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Episode 5: Us vs. Them

Politics in Wisconsin, and in the nation, often boils down to an “us vs. them" mentality. But how did we get here, and what’s keeping politics polarized?

This is Swing State of the Union, a podcast all about why Wisconsin is so important to U.S. politics.

Today, we're looking at polarization. We'll explore how communities became more divided along political lines and how politicians have become more divided over time.

In some ways, political divisions have always been present in Wisconsin, but over the last few decades these divides have become more pronounced. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but we'll start with the topic covered in episode 3: deindustrialization and the loss of unionized jobs in Wisconsin.

Starting in the late 1970s, Wisconsin lost 10,000s of unionized factory jobs that had once held up its middle class. As these jobs left small towns and cities throughout the state, new socioeconomic divisions were taking shape.

Kathryn Dudley is an anthropologist and the author of End of the Line, a book that explores what happened when Chrysler announced that it would stop building cars at its Kenosha plants. The book explores how different groups responded to the announcement. For union workers at the plants, this loss was often devastating. But there were some in the community who saw the loss of these jobs as a kind of perverse justice that blue collar workers were returning to their rightful class.

“This notion that, you know, if you don't get a college degree, that your contribution to the economy, to the society is not as valuable as somebody who does. You know, if I were to characterize in a nutshell the way many outside of the blue collar and in particular the, you know, the unionized workforce at the motors, it would be that sense of, you know, comeuppance, they're finally getting what they deserve, they didn't deserve to be earning as much as they were,” Dudley says.

For some, these divisions marked a clear line in the sand between two sides that only grew over time.

The unions historically had a close association with the Democratic Party, but as their promises of a better life with better wages faded away, workers who were left behind were looking for answers.

“You know, other people are telling you you're to blame for what happened and some part of you knows that's not true. So there's, you know, that search for another explanation for what's happening. That really has shaped the kind of political reaction that we're seeing that pits a kind of patriotism, a certain kind of critique of the government, of liberals, of elites. And that figuration of the, you know, socioeconomic class divide as we know really does shape the kind of politics that has emerged,” Dudley says.

At the same time, new media was emerging that was built to critique establishment politics: conservative talk radio.

In 1987, the same year as the Chrysler layoffs in Kenosha, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed.

The Fairness Doctrine was an FCC policy from 1949 that required broadcasters to present issues in a way that fairly reflected opposing viewpoints. Its repeal meant that people didn't have to hear both sides of an issue if they didn't want to.

This led to an explosion in conservative talk radio, personified nationally by people like Rush Limbaugh.

The format took off in Wisconsin and Charlie Sykes at WTMJ in Milwaukee was one of the most prominent voices. When Sykes started in 1992, he says he felt shows like his were meant to be consumed as part of a balanced media diet.

“The assumption every day when you would come on the air was that everybody was exposed to other points of view that the dominant media voices were out there. We had a shared experience. There were only three networks. There was no Fox News out there. I really did think that this was going to be a different way of presenting and talking about ideas, at least in the early 1990s,” Sykes says.

But within a couple of years, Sykes and the nation would see the political impact of his medium.

“One of the turning points, obviously, was the 1994 election when Republicans took control of Congress and a lot of people said it's because of this new thing out there -- talk radio. And that was the first time I think people said, ‘Wow, this can actually make a difference. This is not just sort of, you know, off in the corner of the media. It actually can have an impact.’ So that was clearly a turning point and it was a turning point in Wisconsin as well,” Sykes says.

After the 1994 election that Sykes mentioned, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a hardline stance against Democratic President Bill Clinton, shutting down the government multiple times and voting to impeach Clinton on a party-line vote. Fox News was founded in 1996 by a longtime Republican media consultant and within a few years was the top news channel in the country.

For Barry Burden, professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison, all of these factors set the stage for the kind of polarized politics that was cemented after the 2000 presidential election.

“It was really in the ‘90s I think that it began to take hold at the end of the Clinton years, after Republicans had won control of Congress for the first time, as cable TV and new media became part of the environment and the messaging people were getting, the internet, you know, becomes part of that too. There's just a lot of things coming together around 2000, including that controversial 2000 presidential election in Florida, and put us on a path that we're still experiencing,” Burden says.

But as time went on, Sykes realized his show wasn't being consumed alongside opposing viewpoints like he originally thought it would. Instead, he and others helped create a silo where disinformation flourished. He describes how his community's inclination to believe falsehoods increased throughout his 24 years on air.

