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Episode 6: It's party time

Vote Republican and vote Democrat yard signs

Party politics dominates, both in Wisconsin and nationally. But what has that meant for our state, and what happens when the Republican party comes to Milwaukee this summer?

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

Today, we're talking about party politics, specifically how they've changed over the last few decades and the RNC in Milwaukee. In this episode, we're really going to focus on the two major U.S. parties, Democrats and Republicans, but we'll start here: What is a political party?

Political parties are really just organized groups of people seeking political power. They tend to have shared ideologies and approaches to politics, but these principles tend to shift and evolve over time. As we've seen here in the U.S. Founded in 1828, the Democratic Party is the oldest continuous political party in the world. But although the party has survived nearly two centuries, its ideology has changed drastically. The early Democratic Party championed states’ rights, individual rights and believed in smaller government, opposing public schools and banking reform.

The Republican Party came around a few decades later. It was founded by antislavery activists in Ripon, WI, and believed that the federal government should have a greater hand in banking and creating infrastructure like trains and roads. But these ideologies have continually shifted over time. By the 1960s and the passage of the civil rights act by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, many of the core beliefs of each party had changed so much that they had essentially flipped. In the following decades the parties would attempt to redefine themselves.

By the time we get to the 1980s, when Republican Dale Schultz and Democrat Mordecai Lee were in the Wisconsin Assembly, these ideological lines were blurred. Schultz was first elected to the Assembly in 1982, where he served until his election to the Wisconsin Senate in 1991. He explains what the legislature was like when he first started working there.

“It was a very big place with a lot of motivated, talented people and I was sort of stunned by the variety of viewpoints that people had that was an outgrowth of who they were as an individual in the areas that they represent,” says Schultz.

Working across the aisle wasn't just commonplace. It was often necessary. Before 2011, the legislature would regularly shift between Republican or Democratic control. Elections were closely contested, and politicians were incentivized to be more moderate to appeal to more of the electorate. For Republican Schultz, this was an environment that spoke to his political beliefs.

“That intersection, between people of various viewpoints is where I really did my best work and where I sort of saw myself. Many people these days strive to be the most extreme in terms of policy or viewpoints that they can be. That was never me. I always thought that in the process I had the opportunity to teach people and to be taught,” says Schultz.

That experience was shared by Mordecai Lee, who was first elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1976. Lee served in the legislature as a Democratic representative and then as a senator until 1989. He's now a professor emeritus at UW-Milwaukee, and he joins us to share his experience and explore how politics has changed since his time in office.

Joy Powers: I think now people view themselves as either a Democrat or a Republican and view these two parties as being pretty diametrically opposed. What was it like when you first entered politics?

Mordecai Lee: It was a different world. The members of the State Assembly who were Democrats, ranged from very Conservative pro-lifers to very liberal pro-choicers. On the Republican side it was exactly the same. You had pro-choice moderate Republicans all the way to very conservative or pro-life Republicans. We had the heterogeneity of really Wisconsin society. There rarely was such a thing as a party line vote or a partisan vote, because inevitably there were some Democrats who chose to take a Republican position. And there were some Republicans who chose to take a democratic position. In other words, in those days, the parties were what Ronald Reagan called a big tent. There was lots of room for lots of people. You really had to identify who were the people who agreed with you regardless of party. Because of that for example, when I chaired a committee, I prided myself that almost all the bills that came out of the committee passed by unanimous vote and that again is sort of hard to think of nowadays. But unanimous vote wasn't necessarily that nobody was thinking about it. It was that people were upfront about, well, here's the part of the bill I like and here's a part of the bill I don't like. And then we'd have conversations, whether one-on-one or in a formal committee meeting: “Well, what would it take for you to come on board? What is the amendment that would make you feel comfortable with this bill that make you feel able to defend that bill in front of your constituents?” And invariably we could find that middle ground because in those days the cultural difference from today is that compromise was not a dirty word. In other words, if I get half a loaf, and if you get half a loaf, we both walk away, sort of satisfied and sort of dissatisfied and so.

