Legislative Republicans continue their unbroken reign as the worst in Wisconsin politics

Recounting another cruel year while looking to lessons of history.
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.

Recounting another cruel year while looking to lessons of history.

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

If you shone a spotlight in my face and demanded to know who’s the worst of the worst in Wisconsin politics, the most deserving of recognition in the unstoppable wheel of pain that is the Capitol Punishments column, there’s a pretty obvious answer: Wisconsin’s GOP legislators. 

It would also be easy to place the blame squarely on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). But he is one man whose caucus could replace him with someone who actually wants to work with Gov. Tony Evers to enact bipartisan legislation. Instead, his caucus is letting him run the state like his personal fiefdom. A man elected by almost 17,000 people (His write-in opponents got over 27% (6,000 votes). Do you know how rare it is for a write-in candidate to get double-digits?) is acting like he’s more in touch with what Wisconsinites want than a Governor who won statewide office twice. 

So yes, some individual GOP legislators are worse than others, but at the end of the day each one is complicit in enabling a party that has shifted heavily into politicking and given up any pretense of wanting to constructively govern this great state. 

Off the top of my head, here’s the list of Wisconsin’s legislative Republicans’ “accomplishments:”

  • Won the distinction of being the least active full-time legislature during the pandemic, not passing any bills from April 2020 until March 2021, nearly 300 days.
  • After their 10-month taxpayer-funded vacation, prioritizing culture war issues.
  • Claimed they put more funding into education, when that money passed through the schools and went to lowering property taxes. 
  • Gerrymandered the state—again—despite widespread bipartisan opposition and zero members of the public speaking in support of their gerrymandered maps.
  • Refusing to take up low-hanging-fruit legislation with bipartisan support, such as BadgerCare expansion, marijuana legalization, gun control, abortion, and more. 
  • Enabling former Gov. Scott Walker’s appointees to the Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Technical Colleges boards overstay their terms, blocking Evers’ appointees. 
  • Gave Michael Gableman $1 million in taxpayer funds to investigate voter fraud that never happened.
  • Sitting on what is now a $6.6 billion surplus.
  • Prioritizing tax cuts for Wisconsin’s wealthiest, despite evidence across the state that our system for funding counties and municipalities is broken.

There’s a lot more I could add with some quick Googling, but you get the point. While that designation would be completely justified, it’s not satisfying. Frankly, it’s too easy, and it fails to get at the roots of our dysfunction.

In case you think I’m now going to illuminate the source of all our problems, I’m going to disappoint you right off the bat and say that I’m probably as lost as you. Since 2016, I’ve been compiling and working my way through what I’ve nicknamed the “how the hell did we get here” reading list. I’m sure many people have found their own pathways to exploring that question for themselves; but for me, it has involved diving into American history. 

I’ve always been a history person, but before 2016 I was focused on international history, because I felt like I had been robbed of that education in high school. My international history teacher literally gestured to everywhere on the map except Europe and said that not much happened in those places until Europeans went there, so we were going to focus on Europe. I looked at the map and thought that couldn’t be right.

Before 2016, I think I avoided American history because I a) felt like I knew the broad strokes of it and b) knew it was going to be painful to dig in deeper. I was wrong about a)—dead wrong. The difference was that I didn’t know how much I was robbed of that education until I started digging in. But I was right about b).

The U.S. (selectively) prides itself on being a multicultural melting pot that shook off the chains of European aristocracy, but has time and again chosen to preserve its racial and class hierarchy instead of integrating and lifting up all communities. And it’s not a clean slow arc towards progress; the current state of our country should have disabused anyone of that fantasy by now. What’s endlessly painful and frustrating about learning our history is how we, as a collective, refuse to learn our true past and learn from it. 

On my library’s ebook site, there’s a young adult chapter book by Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House) about the Salem witch trials, so I had to read it during Halloween season. It was practically a template for the current witch-hunt against the LGBTQ community, particularly against trans youth and communities that support them. 

I’m not into MSNBC (we have enough smug liberals in Madison), but Rachel Maddow’s podcast Ultra, about U.S. Senators and Congressmen colluding with literal Nazis to spread fascist propaganda, is a little too relevant right now. 

One of the many reasons podcasts like You’re Wrong About and Maintenance Phase have exploded in popularity is because they illustrate how the nonsense moral panics of our time are echoes of moral panics past, some going as far back as the Greeks (“kids these days”).

These understudied and misremembered pasts dangerously open the door to nostalgia animating and narrowing our decisions. The far-right vote for politicians who promise to “Make America Great Again.” Right-wing women romanticize the “trad wife” and strict gender norms, never thinking maybe there were good reasons women fought to no longer be dependent on men. Centrists and even liberals cling to an unsustainable, car-centric, suburban lifestyle. And some leftists, in their nostalgia for the fights for human rights, see those movements as an inevitable curve in the “long arc of history,” not movements that require planning, organizing, and sustained action when they face setbacks. 

Maybe this is a case of a hammer seeing a room full of nails—I love history, so how convenient is my takeaway that we need to dig into our history? But I genuinely believe that by seeing where we’ve been and what lessons were learned, we could break out of the grips of nostalgia and our almost cyclical moral panics. There is no storied past to return to, even if we wanted. There are many ways to move forward and I, for one, would like to stop walking in circles.

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