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Friday, November 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Not my Madison
I returned from abroad to find political opponents at each other's throats
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Credit:Daniel Fishel

Jerel Alexander had had enough. He was tired of the protesters - sick of their stupid rallies with their stupid chants and their stupid faces. Couldn't he even bike to church downtown without seeing them? Did they have to be everywhere, surrounding the Capitol and bellowing their hateful ideas?

On a Tuesday afternoon, among 8,000 protesters demonstrating along the Square against Gov. Scott Walker and his policies, Alexander snapped.

"Baby killers!" he shrieked, stopping his bike in front of several protesters waving signs. "You wish your kid was dead, right? You're all baby killers!"

At first, no one reacted. Then several protesters started shouting back. Alexander, small and scruffy, got angrier and angrier. He and the protesters exchanged derision until the police hushed him, threatening citations.

From shadows on the Capitol lawn, I watched Alexander explode. I hadn't seen anything like it for a long time, and his rage stuck with me. For days, I was confused as to how someone could become so unhinged while wondering at the environment that had spurred it.

"I'm a Republican and I'm right," Alexander told me when I approached him. "I don't hate these protesters, but I feel hatred about what's going on. We finally gain power and they take over [the Capitol]. They think they're right, but they're wrong."

At the time, I had only been back in Madison for three weeks. Since July 2009, I had lived in the horizon-stretching plains of central Cambodia as a Peace Corps volunteer. While serving, I had thought of my home in Madison often. I would recall the crunch of walking on snow, warm smiles at farmers' markets, sunlight splintering through maples on the Capitol grounds.

But something has gone terribly awry while I've been away. The Madison I remembered for two years on the other side of the world is gone. The community has changed, its personality warped from that of an amiable capital town into something frustrated and dark. The differences between the Madison that was and the Madison that is are subtle yet profound. And they're everywhere.

I've interviewed dozens of people, from the unemployed to the affluent, and they say there's a new anger in Madison over recent state politics, a new sadness that debate has become so divisive, and a new sense that normal citizens can't change anything.

The protests against Scott Walker have failed. His legislation has gone through. Collective bargaining for most public employees has ended for the time being. Madison has lost, and now, both anecdotal and empirical evidence signal that divisions among residents are sharper than ever.

As I walk through the town of my childhood, I realize I'm one of the few not vested in these matters; one of the few more interested in the people of Madison than the politics. I was absent during a pivotal period here, mired in a time warp in Cambodia. As such, I'm not privy to the hopelessness that has enveloped Madison. I just can't relate to the depth of everyone's passion.

How did Madison get this way? And will it ever go back to how it was?

Last Feb. 11, as the hot season gripped the sun-battered lands of Cambodia, Gov. Scott Walker on the other side of the world issued a message to public employee unions as crisp as the frigid Wisconsin air: Get the hell out.

The newly elected governor unveiled a budget repair bill that would end most collective bargaining in the state and require public employees to pay more for benefits. The bill also included measures that would severely weaken public employee unions in ways that had nothing to do with the state budget.

Walker sharply broke from past moderate Republican governors in Wisconsin, like Tommy Thompson and Lee Dreyfus, who often pursued nonconfrontational ways to plug budget gaps. And unions and Democrats took it as a declaration of war. Thousands of people eventually rushed the Capitol, catapulting our city into almost every national newscast and newspaper as an example of Republican policymaking and subsequent fallout.

Local sociologists say that the movement achieved the status of "white-hot mobilization." Though exceptionally rare, white-hot mobilization occurs when a protest attracts the unfettered dedication of an ever-growing number of "true believers," wrote pioneering researcher John Lofland of the University of California-Berkeley in 1979.

"I've seen my colleagues on campus, and they're more energized than I've ever seen them be," says UW sociology professor Chad Alan Goldberg, adding that membership in his local union, the American Federation of Teachers Local 223, has grown 30% since February. "There is a certain level of mobilization here that I haven't seen before."

