It's been over three weeks since Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election, breaking 46% of Wisconsin voters' hearts, and groups around the state are looking for ways to bridge the partisan divide.
The Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) hosted a panel on June 21 to discuss whether and how the state can begin to heal. About 50 people attended the event, held at the Red Gym on the UW-Madison campus.
"One of the roles that SPJ has taken on is to provide public affairs service to the community, and this kind of event serves that role," said Mark Pitsch, president of the Madison chapter. "It was clear that Wisconsin is a politically polarized place, but in the wake of the election, it's also true that people can get beyond that polarization."
In a first step to get beyond polarization, the SPJ invited three panelists to address the issue: Tony Earl, former Democratic governor of Wisconsin, former U.S. Rep. Scott Klug (R-Madison), and Katherine Cramer Walsh, a political science professor at UW-Madison, whose research has taken her to coffee shops and community centers around the state to observe conversations about politics.
Earl said the current political polarization is a relatively new development in the state and that partisanship did not keep the state Legislature from being productive when he served as governor in the mid-1980s. He bemoaned a decline of the press, an inability by lawmakers to reach out across the aisle, and increased influence of money in politics.
"Money was not a big part of politics at all. When I ran for the Assembly in Wausau in the mid-'60s, I think I spent $1,500, and that was pretty typical for the time. It was retail politics. People knocked on doors, went to church dinners," Earl said. "You could not accept anything from a lobbyist that was of any value, not even a cup of coffee."
Earl also blamed politically motivated redistricting practices for the rise in polarization.
"What [redistricting] produced ... was far more emphasis on primaries because in a district that was decidedly [Democratic or Republican], you were going to get elected if you won the primary," Earl said. "So people ran to the hardcore of each party, and they became considerably more partisan, less willing to go to the middle."
Klug similarly criticized the politics of redistricting, but disagreed with Earl's description of a gentler political time.
"I don't really think there was ever really a golden time of American politics," Klug said. "If you remember, Aaron Burr and Hamilton fought a duel not long after the country was formed... you see then, over the course of U.S. history, sort of an ebb and flow of hostility, and then a time of calm."
Klug added that technology and the availability of instant information has exacerbated polarization. Before use of the Internet became widespread, Klug said that communicating with elected representatives was a three-week process, as letters had to be composed, mailed, read, answered, and returned.
"There's no time-out left in the system anymore," Klug said. "You're not going to change the Internet, you're not going to change instant messaging, you're not going to change Facebook. I think that's fed into this frenzy where nobody has time anymore to think about things, to be civil, and have a discussion."
Walsh brought a different perspective to the panel, saying that in her numerous conversations with people across the state, she found that listening and compromise is more possible among ordinary people than politicians.
"My thoughts are not so much about what politicians can do to bridge the divide, but what ordinary people can do to bridge the divide," Walsh said. "Politics is often about "us" and "them"... because it's a useful way for a politician to make an argument."
Like Earl and Klug, Walsh suggested that the best way to begin a process of healing in the state is for people to start talking to each other, listening to each other and actively seeking out the things that unite us. She cited a Marquette University poll that found 34% of Wisconsinites had "stopped talking about politics with someone because of conflict over the recall."
She suggested that Walker supporters "sit down with public employees and hear that [they are] also concerned about making ends meet... [and] the financial well-being of their community. And that they also work hard."
Barrett supporters should "sit down and hear from Walker supporters, especially in small communities around the state, that in many places, it's the public employees who are making the only living wage... or the only ones getting healthcare or pension benefits."
Although the conversation was largely a model of civility, with Earl and Klug attempting to find common ground and respectfully disagreeing when they could not, a few key moments betrayed the difficulty of maintaining civility in the current political climate.
At one point, as Earl criticized Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the controversial Supreme Court decision that prohibits limits on political contributions by corporations and unions, Klug interrupted him, mentioning George Soros, a billionaire donor to liberal political organizations. They similarly spoke over each other when Klug mentioned he had witnessed the Wisconsin Capitol protests against Act 10 and was dismayed by protesters' behavior.
At another point, the audience audibly scoffed when Klug mentioned that state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), and his brother, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) could be expected to be reasonable. Klug shot back sharply, "Have you worked with them at all?"
Pitsch mentioned that both Fitzgeralds, Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), Milwaukee mayor, Tom Barrett, and Gov. Walker had been invited to listen to the panel, but declined the invitation. Pitsch asked the panelists whether they thought Walker should help facilitate healing in the state.
"The Governor does have a special obligation to try to model for the rest of us a sincerity in wanting to heal some wounds, and bridging some divides," Walsh said. "It would go a long way for him to sit down with just ordinary members of the public who opposed him in the recall and have a conversation."