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God help us, the moderates have some takes about Mandela Barnes’ loss

Citizen Dave blames Barnes and the Democrats for not moderate-ing hard enough.
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.

Citizen Dave blames Barnes and the Democrats for not moderate-ing hard enough.

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.

We knew there would be some bad takes on the Midterm results, particularly Sen. Ron Johnson’s win over Mandela Barnes, but no one managed to encapsulate and distill them all as perfectly as this week’s column by former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz in Isthmus.

I’ve skimmed his “Citizen Dave” column a few times, but how much time am I really going to devote to a columnist who takes the Forward Party seriously—a movement that doesn’t even have the guts to put out a policy platform and is instead running on tech-bro Andrew Yang vibes. Which have won… how many elections?

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And there are a lot of obvious pot-shots I could take against this particular column. Cieslewicz argues Barnes was a weak candidate by pointing to declining votes in Milwaukee, while failing to mention Milwaukee’s declining population. He’s still convinced that the best candidate was the guy who maxed out in the single digits in the primary polls. His takeaway from the difference in Evers’ and Barnes’ results is “the moderate won and the progressive lost.” 

Really? Is that the only difference you see between an older white man from Sheboygan and a Millennial Black man from Milwaukee? You really don’t think any other factors were at play here? (Cue all the moderates grumbling that “race has nothing to do with it.”)

The reason I’m picking on this column is that it epitomizes the labeling and talking points that just get passed around in moderate circles without any critical thinking or deconstruction. 

For one, Cieslewicz thinks the Democratic Party needs a moderate wing, when what they already have is… the Democratic Party. Progressives are the sub-party. If you think Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are Progressives, just change your party registration right now because you are actually a Republican.

In all seriousness, what is the difference between Evers’ and Barnes’ policy positions?

“[Barnes] had suggested that he was for defunding the police before he said he wasn’t,”  Cieslewicz writes.

I’ve had my car vandalized twice this year. The first time someone broke my starter trying to jump the car, and the second time someone broke one of my windows. 

What did the police do? They filled out some paperwork. One cop told me I should ask my neighbors if they saw or heard anything. Note that he—the officer—wasn’t going to do it, but he suggested that I—the crime victim—should. The other one gave me a spiel about the so-called “Kia Boyz,” which a) my car’s not a Kia b) that instance it wasn’t broken into and c) has all the red flags of a moral panic and I’m just waiting for the debunking to begin.

There is some evidence that more police reduce violent crime in some communities, probably because of their presence. But in large cities with large Black populations, more police has no impact on violent crime and instead results in more arrests for petty, nonviolent crime. So why are we devoting so much money and resources to something that isn’t going to work for our communities and instead causes harm?

“He held up an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt, but said he wasn’t for abolishing ICE,” Cieslewicz grouses about Barnes, not for the first time. 

You mean the department that in less than 20 years since its founding in 2003 has arrested undocumented workers but not the employers that exploit them, and has sexually assaulted and sterilized immigrant women?

The biggest problem with these two stances was that Barnes waffled trying to appeal to moderates. 

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But Cieslewicz is not done repeating flimsy right-wing talking points about Barnes, writing: “He said on camera that the founding of America was ‘awful.'”

That last sentence is true, unless you’re a fan of genocide and slavery. I know older generations were hit hard with American exceptionalism propaganda and “The Founding Fathers” (who disagreed on everything and hated each other), but how did that turn into this knee-jerk reaction against any legitimate criticism of United States history?

The truth is, that it’s surprising how much an older white man from Sheboygan and a Millennial Black man from Milwaukee agree when it comes to policy. (Some of us are old enough to remember them being running mates.) They both support climate action that also provides economic opportunities in neglected communities. They support equitable school funding—which does not include vouchers for private schools—increasing access to community colleges and trade schools, and more funding for state universities. They support marijuana legalization and expunging marijuana convictions.

In fact they both support the Democrats’ current stance on abortion, which has moved away from the “safe, legal, and rare” line from former President Bill Clinton that Cieslewicz writes is “now out of fashion on the hard left.” As if “fashion” has anything to do with recognizing everyone’s right to bodily autonomy and to making decisions with physicians, not politicians. As if “fashion” dictates whether anyone should have a say in the most private, life-changing decisions other people make. 

If you want to expand access to birth control, child care, and reduce the gender pay gap with the goal of making abortions “rare,” fine. But there’s no reason for the government to get involved in a medical procedure, no matter how you feel about it.

Clinton also pushed “tough on crime” policies, abandoned unions to instead push for free trade agreements, and cut social safety nets. All of which didn’t immediately affect the middle and upper classes, but since a “rising tide lifts all boats,” we should also use the inverse: “a lowering tide sinks all boats.” 

On top of all the obvious reasons not to uphold Bill Clinton as some sort of role model, his administration continued leading the country along the roadmap former President Ronald Reagan first laid out. That roadmap led to the racial and economic disparities we see today, and the lack of a safety net that is driving our class anxieties. Now that the upper middle class is seeing their boats scrape the bottom, they look back at Clinton with nostalgia as the good ol’ days when they were still riding high, ignoring all their neighbors who were sinking.

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