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A few words of encouragement for Wisconsin’s weary voters

It’s awful out there, but there are real opportunities before us.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

It’s awful out there, but there are real opportunities before us.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Early in-person voting has started in Madison and all of you should take advantage of it, if for no other reason than to get it over with. 

If you are emotionally drained from this midterm election, you are not alone. That is completely understandable. But you still need to vote.

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In Wisconsin in particular, there’s an understandable disillusionment because right now, we barely have a democracy. Our state has been gerrymandered into one-party rule by legislators that have made it clear, time and again, that they do not care what the majority of voters—even within their own party—want. So for many people there’s a real question of “Why should I bother voting?”

“That is the purpose of the gerrymander—to make us fall into that feeling of defeat,” Tammy Wood, a Democratic party organizer told The New York Times this week. “But we can’t let that happen.”

The first motivator I’m going to give you to get out and vote is spite. Because there are a lot of people who are pouring time, energy, and money into convincing you that your vote is meaningless, “both sides” are equally problematic, and there’s no point in voting. The cold hard truth is, when more people vote, left-leaning candidates win.

Let’s look at the Marquette poll that got Democrats down in the dumps earlier this month because it showed Sen. Ron Johnson pulling ahead of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes among voters who said they were certainly going to vote. But that gap diminishes when you include people who said they are “likely” going to vote. It disappears when people who are less certain are added into the mix. 

Why are pro-Johnson people absolutely certain they’re going to vote? Unfortunately anger and fear are great motivators for voter turnout, and Johnson along with his Diane Hendricks- and Uihlein-funded attack ads have been pulling out all the stops and pushing all the right buttons.

One key architect of the United States’ modern political ugliness was Lee Atwater, who most people today remember for his quote on how the Southern Strategy mobilized racism, but by abstracting it with phrases such as “states’ rights” and “forced bussing” Republicans were able to deny their racist intentions. 

“Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, [B]lacks get hurt worse than whites.…” Atwater once said.

(I’m not reprinting the full quote here because if a reader’s not in the mood to see the unbleeped N-word six times in one paragraph, I get that. The full quote is in the linked article.)

You would like to think that by the year of our Lord 2022, we would’ve moved on from the racist tactics of the ’70s and ’80s but here we are, with Barnes’ skin tone being darkened in attack ads. “States rights” and “forced bussing” have been swapped out with “Socialism” and “school choice.”

So my second motivator is right out of the fear-and-anger playbook: You may not be motivated to vote, but you know who is? People who still believe the 2020 election was stolen and want to change election laws to make it easier to overthrow results they don’t like. People who are afraid of CRT and socialism taking over but couldn’t possibly define either one. People who somehow blame President Joe Biden, Gov. Tony Evers, and Barnes for inflation when it is an international phenomenon and companies are making record profits. 

Also, imagine how much worse the past few years would have been if Scott Walker had still been in charge? How much worse could it be with Tim Michels holding the reins? And it is impossible to understate how much of a dumpster fire Johnson is as a Senator. Even ads from his allies have nothing much to work with other than vague platitudes—”freedom,” “red tape”—that have nothing to do with his actual career.  

While effective, that tactic feels kind of gross, so finally I want to motivate you to vote out of hope. Milwaukee organizer Garrett Bucks wrote last week on his Substack about the grueling, unsatisfying machinery of “the fifteenth consecutive Most Important Election of My Lifetime” which prioritizes quick hits to rile up the base rather than actually organizing or building community. 

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“It’s been more cynical, more depressing and more damaging to the emotional and spiritual muscles that we need to actually build a better world,” Bucks wrote. “That’s saying a lot! Because I’ve seen a lot of depressing elections!”

His experience is wrapped up in a Xennial personal history of elections, which more or less matches my experience, but I cannot imagine what it’s been like for older generations to watch this discourse since the ’70s and ’80s. I’m already exhausted. 

Which is also the point. Anne Helen Peterson wrote in March about how “we don’t leave crisis mode; we just move from one (or more) primary sources of crisis into the next.”

“[The crisis] just wanes in urgency, with a promise that it will certainly wax again,” Peterson wrote. “It demands a sort of cyclical vigilance—and it’s been the norm for the last two pandemic years, with their ongoing waves of high-alert anxiety, but it’s also characteristic of the ongoing climate catastrophe, of the erosion of voting rights, of the threats to trans kids and the families and health care professionals and educators who affirm them, of outbursts of horrific racist violence, of school shootings, of giant steps back when it comes to women’s bodily autonomy. It happens, then it happens again, then it just keeps happening.”

That constant vigilance from real threats obscures the opportunities before us. We are seeing real opportunities to re-think and restructure how we work, care for families, and construct cities. 

While it feels like Biden has barely scratched the surface of everything we need to do, considering his narrow majority in the Senate, he’s accomplished a lot that’s not only important for leftists but also for young people. The Inflation Reduction Act alone is a seismic investment in climate change policy that has real potential to cut our emissions by 40% by the end of the decade. Student loan forgiveness is under threat but you know what could prevent that? A big enough Senate majority to pass it as legislation.

There’s a lot to do, there’s too much going on, and we’re all exhausted. But you need to vote. Whether it’s out of spite, anger, fear, or hope, you need to vote. And after you’ve voted, the real work can begin.

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