What in the World is Happening in Wisconsin?

This morning the Wisconsin legislature took unprecedented steps to remove power from the executive branch to the legislative branch during a lame duck session. Though Republican leaders have tried to downplay the significance of the changes the reality is far from insignificant. Some of the statements from legislative leaders are simply stunning in their honesty. Republican leadership says they do no trust Evers, they say they want to codify current practice, they say they want to stop a liberal governor, they accuse the media of being a branch of the Democratic party. In other words this is about consolidating political power, plain and simple. Election results and norms do not seem to matter.

What is happening in Wisconsin is a symptom of a broader sickness in our politics that we, as citizens, and as those with a voice, need to address. What are the roots of that sickness? The first is the winning fallacy. In 2009 Wisconsin Democrats controlled Wisconsin government. In 2011 Republicans took control. In January we go back to divided government. These swings are a healthy part of democracy. Yet moves such as gerrymandering, reducing the authority of agencies, taking power away from the executive branch, and messing with voting all assume a permanent victory by one party is possible. It is not. Governing as if one party can win assures that Wisconsin’s diverse citizenry lose. Why? Government becomes a tool for consolidating power rather than meeting the needs of all citizens.

Second is the association of institutional checks with political parties. The professional bureaucracy ensures expertise in continuity in service delivery even when political power changes. Bureaucracy is the steady hand that keeps our government moving. Taking power away from agencies because they are unelected or seen as too liberal is a move born of ignorance or indifference to the machinery of government. Improving government performance, holding agencies accountable and demanding transparency are good things. Dismissing agencies as unelected political actors by taking away the tools they need to do their jobs only serves to hurt our citizens. And the assertion that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is an arm of the Democratic Party is straight obfuscation to justify that which cannot be logically justified.

Third is tribalism. These moves are opposed by Democrats so if I am not a Democrat these must be good moves. It cuts both ways, if a Republican proposed the idea it must be coming from a bad place. Tribalism is, in my opinion, merely an excuse not to engage with political opponents. In a state as politically divided as Wisconsin tribalism threatens the basic functioning of state government. I am genuinely surprised and saddened that there are almost no voices from the right speaking out against this power grab. I spent a long time working closely with Wisconsin Conservatives and I cannot believe so many folks who care so passionately about Wisconsin are ok with this.

Fourth is the tendency for the freak out. I may catch hell for this, but I say it in private all the time, I do not think Walker wins a second term if not for the recall elections. Protest is good, but when it goes too far and manifests in strategic blunders it gives people cause to dismiss your position as unserious. We are seeing this right now in how supporters of the power grab are comparing protests today to Act 10. The two are totally different, Act 10 was a major policy change by a new governor that enflamed passions. As ugly as it was, the administration was empowered to do it. This power grab is an attempt to undermine basic democratic norms by undermining a duly elected governor. I hope the reaction to this is a concerted effort to address why it is indefensible and not overreach; the time for political accountability will come in due course.

Despite my sadness I am optimistic for the future in Wisconsin; people are paying attention, and overreach corrects itself. I do believe these moves will be a strategic blunder. With Act 10 people were able to compartmentalize the impacts; not all citizens are public employees, and the role of organized labor is contested in the electorate. Not so with democracy. I have to believe support for basic democratic norms is something that can unite Republican and Democrat alike.


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