Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What Ever Happened to Good Government in Wisconsin? And How Can We Fix It?

I didn't make it to the "What Ever Happened to Good Government in Wisconsin? And How Can We Fix It?" panel discussion at UW-O on Monday, so I really can't speak to what ground was covered during the discussion. The only write-up of the event I could find came courtesy of Jonathan Krause, who provided a characteristically insipid account of the affair. (Can anyone make sense of his incompressible Mark Cuban analogy?) So at the risk of rehashing arguments that have already been made, here's our answer in order of importance.
  • 1.) The Globalized Economy.
The US is not the economic juggernaut it was during the generation following WWII. There are many good reasons for this, one of which was it took about that long for Europe and Japan to rebuild themselves after the war, and about twice as long for China to propel itself into modernity. Everyone is now working on a level playing field (or "flat world," as Thomas Friedman would say), and that now includes India, Latin America and Russia. There is more competition for goods and services Americans excelled at supplying during the 20th Century and this has led to stagnant wages, income inequality, a decline in social mobility and a whole lot of resentment. Since there is little use in assigning blame to sweat shop workers half a world away, we tend to point fingers at our neighbors. Wisconsin has been particularly hit hard by this phenomenon given the central place of manufacturing in our economy, historically speaking.
  • 2.) Lingering Racial Divisions
For a state that is well over 90% white we sure do have a lot of hang-ups regarding race that date back to white settlers' relationships with Native Americans and extend all the way to tensions involving Hmong refugees that settled in the area after Vietnam and the current crop of Hispanic migrant workers who come to the state to work on our farms. If you don't think this is an issue, just recall the shitstorm that broke out over removing race as a factor for awarding college scholarships recently.

Nearly a third of all voters in Wisconsin live in the six counties that make up the Milwaukee metro area in the southeast corner of the state. It's the most segregated area of the country and it didn't get that way by accident. The conservative stronghold that is Waukesha County largely got that way thanks to white flight and stays that way thanks to a variety of housing discrimination practices. The effects of this lingering racial resentment stretch well beyond hot button issues like school vouchers, affirmative action and voter ID and impact matters that should be colorblind all together, like transportation. The proposed high speed rail stimulus project was shut down largely to appease voters in Waukesha County who don't want to give minorities or poor people easy access to their gated community. The emphasis in highway spending in the Milwaukee area serves to provide a buffer between suburbanites and the poor/minorities who can't afford a car to get to a possible job outside the city.

The recent passage of concealed carry and the castle doctrine? Largely sold using language specifically designed to evoke some of the worst racial prejudices, like "street thug" and "home invasion." The bills weren't lobbied for because of an increase in crime, but to appease gun owners who were once banded together to preserve Wisconsin's hunting culture, but now do so out of fear of minorities with ... guns.

It's not just a legislative issue or one confined to the major minority population centers of the state. An event like Black Thursday in Oshkosh in the late 1960s has caused damage between the community here and African-Americans that UW-O is still trying to mend decades after the fact.

We could go on and on and on...

Race was the issue that began redefining the two major political parties from regional entities to ideological ones, a process that's almost complete on the national level, but is still evolving slowly here in Wisconsin. It was something of a prelude to the Culture War, which to date has been a rather lop-sided affair that has caused tremendous resentment among conservatives. It's an enormous deal that we all too frequently don't even realize we're discussing in Wisconsin.
  • 3.) The Epistemological Relativism of the Information Age
The absolute deluge of information that individuals are subjected to every day makes it nearly impossible for ideas to break through the white noise and has provided media personalities with every incentive for crass, but eye-catching, behavior to connect with an audience. This is how talk radio has devolved into a cesspool of entertainment and misinformation masquerading as "news." It's really no better than eavesdropping in on a conversation in a high school locker room: just as prurient as it is exaggerated. And this is now the same business plan used by cable TV and most web sites on both side of the ideological divide (but, let's face it, more so among conservatives).

This isn't exactly a new problem. Media in the 18th and 19th centuries were very partisan, but were always limited by the amount of content that could be created and mass-produced in a given period of time. Today the sheer volume of content one has to choose from could keep a person occupied on their own little ideological island for the rest of their lives. And it turns out there's a large segment of news consumers that are perfectly happy occupying that island. This has proven to be a very profitable business for some media outlets and so long as that's the case, there's little incentive for them to change their business models.