Sam Woods: How did the parties evolve overtime?

Lee: Over my adult lifetime, after I left politics, we saw politics get more partisan in the sense of that the Republican Party was the Conservative pro-life Party and the Democratic Party was the Liberal pro-choice Party, and that a pro-life Democrat would not feel at home in the Democratic Party and a pro-choice Republican would not feel at home in the Republican Party. Now the negative development of this sort of increased partisans' nation was not only starting to demonize the other side, in other words, we're from such and such a party, and those people from the other party, they're the enemy. They're the devil. They want to destroy the Wisconsin culture that we know and love. I mean, we're talking about very, very heated. With that kind of demonization and that kind of ideological purity in both parties, the word compromise became a dirty word because to compromise was to be a sellout. To compromise was to give up on your principles. And so increasingly, one sees in Wisconsin politics up to this day, party line votes on absolutely everything in the State Legislature, and similarly in Washington. It's almost like they don't even need to be there on the floor of the State Legislature because the debate has no function. Amendments have no function, and the predictable outcome is the only thing that matters. And so, in a sense, why schlepp to Madison? For the sake of a preordained outcome, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat.

Powers: At the same time, it does seem as though if you are someone who has a couple positions that maybe don't fit with the Republicans or a couple positions that don't fit with the Democrats, you kind of have to bend your own feelings in order to fit into one box or the other because there's very little room in the middle for you.

Lee: There's no doubt that the phenomenon of our lifetime is the disappearance of swing voters here in Wisconsin. You know, when we have elections for President, the last two elections were President and three million to three and a half million Wisconsin let's vote and in 2020, 20,000 decided we'd go Democratic and four years before that, 20,000 decided we'd go Republican. That shows you how fixed the camps are, and one of my concerns is that the way partisan politics plays out, according to Wisconsin election laws, is that primaries where the voters decide who's going to be the nominee of the Republican Party and who's going to be the nominee for that district from the Democratic Party. Partisan elections in Wisconsin aren't working because we know that in a general election, whether it's a partisan office or a nonpartisan office. Majority rules. Sooner or later somebody's gonna get a majority.

Lee: Now it might be by a sliver of a percent, but it would more than the other person. The problem with partisan primaries like we're going to have in August here in Wisconsin is that the winner of the party's nomination, whether it's the Democratic primary or the Republican primary is not chosen by the majority of the voters, is simply the person who got a plurality of the votes. So, let's say there are five people running for the Republican nomination for X or the Democratic nomination for X. Well, the winner of the primary is the person who got more votes than the other 4 candidates. And the winner of the primary might have gotten, gosh, 30% of the votes, 35% of the votes, but that would be more than anybody else. So, suddenly the 30 percenter is the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee and in the one party district, they'll win in November, and they'll go to Madison. And to whom will they owe their loyalty? They’ll owe their loyalty to the 30% of the people who voted in that party's primary in August. And then that becomes the appeal of going for the far right in a Republican primary and the far left in the Democratic primary. And so there are. There are no moderates anymore. Being a moderate means, you lose your primary and you lose the general election.

This perception that the two parties have moved farther to each side is borne out in the numbers. Charles Franklin is the director of the Marquette Law School poll, and he explains what partisan voting patterns look like today.

“If you look at the votes on legislation in the House of Representatives or the Senate as recently as the 1980s and early 90s, there was a fairly sizable group of more conservative Democrats and more liberal Republicans, so that they overlapped in the middle. And that was the sort of natural moderate coalition that was necessarily bipartisan. That number of overlapping legislators has decreased steadily since the early 90s to the point today, where there's virtually no overlap at all between the parties in their legislative voting records,” says Franklin.

And there are a couple of reasons for these partisan voting trends.

In the 1980s, as the parties were becoming more steadfast in their ideological beliefs nationally, there was another shift happening. Phil Rocco and associate professor of political science at Marquette explains that parties used to have a hierarchical structure that determined who had power, that began to shift because of the influence of outside interest groups.