Walker reveled in the confrontation. He seemed to enjoy national attention as a union-busting governor like Republicans Mitch Daniels of Indiana and John Kasich of Ohio. Since February, Walker has appeared on national television around a dozen times, his press office says.

"I personally have never seen [politics] this personalized," said longtime Madison Magazine columnist John Roach, who has become openly disillusioned by the disharmony in Madison. "The question was: Do you have someone who could handle the [budget] shortfall artfully? I hoped Walker would be a surgeon and not a butcher, and he's proven himself to be the latter."

The Republicans' incendiary language has been striking, and very unlike that of traditional Wisconsin politicians. Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman called protesters a cadre of misguided liberals, idealists and naive students - "slobs." The Walker administration grossly exaggerated the cost of repairing the Capitol after protests, later backing off the claim.

Through it all, Madison's white-hot protest refused to cool. Even now, after five months and some serious political defeats, you're still likely to find protesters at the Capitol, voicing their indignation.

And through it all, the divisions were widening, becoming permanent. Sadly, politics has become a deciding factor in many friendships across the state.

"I feel disconnected with my friends because a lot of them are businessmen," says John Carlson, 59, who makes $50,000 a year working for UW libraries. "I used to go up to Canada with them, and we never totally agreed on everything, but we still got along. We had common ground. And now, there's a different edge to it, where now I know some of those people think I've been overpaid all along.

"It's going to take a long time to mend, if ever. It's like a divorce. There was a lack of respect. You thought you were partners, and you find out they never respected anything you did all along."

Something fragile and essential to the Wisconsin community has been lost in all the unrest. The chance of reconciling the state shrinks the more people's positions become a part of their identity, political analysts and sociologists say.

UW sociology professor Pam Oliver compares what's happening to Madison with the six weeks following the 2000 presidential election. No one knew whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would be the next president. There were clear demarcations in the electorate, and the longer the uncertainty extended, the more polarized people became.

But that was the nation at whole. This is Wisconsin. Civil, self-deprecating Wisconsin. It's gotten so bad that vitriol has infected the state Supreme Court as well, with conservative Justice David Prosser allegedly choking left-leaning Justice Ann Walsh Bradley over a budget bill issue.

What's happening?

"It's a movie without any heroes," Roach says. "The politics haven't been done in a statesmanlike way. This isn't a question of what, it's a question of how we're going to do business with each other in Wisconsin.

"All this is unlike us."

Against this backdrop of acrimony and division, I returned home to Madison in late May. I had been living alone in a community of 60,000 Cambodians four hours of rice fields and flatlands north of the capital.

Most of that time I had been diarrhetic, sweating, hungry - but relatively happy, content that no matter how isolated I felt, I always had my adventure for company.

For those two years, I talked about America incessantly. Cambodians had loads of questions. What's your salary in America? Do Americans like to eat rice too? Have you ever seen a terrorist attack? Tell me about snow - what's it like? Can you eat it?

While I was away, Madison sometimes didn't seem real. It was a voice crackling across a bad phone connection, a picture on a computer screen, a speck on a world map. Cambodians themselves contributed to the illusion. They refused to believe anything bad about the United States, adding an otherworldly quality. I vividly recall failing to explain to a young boy that some things aren't wonderful in America. People even suffer depression.

"No, America is beautiful," he replied.

What I didn't realize while absent was that America isn't static. Almost like a star that glitters for the universe long after bursting, the place I described had been gone for a while.

This became apparent while talking with people like Jonathan Grieser, a downtown pastor who has watched his flock separated by politics and now doesn't know what to do. And again when I interviewed angry, unequivocal people like Trent Hoffman, 39:

"Unfortunately, when people support Scott Walker, I break it down it down to two judgments. Are these people uninformed or are they just evil? I don't like to say that people are literally trying to harm others, but it's gotten to that point. This isn't a matter of opinion. Either you don't understand what's happening or you're an evil person."

Ben Thomas, 46, expressed similar frustration from the other side: "I'm here [at the Capitol] because I'm seeing this country going downhill, and to me these people here, these protesters, they're - I don't know - asinine. It's their ignorance and their inability to think outside the box and break from their prism to do their own research. It sickens me."

