Capitol Punishments: To hell with small tweaks

Democrats are failing to rise to the moment, because they don’t understand it.
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 are failing to rise to the moment, because they don’t understand it.

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.

When reports first came out that 12% of people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary voted for Donald Trump in the general election, I think a lot of people’s brains broke and they decided not to think about it too much longer. 

Those Democrats that have thought about the Bernie-Trump voters, I would argue, walked away with the wrong lesson, which was to bend their messaging to appeal to more conservatives: less talk of “social issues,” AKA basic human rights for marginalized communities. 

I think the lesson they really should have taken from that—that voters are looking for candidates willing to fight for real change—would have prevented the disastrous and, as the young folks say, “cringe” national Democrats’ response to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. And if they continue to ignore it, the national party will continue to fail to meet the critical moment we are in.

It is important to draw a distinction between national Democrats and Wisconsin Democrats. Even though Wisconsin’s state Assembly and Senate are run by not just uncooperative but actively hostile Republican leaders and a state Supreme Court that believes Republicans don’t have to follow their own rules, Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul have taken action to fight for abortion access in the state. More action than we’ve seen from the Democratic majorities in Congress, the US Senate, or the White House.

(One shining exception has been Attorney General Merrick Garland, who promised to fight to maintain access to abortion medication through telehealth.)

The national leadership is a generation of Democrats who came to power during the ’80s and ’90s, when there was a wellspring of middle class, mostly-white, fairly established, and comfortable-with-the-status-quo voters to draw from. Voters who felt the system could use some tweaking, some targeted changes around the edges, but who didn’t feel the impact of politics in their day-to-day lives.

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We are long past making small tweaks to the system. The gradual erosion of the middle class fell away during the financial crisis. There are whole swaths of people who see on a daily basis all the ways that the system is not built for them and is in fact making their lives worse. Politicians can’t afford to ignore them any longer. 

Bernie Sanders appealed to voters because he affirmed their experience. So did Donald Trump. The difference between them was who they said was responsible and whether or not those claims were tied to reality. Bernie punched up, using data and policy analysis to go after the powerful, wealthy, and corrupt. Trump punched down, attacking people who are already marginalized and reinforcing a mythology about “the libs” to pursue policies that make everyone’s lives worse.

But they both said, “You’re right. Things are bad. And I’m going to fight to change them.”

When the US Supreme Court has taken away a fundamental right to bodily autonomy that will result in people dying, I don’t want the opposition to read a poem. I don’t want them singing “God Bless America” in front of the Supreme Court. I don’t want them to tell me to vote after a record number of people turned out in 2020. And I definitely do not want a fucking email asking me for money.

I want a candidate running in every race and grassroots organizing in between elections. I want you to tell me what the plan is. And I want you to fight like your life depends on it. Because for many of us, it does.

That is not what we have been hearing from what I’ll call the corporate wing of the Democratic party. Post-recession and even now that we’re post(ish) COVID the message has been “things aren’t as bad as you think—look at our GDP!” By ignoring that the majority of Americans no longer benefit from higher production, they’ve essentially been saying, “That rich asshole that’s making your life worse (your boss, landlord, executives at insurance companies, internet companies, etc.) just got even richer! You’re welcome!”

When former President Barack Obama was advocating for the Affordable Care Act, he repeated the mantra, “If you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” 

My gut response was, “Who likes their health insurance?” Literally, who are those people? Because as long as I can remember being aware of health insurance, it has felt like a scam. 

And the issue isn’t just messaging. It also means that when Democrats do get a win, it’s ultimately disappointing. Obama was operating under a “small tweaks” model, so he compromised with Republicans and insurers on the most important components of the plan: no pricing restrictions and no public option. Now insurers and healthcare executives, realizing another healthcare reform bill probably isn’t coming, are having a field day. In 2019, Americans collectively had $195 billion in medical debt.

Even now, President Biden seems fixated on “bipartisanship.” That ship sailed when Mitch McConnell didn’t hold a vote for Merrick Garland to join SCOTUS and then rammed through the confirmations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Republicans aren’t going to release their grip on power because Democrats play nice. 

Another component of the Bernie vote that was underplayed was that another 12% of Bernie voters didn’t vote in 2016 at all. I am not condoning those voters who sat out or switched to Trump—frankly I think they were being selfish and short-sighted. But Democrats need to understand that moderation is fine only in moderately fine times. To say we are in a crisis is an understatement, and voters want politicians who understand that. 

Our basic quality of life is being swallowed up by corporate greed. Our rights and the institutions to protect our rights are being eroded by a power-hungry minority party. The Republicans have made perfectly clear what they plan to do and how far they’ll go to do it. We need Democrats to do the same.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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