This is what democracy (without conversation) looks like.

The Progressive magazine’s Matt Rothschild recently visited Fort Atkinson to poll its residents about Tuesday’s recall election. Fort Atkinson is a town of about 13,000 between Madison and Milwaukee. Its biggest employer is health care; its crown jewel is the Fireside Dinner Theater, which draws an audience of older couples, families, and tour buses from nearly all of southeastern Wisconsin. The city went narrowly for Walker in 2010, giving him 52% of its 4,312 votes. Matt’s results are not heartening. He chatted with 15 people; 9 are planning to vote for Walker.


A few Walker supporters explained their intentions with vague anti-Barrett sentiments: “Barrett doesn’t really have any plans,” and “I don’t think Barrett would do a very good job with how he’s doing in Milwaukee.” Those speakers seem to devote to elections the same critical thinking they devote to cross-town football rivalries. Citizenship is about cheering for one team while bad-mouthing the other.

Other comments were more interesting. Consider these:

“I think these union people are getting too much money,” a middle-aged woman told me at the Stop-N-Go. “I grew up on a farm and did a lot of farm work. I never had benefits like them. Let’s even out the table.”

Brian Price, 52, said he is going to vote for Walker “pretty much because he’s making it fairer with everyone paying a little bit. I’ve been paying all my life high dollar for insurance.”

‘Fairness’ is a fine concern, generally perceived to be a progressive one. Weirdly, however, these voters’ concern for fairness has been engaged not by the champions of the working folk but by Walker and by Ayn Rand fans like Congressman Paul Ryan, whose district begins just south of Fort Atkinson.

What would happen if a neighbor helped Brian or the Stop-N-Go woman think it through? What would they respond if asked, “When every working person and wage-earner is paying as much for health insurance as you are, and when no working person gets any more benefits than you do, which Americans will be better off? Will America be fairer then? Will that get our nation back again on track towards the American dream our parents hoped for us?

At the Frostie Freeze, Virginia Kupicek, 50, said she also liked Walker’s stance on collective bargaining. “I’m a taxpayer,” she said. “I can’t afford to subsidize somebody else.”

Virginia wants her government to be careful with her tax dollars and not ‘subsidize someone else.’ That’s good. Now, who is willing to talk with Virginia and find out what she knows about how much the Walker Republicans have shifted the cost of government from their wealthy friends onto working families like hers, and shifted the benefits the other way?

Andrea, 37, a nurse whose husband is a union electrician, is also voting for Walker, “because I care about the debt burden my children will carry,” she said.

If Andrea’s thinking about her children’s future includes an issue as conceptual as public debt, odds are that she cares even more about things that will directly affect her children, such their ability to attend and afford college. Who has accepted the civic responsibility of speaking with Andrea about Walker’s policies regarding tuition and enrollment limits at Wisconsin universities and technical colleges? She is a nurse; can it be that no one has helped her understand the Walker Republicans’ corrosive stewardship of the public programs that likely pay many of her patients’ health care bills? And does her husband ever talk politics with his fellow union members? With his wife?

Marcie Garity, 18, said: “I’m probably voting for Scott Walker. I didn’t think he did anything wrong.”

Is there no experienced adult in Marcie’s circle of family and friends who has noticed her naïveté and who can explain to her what it means when a governor has a legal defense fund and his inner-circle staff members are being indicted or are accepting immunity to testify in a John Doe probe?

Wisconsin, as I’m sure you have heard, is a divided state, but there are no islands of pure red or blue. Every Barrett supporter knows a fellow citizen who supports Walker. And yet do we talk? No.

I know some of the reasons for this. We’re busy. We’ve been taught that talking politics is rude. We don’t know how to talk politics without getting in a fight. We’re afraid we don’t have all the facts, or won’t be able to recall them when we need to.

And so we leave our neighbors’ civic education in the hands of paid political ads and ratings-hungry corporate infotainment.

Two weeks ago, I attended my husband’s uncle’s funeral near Kenosha. I broke the rules and talked politics. Quietly and politely, I broached the subject with one Walker supporter who relies on the state retirement system. She didn’t know about Walker’s plans to privatize her healthy pension program, and so I told her.  I educated a union-hostile Walker supporter about Barrett’s record of tough negotiations with labor. Again, news to him. Both said they were reconsidering their vote after our discussions.

