Playground Politics

Let's move beyond the bullying

“Politics is a good thing!” An old college professor of mine who taught an American government course printed this slogan onto T-shirts and handed them out to his students every semester. Put into the context of Wisconsin’s budget debates of late, the idea that politics is a good thing is laughable.

For those of you living outside the city borders, this might surprise you: Many of us in politically correct Madison aren’t accustomed to taking a stance to the left, right or middle at once-pleasant gatherings like soccer games and silent auctions. No, pre-Walker we pretty much employed non-aggressive tactics like bumper stickers and yard signs to pledge allegiance to candidates or causes. If we had a soft spot for something, like new park shelters or Girl Scout cookies, we wrote a check and moved on.

Should we be surprised how quickly Facebook and Twitter have become battlegrounds for the sort of ideological warfare we never knew our high-school homecoming court was capable of executing? Call it anti-social media these days. I can’t check status updates or peruse the headlines without somebody lobbing pro-this or anti-that grenades onto my iPhone screen. It’s nasty out there.

Likewise, the rhetoric of our two major political parties has devolved into playground epithets, the kind of asinine, bullying behavior that would get you carted off to the principal’s office. When the February prank call between the guv and a Koch brother went viral, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin released a statement titled “Scott Walker: His Master’s Voice,” which went on to describe the “ethically-rotten conspiracies he has at work to crush his opposition.” OK, Dick Nixon—take ’er down a notch.

To be fair, some of the worst grandstanding and small-mindedness we should be rising above is coming from the Republicans. Perhaps the most juvenile comments came in the wake of Judge Maryann Sumi’s temporary restraining order that’s halted the collective bargaining law from taking effect. Here’s an excerpt of the bizarre statement the Dane County Republicans topped with an elephant logo and distributed to the media:

“The Republican Party of Dane County recognizes that Judge Sumi is a leftist living in Dane County … She goes to cocktail parties held by leftists in Dane County … We prioritize the Constitution and the well being of the people of Wisconsin over foie gras at cocktail parties.” Way to be relevant amid the most gripping political events in a generation.

At an unprecedented moment in our state’s history, when every citizen is paying attention, both political parties are missing a sizable opportunity to enhance our understanding of what they represent—and to help propel bold ideas forward. To boot, the polarizing nature of our politics is catching in its crosshairs some potentially groundbreaking change for the better. Instead of exploring the merits of Chancellor Biddy Martin’s plan to keep UW– Madison a talent magnet and economic powerhouse, she’s been slammed for compromising with the governor. Similarly, Kaleem Caire’s charter school for disadvantaged boys has been stamped anti-union instead of pro-education. If either fails, somebody please send the children to bed without any supper.

Dazed and confused, I contacted that old college prof, who also happens to be one of the foremost political prognosticators in the country, University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato.

“Do you have any advice or analysis for us friendly, hardworking Midwesterners feeling overwhelmed by extremes and questioning the goodness of politics?” I asked him.

Of course, the good professor responded: “The answer to bad politics is ... more politics. Whether it is the next election, or referenda/initiative, or citizen action in other legal ways, politics is self-correcting over time.”

I should fish that old T-shirt out of the basement and wear it to the next soccer game.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or bnardi@madisonmagazine.com. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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