Politics as Usual

Contemplating our love-hate relationship with politics

I have a love-hate relationship with politics. I suspect everybody does, including politicians. But it’s sometimes troublesome for me because I spend so much of my time thinking about, talking about and writing about politics that I get a little queasy when I’m on the hate side of the equation.

I’ve had the opportunity to witness politics in action from an “insider’s” perspective. I’ve interviewed elected officials, cabinet secretaries, presidential candidates, ambassadors and staffers of all kinds in offices from the White House to the Comune (City Hall) in Mantova, Italy. By and large the experiences have been fascinating, enlightening and enjoyable. But over the last ten years or so I’ve found myself more and more critical of politics and by extension politicians, and I’ve approached elections during that time with increased apprehension.

This campaign season is no different. Our political system is seriously flawed. I can no longer tell if that dysfunction reflects our society and culture today, or helps shape it. Either way it’s a mess.

Recently I had lunch with Tim Cullen, who is running for the 15th District State Senate seat. Cullen was in that seat when I first met him more than thirty years ago, and he held it until 1987—including five years as majority leader—when he accepted Governor Tommy Thompson’s appointment to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services (as it was then known). Remember, Cullen was a Democrat. Thompson was not. Ah, those were the days.

Anyway, if you don’t know Tim, or as you might surmise from his record, he was highly respected and widely liked. And after a run in the private sector and a term on the Janesville School Board, the sixty-six-year-old Cullen has decided to give service in state government another shot. This is not an endorsement of Tim Cullen. He has a Republican opponent named Rick Richard. Anyone from the district reading this can make up his or her own mind. But our lunch was a welcome reminder of the sort I’ve come to want and need over the years: that by and large the people who run for elected office and the majority—yes, majority—of those who get elected are good people. That is so easy to forget when we are bombarded with campaign ads, talk radio blather and internet propaganda aimed at our emotions and our worst instincts. The trend has become to demonize one’s opponent, make him or her seem like a bad person, and do it in the most sensational way possible. And thus we end up forming opinions and making judgments about people without really knowing them.

Scott Walker lives in my hometown. Tom Barrett graduated from the same high school I did. He was in my brother Paul’s class. They’re both really good guys. (Walker and Barrett that is, although Paul’s OK, too.) But unless you can sort of tune out the transparent talking points, the paid attack ads, the staff-directed “on message” campaign claims and the radio talkers talking to themselves, you’d never know it. Walker made an interesting comment when he told Jessica VanEgeren of the Cap Times, “You have to remember it’s not you, but what you do.” He meant when someone gives you too much praise. But I was thinking about the relentless criticism.

I guess what I’m telling you—and me—is don’t get discouraged over the next six weeks or so. And when you run into one of these candidates at a market, fair or community event, or if one should stop at your door, spend a minute and ask them a question and look at them like a human being. Listen to the ads where the candidates are talking to you like real people, and take the ads with distorted images and obvious actors with a whole shaker of salt.

Our politics need fixing. We need brave and good people to do it. And it’ll certainly be harder if we continue to polarize from each other the very people we are asking to fix it. And when it starts getting to me again—and it will—I’m asking Tim Cullen to have lunch.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

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