Every one of the people Matt interviewed was willing to enter into a political conversation with a stranger on the street. There is low-hanging fruit out there, folks. We have got to learn to talk to our fellow citizens.

Originally published on June 2, 2012 on my Open Salon blog, where it received a Readers’ Choice award.



The conversation that followed included:

  • This is a post I would rate multiple times if I could. Most of what I write here is stuff to be used in conversations like the ones you’re suggesting – simple arguments, analogies, ways of making a case without starting a fight. There was a time when the media presented some arguments but, at this point, all they do is keep score. They’ve gotten to the point where they view actual responsibility as a partisan phenomenon, not one of citizenship.  — Koshersalaami
  • Scary stuff. I don’t know how many minds I change, but I try.   – Just Phyllis for now
  • Absolutely, Koshersalaami. Commercial media made their news subservient to entertainment years ago, but now even on NPR, the one election-related fact you are likely to hear every day is the latest poll numbers–horse-race reporting.
    In a state with fewer than 150,000 public-employee union members, around a million citizens petitioned for Walker’s recall. Even then, Wisconsin Public Radio keeps talking as if the recall election is about nothing more than the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Are they blind? Deaf? Lazy? Actually that solicitous of their corporate sponsors’ sensibilities?You could listen to Wisconsin news for days and hear little more than a few minutes of unengaging he-said-she-said on big issues like voting rights; campaign finance; legislative hyperpartisanship; and public access to lawmakers and the law-making process. Any connect-the-dots information that would help voters understand the corporate takeover of their state government is only on the Internet media, where it is unrealistic to expect most voters to ferret it out.  — Me
  • This makes so much sense and makes me wonder what is wrong with us as a country that we no longer do research? I received about 10 flyer’s in the mail today vote for this, don’t vote for that and not one of them said why, really who to or not to vote for just who was pulling for which one. Makes me mad! — Lunchlady
  • Great point, Karen!  I believe that if we lose this recall election it will be because too many of us were afraid to “talk politics” and correct the misinformation so many around us have been fed.I was canvassing Dem houses in Oconomowoc today for Lori Compas. The area was covered in pro-Walker and pro-Fitz yard signs. But when I asked the Dem voters if they’d like a free yard sign all but one said no. Their reason: They didn’t want to “offend” or anger their primarily GOP neighbors. Many of these Dems seemed to live in fear of even being found out. It’s like they’re in the closet and are afraid to be outed.One guy offered “We’re the minority here.” Yeah, and you’re always going to remain the minority if you never talk politics with your friends and neighbors and tell them where you stand and why.   — AndrewR9
  • Andrew! Good for you! If I was given the power to choose only one to win—Barrett or Compas–I’d say “Let Lori win the Senate seat, and let the governorship fall where it may.” What a fabulous victory if Lori pulls it off! It might teach the Democratic Party a badly-needed lesson and save Wisconsin even more surely than recalling Walker, I think. I’m so glad you’re helping her. What she’s done to identify, charge up, and organize the progressives in that area is probably already priceless.I spent the day canvassing only in my village–a nearly perfect 50-50 split, and no one seems afraid of anyone. One of our neighbors thought someone stole his Walker sign when they went up to their cabin for the week, but it turns out their son took it down when he mowed their lawn. The Barrett voters I talk to are so motivated, I have to wonder whether the canvassing is needed. I am surprised, though, when we see the lists of irregular voters, how many I see whom I had assumed were consistent voters.
  • The era of mass protest having an effect upon the country has passed. First, the police prepare to break up any would be protests, and are remarkably effective at using illegal tactics to do so, and second, our “leaders’ care not what we want – evidence the ~70% majority against the war in Afghanistan.With these thoughts in mind, Karen, the best one can do in hopes of change is person to person communication. Continue to talk up your friends, neighbors and family. For every one you reach, there is the likelihood she/he will reach another or more.  Rated. –Markinjapan
  • Why is talking politics and or religion a taboo beats me. This must change if we are ever going reach civility. An excellent point you make here, Karen; very well thought out. RRRRRRRRRRRRRR  — Thoth

About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time freelance writing, largely on topics related to our right to self-government. I have two main focuses: how we can protect our election results from miscounts (whether deliberate or accidental), and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. I am based in Wisconsin.
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