“When somebody would forward an email with some, you know, wild story about, you know, the Clinton family or whatever, I would often push back and write back and say, ‘Hey, you know what you can disagree with them on politics but I think it's important you know that story is not true, and here's a piece from, say, The Washington Post or NPR or whatever.’ And people, for most of that 20 years, would say, ‘Hey, OK, well, thank you for doing that. I won't forward Uncle Otto's emails anymore. I appreciate that.’ But that began to change by the end of my radio career as these new alternative realities became more and more difficult to penetrate. So that by mid-2016 when you would get a bizarre story and I would push back against them, people would say, ‘Well, yeah, I don't believe that because it comes from the left wing media,’” Sykes says.

As conservative talk radio grew, it helped drive political parties further apart. For decades, Wisconsin typically had a split government, where both Democrats and Republicans held sway over the state and lawmakers had to work across the aisle to get anything done.

“You didn't have this kind of us versus them mentality that was just baked into every single issue. You had a much more complicated political structure here and, of course, that began to change. And I think probably you can go back to, you know, the early 2000s and you know, post-2010 for when that became really intensely divided. And I was certainly part of that,” Sykes says.

Two things happened after the 2010 elections that would make political polarization the norm in Wisconsin and ensure that it would stay that way for the foreseeable future: Act 10 and gerrymandered maps.

The 2010 election saw Republicans win all over the nation, two years after Barack Obama and the Democrats took control of the White House and Congress. Within months of taking office, new Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led Legislature passed Act 10, a landmark measure that stripped nearly all collective bargaining rights from public sector workers, like teachers.

But for some, Act 10 was also a symbolic victory for workers who had been left behind by a changing economy and wanted to see perceived liberal elites taken down a peg.

UW-Madison political scientist Kathy Cramer says she saw this us versus them mentality firsthand while researching her book, The Politics of Resentment.

“For many people, there had been for some time a sentiment that public employees had it really good in the state, and that in a lot of these smaller communities around the state, they were the ones who had pensions, who had health care and on average in smaller places in the state had higher salaries than other workers. And so people have this feeling of, you know, it's really hard to make ends meet in my community. And people would say things like, ‘You know, I can't pay my medical bills. I certainly can't afford a dentist. And yet I'm being asked to pay higher taxes so that public employees have those benefits. How is that fair?’” Cramer says.

Patrick Marley, who covered Wisconsin state government for 18 years for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saw Act 10 as a political inflection point.

“Wisconsin got a very early look at the intensifying polarization of the country, where it was neighbor against neighbor. Family members were split up. You had, you know, people not talking at Thanksgiving dinner and ending Facebook friendships and that really, I think, showed us how cemented political views had become and how intensely personal politics had become,” Marley says.

The divide was further cemented when Republicans created gerrymandered maps to solidify their control of the state Legislature for at least a decade.

David Daley is the author of Ratfucked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy. It explores the plan to gerrymander district maps in key swing states known as Project REDMAP. He joins us to explain how REDMAP completely changed the landscape of American democracy and heightened political polarization, especially here in Wisconsin.

Joy Powers: We're going to start with a really open question here, but how do you describe gerrymandering?

David Daley: Gerrymandering is the oldest political trick in the book, and it allows politicians to choose their own voters, to draw their own districts and it takes that power away from the people who should have it -- who are the voters.

Sam Woods: So gerrymandering has a long history. But how did gerrymandering, or at least the ability to gerrymander with such precision as it is done today, evolved during the 2000s?

Daley: We've had gerrymandering for as long as we've had politicians and it's been an evil in our politics for that entire time. But what happened in 2010 really is a story of gerrymandering on steroids. It's a story of what happens when the will of politicians to hold power collides with new technology, with big data and with a changing demographics of a multiracial nation. And all of this together really gives Republicans the impetus to go ahead and try to use redistricting as a very different kind of political tool in 2010, really, a blunt force weapon. But they were able to turn redistricting into that kind of blunt force weapon because of the new precision power of the technology that had come online that allowed mapmakers to draw these districts that were essentially unbeatable for a decade to come. By combining these new software programs like Maptitude, which was used in Wisconsin, a super high-tech program so granular allows you to just zero in house by house with the data attached to that, of knowing who lives in all of those houses, which elections they voted in overtime maybe matching that up to the magazine subscriptions that you've bought. Do you have a hunting license in the state of Wisconsin? Armed with that kind of information, mapmakers can go up and down the streets and choose precisely who they want in these districts and who they want on the other side. Politics are no longer responsive to the people. Elections no longer matter. And it really handed over control of the state to the people who had mapped it for an entire decade.

