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Capitol Punishments: Another pointless dogpile on Mandela Barnes

Democrats who play into asinine talking points about Barnes are doing Republicans’ work for them.
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.

Democrats who play into asinine talking points about Barnes are doing Republicans’ work for them.

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.

You don’t have to love Mandela Barnes. You don’t even have to want to vote for him. But you also should not have to explain to white Democrats that criticizing a Black Senatorial candidate with right-wing talking points and dog whistles is not a good look. 

And I really hope it is not the future of the Democratic Party. Hell, it shouldn’t even be the present.

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But here we are. The latest hot-off-the-press gossip from Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is that in November, Mandela Barnes said that… chattel slavery and the genocide of Native Americans was bad. And that maybe it’s past time that we admit that.

The quote: “The U.S. is the most wealthy, the most powerful nation on earth, because of forced labor on stolen land. We have to teach the reality… or else people will assume it happened because of hard work or pulling up by your bootstraps.”

Serious question, what is the counterargument here? That laying the foundation of our nation with genocide, exploitation, and the dehumanization of entire races of people is fine because we’re “the greatest country in the world?” That all the above has nothing to do with the United States’ economic might? If any other nation still held such a core belief, you’d immediately recognize that it’s propaganda. 

Also, is this what Bice thinks “political watchdogs” do? Toss a lukewarm culture-war item in the microwave by pulling a quote from an event last fall? Well, this is the columnist who, in 2019, broke the sensational scandal of Barnes’ $108 in unpaid parking tickets.

It’s just the latest in blatant cheap shots at Barnes, who is the front-runner among Democrats vying to take on Sen. Ron Johnson. 

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced she endorsed Barnes, fellow Senate candidate Sarah Godlewski’s spokesperson said it was “the end of Mandela’s moderate makeover, and Wisconsin should expect him to return to his extreme positions that he so proudly touted just a year and a half ago,” as the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

When Barnes said he was open to conversations about changing the size of the Supreme Court but was currently more focused on reform, a spokesperson for another Democratic Senate candidate, Tom Nelson, also quoted in the State Journal said, “How many issues has Mandela changed his position on? We can’t trust him as far as you could throw a pair of flip-flops into Lake Mendota.” 

Which sounds awfully similar to a comment from Anna Kelly, a Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesperson: “Mandela Barnes has waffled on everything from abolishing ICE, to defunding the police, to court-packing—which would fundamentally transform our institutions to benefit Democrats. At this point, what does Barnes stand for beyond his own self-promotion?”

As former First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we continue to shift to the right and undermine progressive candidates and policies so we can peel off some mythical centrist Republicans instead of energizing the base.”

By engaging in these tactics and narratives, these people are reinforcing the right-wing talking points that the Democrats have moved “soooo far to the left” and undermining any meaningful conversation about the major changes we need in this country. 

Let’s take a breath and look at the range of political ideologies. In reality, among “developed” nations, centrist Democrats are actually center-right, progressives are center-left, and Republicans have gone authoritarian-far-right. Yet even though Republican policies do not align with the majority of Americans’, centrist Democrats continue to shift their messaging to not seem “too liberal,” hoping to win over that famous political unicorn: the centrist swing voter. 

The kicker is that there’s little evidence that actual independents exist. A better strategy, which worked in Georgia, would be to reach out to nonvoters. Political scientist Yanna Krupnikov told Politico in 2020 that nonvoters tend to sit out “not because these are bad people or don’t understand how important things are, but because they genuinely feel unrepresented and have never seen politics do anything for them.”

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We are one of the few countries with the means to provide healthcare, education, housing, reconfigure our communities to be more environmentally sustainable and equitable, and generally ensure that our tax dollars actually go toward improving everyone’s quality of life. But we don’t, in large part because Republicans claim that doing so—doing what dozens of nations already do—is “too liberal.” 

And too many Democrats play right along, leaving behind potential voters who are disillusioned by politics as usual, and are hungry for change. 

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