GOP risks igniting a backlash as it doubles down on division and resentment

Pushing for a wolf massacre and an open season on sandhill cranes; attacking school board members and trying to force schools to drop COVID safety measures; bringing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to Madison and then moving his speech because of the University of Wisconsin's “Marxist COVID mandates". What are Republicans and their so-called conservative allies up to?

Neither Hunter Nation, which brought Ted Nugent to the Capitol on Wednesday to call for shooting and eating sandhill cranes, nor Young Americans for Freedom, which brought Cruz on the same day to denounce “lefty students" and “commie professors," and tell people to “take off your damn masks," nor the state Republicans who welcomed them to town want to win hearts and minds. It's all about getting attention — the crazier and more controversial you act, the better.

The Trump administration is over, but the GOP is not ready to get out of the deep end. They're still addicted to former President Donald Trump's reality TV approach to politics.

Clearly, this has some benefits — it generates headlines and helps exacerbate division and resentment, which motivates the hard-right, identity-politics base. And it has the added advantage, for Republicans, of depressing the majority of regular citizens and turning them off so they don't turn out. Low turnout, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told us, is the explicit goal of GOP party leaders who are working on a coordinated strategy to make it harder to vote nationwide, so a minority of angry voters can help them hold onto power.

Wednesday's two Ted talks in Madison, by Nugent (in the Capitol) and Cruz (off campus), are part of a national push by Republicans and their allied interest groups to win our crucial swing state. To do that, they are trying to make Wisconsin politics as divisive and toxic as possible. That approach is a gamble, especially given Democratic victories in statewide races led by Gov. Tony Evers in 2018 and President Joe Biden's win here in 2020. Still, the Republicans are doubling down on former Gov. Scott Walker's “divide and conquer" approach — turning people against each other and feeding the politics of resentment nurtured by Walker and weaponized by Trump.

A recent story in the Washington Post calls Wisconsin “an incubator for the kind of tribal politics and deep divisions that [now] characterize civic life." It all started with Walker's attack on unions and the mass protests that followed. The Post's Dan Balz writes: “The widening gulf between the two parties exposed in 2011 foreshadowed the extent to which American politics would come to focus more on the extremes rather than the middle of the political spectrum."

Wisconsin is not a purple state, according to Balz, but a patchwork of blue islands in a sea of rural red. And the whole nation is headed in a similar direction. That's why moderates like retiring congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) are going extinct, while the rest of our state's delegation in Congress is squarely on the right or left.

Of course, Trump made things worse. As Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin told Balz, “Having a leader who kind of was a divider-in-chief has given a green light to that sort of conduct, and it's filtered into our communities."

Following the Trump model, Republicans are stoking rage and rebellion against school board members, local public health departments, election clerks and civilization itself. Remember that Cruz was on the floor of the Senate delivering a speech opposing the certification of the 2020 presidential election just moments before the “stop the steal" rioters broke down the doors.

Even after that harrowing moment in our nation's history, the burn-it-down rhetoric from GOP officials who know perfectly well the election wasn't stolen and the pandemic is real continues. Inchoate anger is too alluring a power to give up, apparently, even as the country spins closer to the edge.

So what about Wisconsin voters? Are we really driving all of this?

In 2020, Trump voters in rural areas of the state doubled down on their 2016 choice, throwing a rock at the establishment — in both parties — that has paid insufficient attention to rural concerns.

What Republicans have recognized is that, as little as either party has done for rural areas, rural people had a strong sense of grievance that their needs are not being met and that urban liberals view them with contempt.

Resentment at feeling looked down on motivated a lot of Trump voters, and Republicans continue to capitalize on it. That's why the idea of shocking the “commies" in Madison by talking about blowing graceful birds out of the sky is so appealing. It's a revenge fantasy.

I spent a lot of time between the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 working on a book for which I spoke with dairy farmers in Wisconsin who rely on undocumented Mexican workers and yet voted for Trump — twice. A question I was asked repeatedly by editors on the East and West Coasts was whether those rural voters had learned the error of their ways. The answer is no. And the question shows a striking failure to grasp why dairy farmers who have been watching their neighbors go bankrupt at a rate of two family farms per day were drawn to a populist candidate who claimed to represent “the forgotten men and women of America."

If Democrats did a better job of offering major help to rural areas — as both Evers and Biden have been making an effort to do, the politics of rural Wisconsin might change. Recognizing that, Republicans are frantically pushing distraction, tribalism and macho posturing.

Will the politics of division continue to be a winning strategy for the GOP? Balz doesn't offer an opinion. But at some point Republicans are going to realize they have jumped the shark.

Our state Legislature has put an awful lot of effort into rejecting federal COVID relief and support for schools and infrastructure and health care that people really want. In exchange, they are offering the chance to blow things up, spread COVID-19 and eat migratory birds.