Powers: So let's dig in a bit to Project REDMAP. What were the targets of this overall operation?

Daley: Project REDMAP was perhaps the most important political strategy of our lifetimes, and I don't think you can understand modern American politics without understanding what REDMAP created. REDMAP stands for the Redistricting Majority Project. It was the brainchild of a Republican strategist named Chris Jankowski, who worked at something called the Republican State Legislative Committee, and Jankowski came out of state politics. He understood the importance of state politics at a time in which most consultants of both parties wanted to play at the national level. They liked the bright lights, big city of presidential politics or big Senate campaigns. Jankowski liked the nuts and bolts of what you could do in a state Legislature. And after the 2008 election, in which Barack Obama takes the White House the nation's first Black president, Democrats win a super majority in the U.S. Senate, that's hard to believe now, but it's true, and Democrats win big numbers in the U.S. House and state Houses around the country. And if you go back and if you look at the TV coverage of that night, you see the smartest minds in American politics on both sides of the aisle talking about how the multiracial coalition that Obama built was going to become the dominant force in American politics for a generation, that Republicans could be on the outs for cycle after cycle to come. And what Chris Jankowski realized not that night, but really soon thereafter, was that as important, as historical as the 2008 election had been, the 2010 election held the possibility of being much more consequential because it was a census year. And what follows the census, but redistricting. And that if you could run a political strategy that won back every seat at the table in the most important states around the country, you could draw maps that remade the politics of all of those states. So REDMAP with the help of about $30 million in donations from a lot of big corporations, there's a little bit of Koch money involved, some dark money that's made possible after the Citizens United decision earlier in 2010. Really, it becomes a strategy targeted at flipping as many state legislative chambers around the country in swing states -- Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Indiana, Alabama, which was under Democratic control at the time -- and by winning about 107 state legislative races in 17 states, Republicans realized that they would have the power to draw a huge majority of the U.S. House, as well as all of those state legislative maps. It was going to be a massive advantage in a changing nation and what they understood was that the power to draw the lines gave them the power to try to hold back the changing demographic and political waves of a changing nation.

Woods: And so what did the redistricting process look like in Wisconsin, and how does it compare to those other states that were part of Project REDMAP?

Daley: Wisconsin drew its maps behind closed doors under a veil of secrecy with the help of massive supercomputers and the most precise datasets that had ever been available to mapmakers in our history. The mapmakers retreated across the street from the state Capitol in Madison to a closed door, set of rooms in the Michael Best Law Offices. They had a handful of operatives and computer whizzes draw the state legislative maps that were the most precise and dramatic Republica- performing districts that you would see in decades in the state of Wisconsin. But this really matched the process that you would see elsewhere. And what happened throughout the states in which REDMAP gave Republicans control was really that Republicans moved to seize the spoils of it and the maps that they drew in 2011 stood the test of an entire decade in Wisconsin, in Florida, in North Carolina, in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in Michigan. And it did not matter which party won more votes, the results had been wired. The only election that mattered throughout the 2010s in any of these states was the election in 2010.

Powers: So we've talked around this a bit, but how has gerrymandering affected what representation looks like in Wisconsin? Because as you mentioned, we used to have elections that would often flip the Legislature, both the House and the Senate. How has that representation been affected in the years since the 2010 redistricting process?

Daley: Really, all you have to do is look at the results of those elections. 2018 is probably the most clear example of the power of these lines. It's a big democratic year in the state of Wisconsin, as it was around the country. You get a Democratic governor, you get Democratic statewide candidates at every level. You see the reelection of Tammy Baldwin. Democratic candidates for the state Assembly win somewhere between 199,000 to 203,000 more votes than Republican candidates, And yet Republicans hold 65 of the 99 seats. So this is the power of redistricting, and I think the power of redistricting has become brilliantly clear to everybody who lives in the state of Wisconsin because you've seen the impact on public policy. Sometimes nationally, however, people think of gerrymandering as just sort of a partisan game. And I think what you've seen in Wisconsin is the real-life effects of what happens in a state when elections no longer matter and can no longer bring about change, and when politicians no longer fear consequences at the ballot box. These turn into the kind of legislators who feel so invulnerable, so immune to the people that they can gavel in and gavel out of special sessions called to force action on issues like guns and reproductive rights, voting in the middle of a pandemic that have popular support, as shown by the Marquette Poll in the state of Wisconsin. And that is really dangerous, that I would say is terrifying. And I wonder how we would cover this same story if it happened in another country.