This is a huge problem because the increase in media options results in a larger onus being placed on the individual to discern what is fact and what is bullshit. The good news is that there are more tools available to help individuals to make that decision. Unfortunately, its a time-consuming and laborious process that most people over the age of 40 have relied on other outlets to do for them for most of their lives.
  • 4.) The Expanding Power of Interest Groups
We're not just talking about PACs or 527s or even SuperPACs -- but also about trade associations, unions and even non-profit lobbies. These groups, with their ability to draw from a state- or nation-wide donor bases have an out-sized influence over law-makers and if they don't already have more influence then a legislator's constituents, they soon will.

That's not good. The folks who operate these groups are completely unaccountable to voters, frequently ignored by the media and increasingly free from transparency. Running for office in America is expensive. I once heard on the radio that it costs more to run for city council in San Antonio than it does to run for Parliament in England, and as long as these groups can direct large streams of money to candidates, they will get what they ask for, and frequently at the expense or a legislator's constituents.

But it's not just the money they offer, it's also the services they provide. A vast majority of negative campaigning that occurs during election comes from these groups. They have now made themselves an indispensable part of many legislator's election program, even though they are forbidden to coordinate (wink, wink). The third parties do the dirty work for the candidate, and candidate rewards them once in office.

An absolutely fascinating experiment would be for three small business owners who each wanted legislation crafted that might help their respective businesses. The first would  meet with his local state legislators and present his argument. The second would do the same, but also contribute the maximum to their re-election campaign. The third would by-pass his legislators all together and work exclusively with his trade organization or lobbying group. There is little doubt in my mind the third person would achieve his goal faster and with more certainty than the other two. It may cost him much much, more but lobbying is one of the best investments anyone can make: the rest in government largess almost always dwarfs the initial investment by several orders of magnitude.

Aside from this being bad public policy, it also has the effect of inverting the purpose of government. Law-makers are supposed to make for the entire state or country, but all too frequently they are being asked to assist individuals or very small groups of people. It's no wonder we hear very little about the common good these days and are more likely to hear paeans to mythical Randian overlords.
  • 5.) The Erosion of Privacy
Most voters now expect public officials to be damn near saints in their private lives. With regards to how they carry out their jobs, that's a good impulse, but where that line is drawn is increasing vague.

We're not just talking about extramarital affairs, DUIs and other standard skeletons in the closet, but in an age of cell phone cameras otherwise private moments are now fodder for gaffes that are guaranteed to get blown out of proportion. This means being a law-maker is a 24-hour-a-day job with a high risk for public embarrassment. This keeps good people out of public service and creates an attractive environment for the shameless or the exhibitionists who get off on that looming sense of peril, both of whom make better partisans than policy-makers. They're also people who are more likely to be taken by the trappings of power and thereby abuse it.

But not only are good people discouraged from running for office, they're frequently discouraged from speaking out in public about an issue important to them for fear of earning the wrath of someone or group that disagrees with them. We're always astonished at how often this sentiment is expressed by people and to be honest, we can see the time quickly approaching where the politics of personal destruction trickles down to even the local level, wherein the sins of letters-to-the-editor writers are aired publicly in an effort to discredit their arguments.

* * * * *
None of these factors have easy "solutions." In fact, just about all of them are more permanent conditions that we now must all live with rather than problems than can be solved. They exist and effect every state in the union, so why has Wisconsin been hit particularly hard? Wisconsin's been a consistent swing state for decades now and since the Caucus Scandal broke about 10 years ago the political environment has festered with discord, cynicism and frequent recriminations. This is an issue we've discussed before.

We genuinely don't know if the current troubles in Wisconsin can be fixed. It may take an extremely gifted politician who can work on both sides of the aisle before that can happen. That man was, not too long ago, Tommy Thompson. But today Thompson's party, which is disproportionately held captive by the forces noted above, would never allow that to happen. This should say a lot about who is to blame for the current mess.

Which brings us to our final point: while solutions may continue to be elusive, it should be obvious to anyone when the situation continues to deteriorate and under Scott Walker the situation has definitely deteriorated. Coming in to office Walker had so much power and so much control over state government that there was utter no need to use the aggressive tactics he used to pass his legislation, which made a polarized climate even worse. This strategy of governing for the 50+1 of the people who voted for you, and to hell with everyone else, may be politically savvy (see Rove, Karl), but it's not a leadership style that people remember fondly in the long run.

MORE: Here's the Advance-Titan's story on the event.

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