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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Challenges to Civility


There are plenty of adjectives you could use to describe Wisconsin’s political climate in 2011. Perhaps passionate or volatile.

The state is known for being evenly-split politically – purple - with independents often determining elections. But partisans have been zealous, even among family and friends, according to Jeri Bonavia, executive director of WAVE - the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort.

“These days, bring up the wrong topic whether it’s unions or whether it’s carrying guns in public, and suddenly the conversation becomes heated in a way that we haven’t seen in the past,” Bonavia says.

In today’s installment of Project Milwaukee: State of Upheaval, WUWM’s Marge Pitrof reports on challenges to civility.

The sides have remained unwavering. For instance, on the issue that catapulted Wisconsin into the national spotlight this year: public unions. The GOP insists the state is better off without them because they create entrenched special interests. Democrats continue expressing outrage that Wisconsin is slashing its public sector – the one that provides crucial societal services. When Governor Walker delivered his budget address in March, he seemed accepting of the unprecedented reaction his plan gutting unions provoked.

“Freedom thrives each time there is a passionate debate in our society. Passion and civility can go hand in hand, and that’s what’s on display here in Wisconsin,” Walker said.

It started with huge rallies at the Capitol. Then Democratic senators fled to Illinois to foil a vote on the governor’s plan, while remaining legislators exchanged warnings. Outside interests began filling the airwaves.

“This is Republican class warefare, an attack on the middle class, a battle we need to win,” according to an ad.

Today, partisans are expending energy - and sometimes insults, on recalls and lawsuits, insistent their ideology must prevail.

We asked participants in our Project Milwaukee series why they think Wisconsin has spun into the partisan stratosphere.

“What we’re seeing right now really is a trend that began 30 years ago. Democratic strongholds are becoming much more Democratic, and Republican strongholds, more Republican. The intensity of feelings is ratcheted up and people tend to gravitate toward the more extreme positions; it’s disturbing,” according to George Lightbourn, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

“That is what’s getting to the core of people, that’s really getting people to react - that all or nothing, no compromise. It’s a lack of respect for the other side,” said Lynda Jones, editor of the Milwaukee Courier.

“I think it’s rather tragic that it’s come to people now trying to fight for turf or (having) to be involved in protests, to be heard,” responded Karl Klessig, a dairy farmer from Cleveland, Wisconsin.

“There are issues that are so important, that people have to fight for them. You don’t want to fight dirty, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fight,” according to Karen Royster, an activist with the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future.

“And it's a vitally important debate – the size and scope of government,” said Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute for Public Policy.

“I think the problems we see, one side or the other is not going to fix them. It really takes everybody’s buy-in or nothing’s going to get done, and I’ve never seek discussions more polarized,” commented Sandra McLellan, associate scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute.

So what, if anything, might eventually calm Wisconsin’s ideological waters? A few people in Madison started trying a simple approach late last year, after the state flipped Republican. They invite conservatives and liberals to dinner once a month, to discuss why they hold their particular opinions. Self-described liberals, Katie Songer and Ron Dolen got the ball rolling a year ago.

“Scott Walker got elected, and we were wondering to ourselves, how did this happen? We don’t know anyone who voted for this guy. Katie emailed the Dane County Republican Party and asked them, could we meet with couple of conservatives and just to talk with them about their viewpoints so we can better understand half of our state,” Dolen said.

Scott and Carol Grabins accepted the invitation and the two couples met. Grabins says it felt like a blind date. Ron Dolen found himself pushed to the limit.

“I actually came home that night and I was beside myself because I had to bite my tongue for about two hours wanting to counter some of their viewpoints. But it was good to remain calm and just start the process of listening,” Dolen said.

As the four have become better acquainted, Dolen says they’re sometimes stunned to learn they agree on controversial issues. He now realizes the conservative couple feels badly the state is cutting his health insurance, but still prefers smaller government.

“Me, knowing Carol is from Guatemala, she has seen corrupt government at its worst - that helps to explain why she does not trust government even here in America and why she is a Tea Party member,” according to Dolen.

The key to civility is absorbing a person’s story, according to Carol Grabins.

“The moment you start shielding yourself behind a mob, behind social media and you do not approach an individual as a human being face to face, things blow out of proportion. You have misconceptions about the other person,” Grabins insisted.

Both Grabins and Ron Dolen admit though, their group does not confront the next difficult step - chiseling policies that satisfy everyone The process is time-consuming process, and in Wisconsin lately, voters appear impatient – probably because they’re concerned, according to Mordecai Lee, Professor of Governmental Affairs at UWM.

“The dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, the condition of government, led to people to say, I want to vote for an alternative, I want to try something different. Now the surprising thing is how quickly the voter shifted from November of ’08, which was a Democratic landslide, to November of ‘10, which was a Republican landslide. Are we entering an era of Wisconsin politics where the cycles are getting shorter and shorter," Lee asked.

The new batch of recalls attempts underway in Wisconsin could even abbreviate the current four-year cycle.

What the tumultuous year seems to have produced is more politically-engaged citizens, perhaps along with a silent share of politically-fatigued.