“What happened really, after the reforms of both parties presidential nominating processes, you begin to see primary elections replacing traditional party organizations in the way that presidential candidates are chosen. And you also see the emergence of national networks of interest groups that begin to dominate the way that party organizations kind of form their program,” says Rocco.

Rocco says these national interest groups began to see the states as proving grounds for policies they wanted to see enacted. Wisconsin, a state that has traditionally experimented with new political ideas, was the perfect place for that.

“States become part of a national network of institutions where you can begin to plan your policy strategy. You want to experiment with something in one state. You can introduce a model piece of legislation in that state, see how it goes, and then you know, try to carry it elsewhere. And that's you see organizations on the political right, like the American Legislative Exchange Council or Alec, that is by the, you know, early 1980s, that is really kind of the way that they're shaping their strategy,” says Rocco.

After a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, interest groups gained even more influence.

The ruling in Citizens United, the Federal Election Commission, reversed century old campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections, while wealthy donors, corporations and special interest groups have long had an outsized influence in elections, Citizens United has dramatically expanded that sway. This approach to politics meant that states’ unique needs were no longer being considered. According to Rocco, they merely became a means to end.

"When states are merely units in a kind of national strategic network where you're trying to build kind of a map of the country that looks like your parties kind of wishes or ambitions. I think a lot about what makes the state distinctive and even the issues that are kind of unique to the state that people care about there. I think that they can recede a little bit from our consciousness. It doesn't mean that they recede in, in their actual practical importance in our lives,” says Rocco.

As the focus of the parties has become more centralized around a national strategy, the messaging has become similarly standardized. On the right, groups like Alec will even draft up legislation for politicians to ensure their messaging maintains the party line. Jr. Ross, editor of with politics.com, watched this shift happen during his time covering politics in Wisconsin.

“If there is a speech or an event or the budget, we will get releases from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and you can see common themes from all the Republican ones or all the democratic ones saying hit certain points because they want us to have a unified message,” says Ross.

At the same time, each side has sought to make a clear line in the sand between their beliefs, and Ross says more extreme positions can actually be beneficial to candidates and politicians who rely on donations.

“Through the rise of social media people who get a lot of attention get a lot of donations because they generate buzz. Marjorie Taylor Green from Georgia, the congresswoman. She is somebody who's quite vocal. Maybe not a way that people like, but it gets attention. And when you get attention, people will give you money. It helps bring in the donations. And by the way that encourages you to be more, let's say, colorful. The more outrageous you're behave, the more attention you get, more attention you get, the more money you make.

For old School Republicans like Dale Schultz, the shift away from moderate politics toward more extreme views was too much to bear. He left the Wisconsin Legislature in 2015 after deciding not to seek reelection. He felt the party had changed, and he had not, although he still considers himself a Republican, he doesn't see much of what attracted him to the party more than 50 years ago.

“The blunt reality is, I think the Republican Party that I knew and loved the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Tommy Thompson, is all but gone. And it saddens me a great deal. And it's been replaced by Trumpism, or MAGAism. And that really has almost nothing in common with the viewpoints and ideals and policies that I sort of grew up with in the Republican Party,” says Schultz.

And part of that change could be the electorate itself. Both Schultz and Democrat Mordecai Lee say they were inspired to get into politics as kids because their families prioritized civic engagement.

Lee explains, “Gradually, I'm not even sure why the definition of political involvement got narrower and narrower, to the point that it's almost like the only role for an individual citizen is to go vote on Election Day, not be a member of a party, not be active in a party, not go to campaign events, not go a neighbor is holding a coffee for a candidate, not going to meet the candidate and ask them face to face with their views are. It's this narrowing of what it means to be a member of democracy.”

It's impossible to know what the future holds for these parties, as the priorities of political parties tend to continually shift.

