Progress in Wisconsin, But Toxic Politics Linger
I know everyone wants to spin the results in Wisconsin but this is ridiculous. I'm obviously not an expert on Wisconsin elections and I don't dispute that it is disappointing to fall one seat short of taking control of the state Senate there. I also don't dispute that the two seats that we won were relatively easy pickings, under the circumstances. But it's also impossible to call this a huge loss for unions. And to write the following without making any reference to the tens of millions of dollars the Republicans poured into the state is an assault on reason:
"The people" were supposed to be on the side of the unions who protested at the state capitol when Walker's bill passed, limiting the unions' collective bargaining privileges against taxpayers and school districts. But it turns out that "the people" had other ideas. In the end, even a massive infusion of cash and union volunteers was not enough to deliver the three state Senate recall races the unions needed, despite the fact that President Obama carried all six of the seats in question in 2008.
For a while last night it looked like the Democrats might get their three seats by beating state Sen. Alberta Darling. Sen. Darling set a national record for most money raised for a state Senate election. And that doesn't even include the money from outside groups.
In any case, the Walker budget passed through the Senate on an 18-15 vote, with one Republican dissenting. With the Senate now split 17-16, it's not clear that Walker can still ram home anything he wants. The Democrats came up a little short, but they improved their situation in a meaningful way.
The one thing we ought to consider is the toxicity level of our politics.
A review of ads posted on the “Ad Watch” section of WisPolitics.com reveals the toxicity. Of the 31 recall-related ads posted on the site between July 12 and July 29, all but eight are entirely or primarily attack ads. Some don’t even mention the names of the candidates they actually support, just the ones they oppose.
Of the remaining ads, just two don’t disparage a candidate, one for state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Allouez, and one for Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie.
Dhavan Shah, a professor of mass communication and political science at UW-Madison, laments that quiet, mostly local elections have become “major television campaigns” driven largely by outside groups. (Only a third of the ads mentioned above were issued by candidates’ campaigns.)
But what really troubles Shah is the “viciousness” of the ads. “It’s really gotten pretty ugly pretty quickly,” he notes. “I’m dispirited about the possibility of a more civil discourse.”
Shah is not talking just about negative campaign messages but about “the broader climate of political polarization,” on the state and federal level. He thinks the nastiness of political campaigns has repercussions beyond the elections.
“That anger doesn’t dissipate,” he says. “It stays with people. The climate of the campaigns spills over into day-to-day political behavior.”
Now that is something truly dangerous.
Most dedicated Democrats are pleased that the Democratic Party stood its ground in Wisconsin and fought with every tool at their disposal. Unfortunately, the possibility of a return to civil discourse is not what is called for when the Republicans are trying to radically change the rights and benefits we've earned over last century.