Overcoming Wisconsin’s toxic partisanship

What will it take to bring people together again?

September 26, 2022 6:00 am
Wisconsin state flag

Wisconsin State Flag | Getty Images

As I watched the annual State of Education address last week I found myself wondering, is bipartisanship dead?

Pushing back on Republican culture war talking points, state schools superintendent Jill Underly used the word “racist” to describe recent Republican efforts to rewrite school curriculum purging so-called critical race theory. Likewise, high-profile campaigns against LGBTQ and transgender education are “harmful and dangerous to students’ emotional safety and mental health,” she said, adding, “pronouns save lives.” And she promised LGBTQ students, “I have your back” against school bullies. Some of those bullies presumably, reading between the lines of the speech, are the Republican legislators Underly was asking to approve $1 billion in new state funding for schools in the same address.

Right after the speech Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels released a statement saying, “Underly’s remarks served as a political stump speech in favor of woke policies and against the Legislature, despite the supposedly nonpartisan position.”

If calling out Republicans, who control the state Legislature, as racists and homophobes seems like an odd way to try to build support for spending more money on schools, Underly’s speech might just reflect our new reality: In this intensely polarized environment, there’s no point in being diplomatic. 

Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach seems to take that view. “I don’t think there’s a way to get back to where we were,” Erpenbach said when I asked him if he sees a path today toward the kind of bipartisan consensus that used to exist in Wisconsin to support public schools. Republicans who serve with Erprenbach on the Joint Finance Committee are firmly opposed to putting more money into education, he said. “They’re mad Gov. Evers got $100 million to the schools through his line-item vetoes,” in the last budget, Erpenbach said. “And they’re saying to themselves they’ll never let that happen again.”

The rhetoric targeting schools and teachers has certainly become more aggressive over the last few years. Conservative groups including the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) have helped stoke divisions in local communities over mask mandates and teaching about race and gender. 

But even after the COVID rebellions, increasingly shrill claims of white grievance, and flat-out disinformation about what is going on in schools, Wisconsin voters all over the state in Republican and Democratic areas alike support their local public schools and have shown, over and over again, that they are willing to raise their own taxes to make up for falling state spending. It ought to be possible to sell them on Underly’s very reasonable proposal for the state to restore two decades of declining investment by spending one-sixth of a projected $6 billion revenue surplus.

As recently as 2019 the Legislature’s bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding endorsed key elements of Underly’s plan. 

But times have changed. In his campaign for governor, Michels is tapping into a national right-wing surge of anti-school and anti-teacher rebellion. He’s declared his aim to privatize the whole system, doing away with what he calls “the public school establishment” and supporting “parental rights.”

It’s depressing how Republicans have exploited the pain of families where parents haven’t accepted their gay or trans kids and divided communities by politicizing COVID protocols and pushing on hot button issues.

Read the Wisconsin Watch account of bomb threats and bullying in the Kiel school district, and you can see why Underly might want to tell kids “I’ve got your back.” It’s appalling how that community was shut down by right-wing activists who were rallied by selective accounts of the bullying case on national conservative media. After the district buckled under pressure from threats including the bomb threats that closed down the school, backing down from a Title IX lawsuit on behalf of a transgender kid who was being bullied, WILL declared victory.

But I worry that by getting into the culture war back and forth, Underly is missing the chance to speak directly to people all over the state who, while they might be conservative or just nonplussed by the assertion that pronouns save lives, also want to support schools. 

It seems like it might make sense to separate these issues, stop fanning the culture wars that are endlessly replaying on cable news and rightwing social media and just focus on supporting our local schools, a cornerstone of civil society that is currently being dangerously undermined. 

Because the truth is Wisconsin voters do support their schools. The problem, as Erpenbach points out, is partisan gerrymandering that means individual legislators don’t have to worry about what most people think. They can just keep stoking their base without fear of losing elections.

The governor’s race is a different matter. Michels will have to face voters statewide with a platform that is out of step with what most people want. His extremism is a liability.

But in the Legislature, “the only solution is court-ordered redistricting,” says Erpenbach.

If our state is ever going to get out of the grip of toxic partisanship, the most important election will be in 2023, when a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court will tilt us toward a majority that will either double down on Wisconsin’s extreme partisanship, or help us emerge into a better era of civil dialogue and majority rule.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. 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. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.