My own experience talking to people around the state, and recent election results, show that people want real fixes for their real problems more than cheap talk. On the whole, people care more about their own interests than photo ops by loudmouths like Ted Nugent and Ted Cruz.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Republicans are hell bent on undermining democracy – and don't mind humiliating themselves in the process

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman is acting like a clown. First he threw in with far-right conspiracy theorists and claimed without evidence that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen" from Donald Trump. Then he put on a suit and tie and accepted $680,000 of taxpayers' money, courtesy of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, to run an “investigation" of the 2020 election, which he somberly declared could involve subpoenas to local elections clerks who must prove to him there was no election fraud. On Thursday, he backed off the subpoenas. Then, on Friday, he declared that the subpoenas were on again. Also on Friday, a judge ordered Gableman and the overseers of his partisan investigation in the Legislature to turn over records, noting that while Gableman has been demanding reams of information from local elections officials, he has, at the same time, unjustifiably refused to provide records of his own investigation to the public.

The shoddiness of that investigation has been matched only by its aggressiveness, as Gableman threatened local officials and demanded information via a non-secure gmail account.

It's a shame that Wisconsin Republicans continue to prop up the Big Lie. Last week Assembly Elections Committee chair Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), who has launched her own election “investigation" was in the Capitol ushering a news crew from the conspiracy-minded, pro-Trump One America News Network into the Assembly parlor to interview “concerned citizens" about examples of voting fraud they claimed to have witnessed.

The clown car keeps on rolling.

On Tuesday, Gableman admitted to Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he does not know how elections work. “Most people, myself included, do not have a comprehensive understanding or even any understanding of how elections work," he said.

On Thursday, Gableman reversed course and cancelled interviews he had demanded with the mayors and city clerks of Madison, Racine and Kenosha and backed off on the subpoenas he had issued them just days before.

“Attorney Gableman said he doesn't know how elections are run in Wisconsin and I think what he's made clear is that he doesn't know how investigations are run either," Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the Journal Sentinel.

On Friday Gableman reversed himself again, telling conservative talk radio host Dan O'Donnell, “I'll tell you what, they're going to show up now. All of them."

Gableman personifies the know-nothingism that has gripped the Republican Party in the era of Trump.

Bullying is now a standard political tactic. As is hurling accusations of “fraud" without a shred of evidence or expertise and proposing to blow up our democratic institutions. It's all nonsense — just a way to fire up the base that wants to believe the Big Lie that Trump won, and more insidious lies about the need to crack down on “illegal" voting — particularly by people of color in Democratic-leaning cities.

While Gableman is busy casting doubt on the integrity of our elections, having been assigned that role by Robin Vos, Vos is getting ready to redraw Wisconsin's voting maps. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) have declared their intention to draw new districts, as required by law after the 2020 census, that closely hew to the same lines as the current, gerrymandered map, drawn by Republicans in 2011 to give themselves a disproportionately large number of seats and disproportionate power. Republican legislative leaders have said they'll vote on a redistricting plan by Nov. 11.

Fair maps, like election integrity, is an area where Republicans are trying to game the system while waging a campaign of misinformation and distraction to keep the public from noticing what they're doing.

A huge majority of Wisconsinites of every political stripe want fair maps. In a Marquette University Law School poll, 72% of Wisconsin voters said they wanted a nonpartisan commission to draw the legislative and congressional district maps instead of elected officials. That group included 63% of Republicans, 76% of independents, and 83% of Democrats.

It is too bad that Gov. Tony Evers' People's Maps Commission released draft maps before vetting them to make sure they comply with the Voting Rights Act. Only now, after releasing its first round of drafts, is the commission consulting with an expert to make sure the maps are in line with the federal voting law. That has opened the door for the Republican authors of the current, rigged map, to accuse Evers and the commission of “gerrymandering".

But if the People's Maps Commission is gerrymandering on behalf of the Democratic governor, it is not doing a very good job. All of its draft maps would continue to favor Republican majorities in the Legislature. That's because Republicans make up the majority of voters in Wisconsin's rural counties, scattered across the state, while Democratic voters are concentrated in a handful of urban areas.

The commission, in consultation with citizens throughout the state and a team of mathematicians from Tufts University came up with maps that make sense to local people, and in which Wisconsin remains a divided state with a slight Republican edge in legislative races — just not the disproportionate edge Vos and his cronies now enjoy.

Over the next few weeks we're bound to hear more noise about how keeping the current, rigged districts is somehow more fair than an impartial map that truly represents Wisconsinites' voting preferences. Don't believe it.

Just as the Republicans are seeking to shut down access to the ballot box for people they don't think will vote for them, they want to rig the maps to favor them again. It's all part of the same strategy — endlessly litigating the legitimate outcome of elections when they don't like the results, making it harder for people to vote when they know they can't win fair and square, rigging the map so even when they lose they win.