For so long, Madison didn't exist to me except in memory. And now, the reality doesn't mirror what I remember. I find myself agreeing with Shannon Meier, a Madisonian I spoke with recently:

"I'm sad," she said over the din of a nearby protest. "I'd love to have it go back to how it was. I just think, 'Wow, what happened?'"

According to recent polling, Wisconsin may be the most polarized state in the nation. More than Ohio, of Republican Gov. John Kasich. More than Michigan, of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

In June, Public Policy Polling compiled the favorability rating of the 28 most polarizing governors in the nation. Just 9% of Democrats approve of Walker, compared to a whopping 87% of Republicans. Wisconsin, with this partisan approval gap of 78 points, tops the list of the 28 most polarized states. Next up is Minnesota, which has a 74-point gap.

The survey shows that only 3% of Wisconsin is undecided on its governor, a figure that represents the lowest in the nation. That means virtually every person in the state has an opinion on Scott Walker.

"This is not only huge, but it's huge when compared to every other state that was sampled," says UW polling expert Charles Franklin, who has been staggered by the polls. He adds: "The politics have crystallized. Opinions have crystallized, which takes place when people have made up their minds. In both polarization and crystallization, Wisconsin leads the nation."

The uncompromising nature of signs brandished during a recent spate of protests proved the point:

"Republicans hate personal freedom and love corporate freedom!"

"Scotty, we're coming for you."

"Liberals are weapons of mass destruction."

Franklin, however, along with other polling experts, sees some reason for optimism.

"There's a 'but' to follow all of this," he says. "The 'but' involves the people in the state who have been caught up in the issue but don't have a dog in the fight. For them, there could be some reduction in the sense that we're fighting over fundamental issues that can't be compromised."

That last word is an important one. Compromise. In almost every interview I had about the divisions in the state, the idea of compromise emerged. "All this fighting isn't us," people said. "Wisconsin isn't supposed to be like this."

Compromise. Something changed when Walker took office trumpeting radical, polarizing policymaking. Wisconsin politics stopped being moderate, and compromise became impossible. By busting public unions, Walker did something so removed from traditional Wisconsin politics that it swept everyone far to one side or the other.

In Madison, the epicenter of activism against Walker, the realization that the governor won't recalibrate his views has been devastating.

"If you protest hard and you lose anyway, you can either continue the struggle or you get depressed and discouraged and wander away," says the UW's Oliver. "This was a decisive political defeat, and when people have been decisively crushed, they get demoralized.... There's a lot of upset people."

Adds former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz: "In February and March there was this sense of hope. There was this feeling that everything we were doing was having an effect."

Now, Cieslewicz says, "all of our very worst nightmares are coming true. I can't imagine it can get worse than this."

On a recent night, I took out my journals, which I hadn't looked at since leaving Cambodia. What I found was different than I expected. Given the disillusionment I've experienced back in Madison, I've apparently romanticized life in Cambodia.

The journal entries suggest a deep sense of isolation, as I failed time and again to integrate into a culture different from my own. At first, I couldn't speak the language and was laughed at everywhere, which only made the learning more difficult. Later, after becoming fluent, I realized it didn't matter. I wasn't Khmer and never would be. As long as I was there, I would be an outsider.

One entry I don't remember writing from January of 2010 stands out:

At night after dinner, I smoke cigarettes and watch the cars roar out of the blackness and into it once more. I have no idea where they're going, but try not to think about it. I let my mind wander, watching my cigarette's ember eat to my fingertips.

Sometimes, the Peace Corps feels like a prison sentence, and in moments like these, it does. My thoughts always bring me to all the things I should've done before I came here and all the things I'll do when I get out.

Now back in Wisconsin, I recognize many things that are different here, including myself. And sometimes, while out talking with people, I feel like an outsider again, reminded of a line by the Greek thinker Heraclitus: "No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man."

Madison is my river. But it's no longer my home.

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