollars to Walker campaigns, and in 2011 she privately asked him when he would crush private sector unions. Walker replied that his “first step” would be “to divide and conquer” through first curtailing collective bargaining for public employee unions.

As a matter of fact, Republicans have expertly divided and conquered Wisconsin, winning rural votes by encouraging resentment of public workers who were paid higher salaries. Local teachers were targeted for punishment, yet local economies that rely on teachers’ spending were also punished when Republicans slashed state employee take home pay by eight percent. Even worse, it has become increasingly difficult to attract good teachers to rural schools. Republican economic polices have failed to move those communities forward, yet apparently most rural voters either don’t know or don’t care.

Since I pay very close attention, I am fully aware of the damage done by Wisconsin Republicans. I have watched them rewrite the rules of government in order to expand their majorities and ram through their agenda. They restricted voting and gerrymandered so severely that their actions have been ruled unconstitutional. They filled the Wisconsin Supreme Court with judges that do their bidding and have removed restraints to dark money in campaigns. They secretly tried, and thankfully failed, to eviscerate our open records laws. They scuttled our civil service system and our non-partisan Government Accountability Board, both national models for honest and effective government. Though they have held absolute power for six years, they continue to defy long held norms of open and accountable government in order to gain even more power.

Wisconsinites are honest and good people, but so far the majority of voters have richly rewarded Republicans for their abuse of power. “How can our neighbors do that?” the rest of us ask ourselves every day. Are these low information voters? Or is it polarization that blinds them to reality?

Politicians benefit from pitting “us” against “them”, rural versus urban, union versus non-union, Republicans versus Democrats—but ordinary people would do better if we collaborated. We aren’t that different from our neighbors who happen to vote differently. Individuals are much more nuanced than the platforms of the two major parties. If we choose to, we can focus on our many areas of agreement and work together for the common good, regardless of party affiliation.

Why not join hands with someone who shares your concern for healthcare, infrastructure jobs, ethics, voting rights, public education, or clean water? It’s time to stop fighting each other and fight together for what is important to all Americans. Visit a Congressional town hall together and call on your lawmakers together—then have a beer together.

The day after President Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March drew 75,000 people to Wisconsin’s Capitol Square. I joined them and shared their passion, but I am wary. I’ve seen this before and fear repeating nationally what went wrong in Wisconsin. The path that begins with protest must lead us to constructive conversation with fellow citizens who share our concerns.