They are hell bent on undermining democracy. And it seems they don't mind making fools of themselves in the process. If we let them get away with it, we'll be letting them make fools of us, too.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Wisconsin State superintendent calls out Republicans’ war on schools in fiery speech

In her first annual State of Education address, Wisconsin's new state schools superintendent Jill Underly did not hold back. “We're now failing a generation of kids," Underly declared. “And we're failing our state by putting Wisconsin's economic future at risk."
Standing in front of the bust of Fighting Bob La Follette in the Capitol rotunda, after a student sang the national anthem and the requisite acknowledgements of various educators and public officials were dispensed with, Underly launched into a speech that sounded more like a call to arms than the usual anodyne annual report from the state department of ed.

Drawing on Wisconsin's progressive history and praising the state for being a leader in education, Underly acknowledged standing on “the shoulders of those who came before us," then slammed Republican legislative leaders for their “shortsightedness" in passing a budget that declined to spend part of a historic surplus on schools.

“Not long ago, Wisconsin's budget invested in our public schools," Underly noted. “We saw the impact of this on the kids who graduated from our schools before 2010." But over the last decade, the state has failed to make up for budget cuts made during the Great Recession. As a result, “in 2020, we graduated an entire generation of kids who have known nothing but austerity in our school funding — who have known years of divestment in their future."

“This, folks," she declared, “is the state of education in Wisconsin.

Calling on Wisconsinites to “stand up to those who want to use our schools to distract and divide our communities." Underly referred to the rash of cases of harassment and intimidation of school board members throughout the state, spurred by conservative groups and Republican donors who have stirred up anger over school mask policies, school funding and anti-racism curriculum.

“I urge us to keep our focus on what unites us instead of getting caught up in division," Underly said. “Our kids are doing just that by focusing on their shared desire to be with their friends, and to learn and to protect each other. And it's time for the adults to step up, too."

Describing public schools and libraries as “the common thread that binds us together," Underly noted that, “the fabric is fraying." The vitriol in public attacks on teachers and school officials is hurting kids, she added.

The anger unleashed in the Trump era, fanned by Republicans at both the national and state level in order to motivate the former president's voters, is now focused on a soft target — local school boards. Across Wisconsin, they have endured mini versions of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In Kenosha, a crowd jammed a meeting and forced a vote to drastically cut school board members' salaries, while making it mandatory that they attend meetings in person. In Eau Claire, a school board meeting was cancelled after some participants refused to wear masks. Recall efforts targeting school board members for voting to sustain mask requirements and online learning during the pandemic have proliferated across the state. And school board members in different districts across the state quit this fall saying they and their families were threatened by angry members of the public.

Against this backdrop, Underly wryly noted a Republican legislative proposal for a civics requirement in Wisconsin schools.

“If you want a stronger civics curriculum, you'll find no resistance from me," she said. “Maybe it would end up resulting in a future Legislature that understands the complex legal and societal issues our families and communities face." Maybe it would even teach the Legislature, which has been busy running over local control with a series of curriculum mandates, the separate roles of state and local governments. “Most of all," Underly added, “maybe it will encourage us to be better citizens and hold our legislators accountable and set a strong example for our kids of what it means to be civically engaged, but also civilly engaged."

Underly gave her endorsement to the call for civility issued by John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“Our kids matter most, our public schools matter most," Underly said. “They are the thread that binds our communities together, and we should be supporting each other instead of tearing down those who dare to provide leadership during a crisis."

Indeed, by targeting teachers, schools, and school board members, conservative “freedom fighters" have ripped the mask off Republican politics in more ways than one, exposing the sheer nihilism of Trumpism, division and destruction. What's at stake, as Underly ably put it in her address, is our shared sense of community, decency, and civilization itself.

“For democracy and civility to thrive, we need our public schools," she declared, bringing it all together. Our public schools and libraries are a precious resource, both for the role they play in unifying and lifting up communities, nurturing our future, and giving us a sense of shared purpose, pride, and values. All of that is currently under attack.

In a video statement released shortly after Underly concluded her speech, Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools superintendent himself, congratulated Underly and reinforced her message that “our schools are the heart of our community."

Speaker Robin Vos, not surprisingly, pushed back on her strong criticism of his leadership with his own statement. “The Democrats' singular focus to push more money into schools isn't a winning strategy for our kids," Vos declared sourly. “We need to look at improving how they are being taught and why so many students are struggling with the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic." He called for more assessments and “allowing parents to be part of the conversation."

By conversation, Vos presumably means this week's hearing featuring national conservative activists deriding so-called critical race theory, or the mobs that have been threatening school board members.

“Unfortunately, politics is too much a part of the conversation around schools," says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Threats to school board members, who are our neighbors, who have families of their own, who thought that they were serving their communities and signing up to help our kids, are way beyond the line," she adds.

No wonder several of those school board members resigned when it all got to be too much. But, says, DuBois Bourenane, bullying has driven some people to quit, “others have become even more deeply committed to doing what's best for our students and our communities, and are using this moment to shake awake those who have too long been asleep to a decades-old assault on our public schools."

One of those people seizing the moment is Jill Underly.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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