This summer, both major parties will hold national conventions where they'll solidify their party platforms. Democrats in Chicago and Republicans in Milwaukee. Coming up, we'll explore modern party conventions and what the RNC could bring to Milwaukee.

Political conventions have a long history in American politics. Starting in 1832, conventions have been how a political party officially nominates their candidate for president. When they first began, these conventions were not open to the public and consisted of party bosses from all over the country convening in a city and secretly settling on a candidate for president. Imagine a crowded ballroom of men shouting at each other. Endless roll calls without air conditioning to cut the summer heat, all in an effort to figure out who voters outside that room would accept as their next president.

But the Progressive Party, rooted in Wisconsin, changed the conventions function by introducing the direct primary. Kathleen Dolan, distinguished professor of political science at UW-Milwaukee, explains why the progressives favored the direct primary over the insular, secretive process of the convention.

“The progressives were asking, you know, why do those people get to choose the candidates for President or governor or mayor or what have you? Why can't the people? Why shouldn't the people do it? So, the move to using direct primary elections to choose nominees was considered to be, you know, a bit of direct democracy in our system by presenting any number of candidates for a particular nomination and then allowing the voters to choose,” says Dolan.

Today, the presidential primary has made it so that in most cases by the time the Republican or Democratic National Convention rolls around, we know who the nominee will be. But Dolan notes that these conventions still have a function generating buzz.

“So, the Convention itself, and it's still in its televised format, really becomes a massive public relations campaign where the party is presenting to the general public its candidate for president and vice president, any number of speakers. You know, party leaders and other candidates for offices and other party officials. And it's an opportunity to really have sort of uninterrupted time and uninterrupted access perhaps to the eyeballs watching the Convention that is hopefully from the party's perspective and attempt to inform people, but also to mobilize them to get them excited, to get them onboard. So, in their modern form, I think you can think about the conventions as a sort of massive public relations and information mechanism,” says Dolan.

In theory, it makes sense for Republicans to choose Milwaukee as Ground Zero of this PR campaign, given that Wisconsin is one of only a handful of swing states. But Dolan notes that having a convention in Wisconsin won't necessarily boost the chances of Republicans winning the state in November.

“The RNC being here isn't going to materially increase the likelihood that Wisconsin votes for the Republican candidate for president in any way that's identifiable to the location of the convention. And it really is much more playing to a national audience. So, the idea that the conventions presence will have an impact on, you know, say a U.S. Senate race or a house race or something like that, there's really just not evidence that that has any real impact at all,” says Dolan.

But some see the RNC as an opportunity for Milwaukee to shine on the international stage. When the Republican National Committee announced that they be bringing the Convention to Milwaukee, then Chair Ronna McDaniel said the event would not only highlight the candidate, but the city.

“We are so excited. I'm personally so excited to go to Milwaukee for our convention. In the next two years we look forward to working with the mayor and everyone in the community to make this an event that not only highlights the RNC and our nominee for 2024, but highlights the great city that Milwaukee is. We're committed to using vendors and being Part of this community in a in a positive way that's going to be beneficial for everyone because everyone's going to want to come to Milwaukee after this convention,” says McDaniel.

And Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson is on the same page. He is a Democrat but said the decision was not about partisan politics but about bringing money into the city and showing a national audience that Milwaukee can host big events in the future.

“Winning the second presidential nominating contest in as many presidential cycles just shows the fact that people are starting to pay attention to Milwaukee. But of course, we didn't have the opportunity to fully execute the Democratic National Convention. Now we're having the opportunity to execute the Republican National Convention and when convention goers come here when the event actually happens, I think it will open up the eyes of the country and the world to this best kept secret in the Midwest that is Milwaukee,” Johnson.

The exact financial impact of the event is debated, with Johnson and the city's tourism Bureau touting a $200 million financial impact. While some economists estimate it could be closer to $150 million or even as low as $55 million.

It's also unclear if this economic impact will be felt in the long term. A 2009 study found that money from political conventions hasn’t led to wage increases or any long-term impact on employment in their host cities. But beyond the immediate financial impact from Milwaukee to be seen as a destination for big events in the future, the RNC must run smoothly, and that's not guaranteed.

