Signs of hope

Recovery from the pandemic, and from our toxic politics, is possible

WIsconsin State Capitol with yellow and orange tulips in bloom near Lady Forward
Spring at the Capitol by Josh Puetz CC BY-NC 2.0

As the weather warms up, the grass turns green and daffodils explode in a cheerful yellow riot, spirits are rising. 

All over our state and our nation, people are emerging from a long hibernation, getting their vaccines, and beginning to imagine what life could be like without the oppressive weight of the pandemic and the ugly, divisive politics of the last year.

Optimism is as unfamiliar as the warm sun on your shoulders on these suddenly balmy days. But the vision for recovery and improvement laid out in budget proposals floated by President Joe Biden and Gov. Tony Evers is stirring hopes of better days.

At the first of several public hearings on the state budget held by the Joint Finance Committee at the UW-Whitewater on Friday, citizens came out to cheer Gov. Tony Evers’ Badger Bounceback Budget, and to express their support for increasing funding for public schools, expanding Medicaid and making badly needed investments in infrastructure including rural broadband.

At the federal level, Biden’s first budget request, laid out on Friday, reverses Donald Trump’s cuts to domestic programs, addresses climate change with big improvements in our energy and transportation systems and tackles economic inequality. It’s an ambitious plan that envisions government as a force for good, protecting the environment and providing for human needs and the public good in ways that the private market simply cannot.

Pundits are comparing it to the New Deal. As Cecilia Rouse, the chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors, explained to David Brooks, “The model of the past 40 years has been to rely on the private sector to carry the load, but that sector is not best suited to deliver certain public goods like workforce training and infrastructure investment. These are places where there is market failure, which creates a role for government.” 

What a breath of fresh air.

Imagine a government that works for people, and a governing philosophy that takes seriously the idea of a functional civil society, instead of assuming that our whole world should be shaped by competition among predatory profit-seekers looking for ways to make a buck.

Both state and national politics have become so calcified by extreme partisanship lately, it’s almost shocking to see citizens show up for a public hearing and speak to their hopes and aspirations for a better, fairer, more beautiful world.

But that’s what happened in Whitewater on Friday. 

Teachers, administrators, and students from all over the state asked the state budget committee to honor the bipartisan commitment for the state to fund two-thirds of public school costs, to reinvest in Wisconsin’s high-quality public schools.

Deaf and blind Wisconsinites testified in favor of Evers’ proposal to improve health care for the hearing and visually impaired, including providing therapy and mental health services in American Sign Language.

UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields advocated for funding for the construction projects and building repairs on Wisconsin college campuses that are in Evers’ capital budget. His colleagues endorsed the governor’s plan to make the largest increase in funding for the University of Wisconsin System in more than 20 years, maintain a tuition freeze, expand in-state tuition to include Native American students, Dreamers and military service members, invest in technical colleges and assist residents with student loans.

Dr. Marissa Joblanski, Director of the Freshwater Collaborative, explained how training the next generation of water researchers and problem solvers could make Wisconsin a global leader in water-related science, technology and economic growth — supporting the $9 million program in Evers’ budget proposal.

Advocates from the Coalition on Lead Emergency spoke about the importance of the budget’s provisions addressing lead poisoning and contamination in Wisconsin, saying, “We owe this to Wisconsin’s children,” who experience the greatest impact from lead exposure.

Advocates from the prisoner-rights group WISDOM spoke in support of Evers’ proposed criminal justice reforms, including removing 17-year-olds from the adult justice system, because kids who stay in the juvenile justice system instead of being shuttled into adult prisons are more likely to graduate high school and less likely to reoffend.

Sister Erica Jordan, a Kenosha Dominican Sister, advocated for driver licenses for the undocumented immigrants who prop up Wisconsin’s dairy industry, which generates about 11% of our state’s gross income. Restoring driver’s licenses, in addition to being fair to these workers we depend upon, would save taxpayers money and improve safety by making sure everyone on the road is licensed and insured.

People testified all day in the hopes that their government would really listen to them. They were bolstered by Evers’ optimistic plan, and undeterred by Republican legislative leaders’ sour declarations that they plan to throw his whole budget in the trash. They came to speak up in the face of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ threat that he will punish schools by cutting off all education funding after voters had the temerity to elect Jill Underly, the candidate supported by Democrats and teachers’ unions, state superintendent.

We are accustomed to bitterness and partisanship in this state. What’s surprising, and encouraging, is to see how many lively, engaged citizens are determined to continue pushing for a better vision. That’s the only thing that can bring about positive change.

It’s downright hopeful.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.