That was David Daley, the author of Ratfucked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy.

But that's not the end of the story. Since Wisconsin's gerrymandered maps were passed in 2011 Wisconsinites have continued to fight against them. There have been multiple court challenges and it's even made it as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. But the maps remained until recently. Republicans started feeling the pressure to compromise on new maps after another lawsuit made it to a newly liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The court rejected the old gerrymandered maps and ordered new ones to be drawn. For the first time in decades, apolitically divided government was able to pass new district maps in Wisconsin, even if it was done under duress.

John Johnson, a research fellow at Marquette Law School's Lubar Center, explains why Democratic Gov. Tony Evers maps were chosen.

“Fearing what the court might choose, the Republican leadership in the Legislature looked at the proposals before the court and realized that for a couple different reasons, the plan that Gov. Evers himself had submitted was probably a little bit better for them than the other maps or some of the other maps that the court was considering, and so they actually passed Evers map straight up,” Johnson says.

With new maps in place for elections this fall, Democrats are likely to win back some of the power they lost under GOP gerrymandered maps. And maybe that spirit of cooperation will extend to the next Legislature as elections become more competitive, we could see politicians who are more responsive to the needs of their voters and less interested in partisan fights.

For author David Daley, the state Supreme Court ruling heralded the return of American ideals to the Badger State.

“It potentially gives Wisconsin a chance to take its democracy back. Once voters have fair maps and once voters are able to make their voices heard again, elections become responsive to the will of the people and the party that has the most support and best made its case,” Daley says.

The new maps put Democrats and Republicans on a relatively even playing field. But although the maps make representation more in line with the electorate, most districts will remain reliably Democratic or Republican.

Johnson explains: “The number of seats where I'm genuinely like uhh, pretty reasonable chance either party could win. It's not a large number of seats, it's maybe 8, 6, you know, depending on where you draw the line. But now the candidate who wins that seat, that set of candidates, they'll determine who controls a majority of the Assembly. And so while the number of competitive seats is not greatly higher than it used to be, the consequence of who wins those seats is dramatically more important.”

And that makes sense. Although Wisconsin once had more purple areas, voters, like politicians, have become more predictable as they've become more polarized.

But some are seeking solutions to this problem. Braver Angels is an organization that addresses political polarization with workshops, town halls and other events across the country. For Gabbi Timmis, Braver Angels’ communications director, addressing polarization is necessary to address other policy issues.

“Political polarization is the problem that gets in our way of solving all other problems. If you care about the environment, you have to deal with political polarization. If you care about abortion, you have to deal with, you know, political polarization. It is just something that has crept into every single part of our politics,” Timmis says.

To help combat political polarization, Braver Angels is holding its own political convention this summer in Kenosha, hoping to take its message to the places that need it most — the RNC in Milwaukee and the DNC in Chicago.

“We've been calling it the summer of three conventions, so we will be doing some programming around those two other conventions to really be the pushing, you know, the two parties to be thinking about political polarization as a policy issue,” Timmis says.

Political polarization doesn't have one cause. In Wisconsin, it's been fueled by economic grievances, media silos and gerrymandered maps that incentivize politicians to take hard line stances. But time will tell if communities can mend the divides that keep us from moving forward together.

Political polarization has led to a lot of changes in the parties, and these partisan divides have made for big changes in how the parties behave.

On the next episode of Swing State of the Union, we'll explore changes in Wisconsin party politics and the impact the RNC will have on its host city.

“In the aftermath of the insurrection on January 6, you know, these are our first conventions since then and so certainly possible that people are concerned that some of the elements and groups and individuals who showed up at the Capitol that day could come to a convention to again lend their support for a candidate and show their support for a party. But that remains to be seen,” says Kathleen Dolan, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political science professor.

It's party time, next time on Swing State of the Union.

"Swing State of the Union" is produced by WUWM, Milwaukee’s NPR — a part of the NPR Network. Please subscribe to the "Swing State of the Union" podcast wherever you like to listen.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.