Milwaukee is a heavily Democratic city and has been demonized by state Republicans, as we've explored in earlier episodes. Locals have been concerned about what the influx of Republican visitors could mean for their safety as Dolan notes that fear stems from recent history.

“In the aftermath of the insurrection on January 6th, you know, these are our first convention since then and so, you know, it's 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 Dolan.

Omar Flores is one of those concerned by what the RNC might bring to Milwaukee, he is the co-chair of the Coalition to March on the RNC.

“We just had some news from Chicago that I guess there's nine police officers there that are members of the organization, that Oath Keepers, they're like a right-wing extremist organization and, you know, Milwaukee PD has an agreement with Chicago Police Department to come up here and assist with the policing for the RNC. And so, you know, you literally have people that are in these extremist groups that we've had bad experiences within the past. That are also a part of the police force,” says Flores.

The RNC and the City of Milwaukee have designated a “Free Speech” zone where protesters are allowed to speak after securing a permit. The zone is within a small park about 1/4 mile from the Pfizer forum, where the RNC's main events will be held. Protesters that complete the registration process will be assigned strict time slots to speak. And the registration process is open to anyone. Flores explains how this setup could actually increase tensions.

“Let's say, you know, we have like 20 something different organizations that want to speak at our hen, this right winger decides that he wants to sign up for a slot. Like in between the 20 speakers that we have lined up for that day, that right winger would be able to come up and speak and say whatever it is that he wants to say and essentially create tension, create conflict, right? I mean, this could be anybody, right? I mean, this could be a Nazi for example. That would really increase tensions,” says Flores.

In late May, Gov. Tony Evers preemptively declared a state of emergency for the RNC. The Milwaukee Police Department reiterated its goal is to ensure a safe event in a statement after the state of emergency declaration, a department spokesperson said, “MPD's main priority is the safety of our community during the RNC, declaring a state of emergency is an action that has been used in the past, as was the case the 2016 RNC in Cleveland. MPD continues to work with our local, state and federal partners to ensure public safety.”

But beyond the fear of violence during the RNC, Flores is concerned with further militarization of the police after the RNC. The city received a $75 million grant for security spending for the event in the run up to the DNC in 2020, the city earmarked spending on munitions, a tactical gas delivery system and pepper spray for a scaled down DNC before the convention but in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protest. Flores says big events like these serve as a pretext for purchasing technology that could be used during the Convention or after.

“There's all this talk within progressive communities about what happens after the RNC. I think a really good parallel is a post Olympics in Atlanta. You know, I mean, there came a lot of police repression funding for this repression,” says Flores.

Still, Flores sees two sides to hosting the RNC in Milwaukee. On the one hand is the threat of violence and militarization of the police. But on the other is an opportunity to organize resistance. He is optimistic about the opportunity for those opposing the RNC's presence to do so peacefully and to continue organizing after the event has finished.

“Well, if it's up to us, we expect a fully family friendly march and we expect to unite a lot of different progressive forces here in Milwaukee and to be able to march unimpeded. And I guess what I would hope most of all, at least within the City of Milwaukee is that when people see us out there, they realize that they're not alone,” says Flores.

After July, we could find out if there's a lasting impact of Milwaukee hosting the RNC that could be and how people organize the way policing looks in Milwaukee or in how Wisconsin votes in November.

Wisconsin has always had dueling forces in politics, but there's no greater force than money. On the next episode, we'll explore how lobbyists and special interest groups have sought to reshape our democracy, especially over the last decade.

“They have about a billion dollars in assets and. They have to give 5% away each year, and so you're talking $50 million annually that they pump into the system.”

Money Talks, next time on Swing state of the Union.

If you're enjoying Swing State of the Union, join us for a live recording of the show in Milwaukee at No Studios on June 20th with a group of experts to talk all about Wisconsin politics and the RNC.

"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.

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