Parting thoughts from an advocate for democracy in Wisconsin
'Voters Decide' sign in Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 28 2021. Hundreds of people came to testify against new voting maps drawn by Republican legislative leaders which advocates characterized as 'gerrymandering 2.0' | Wisconsin Examiner Photo
It’s been quite a stretch of time, for Wisconsin and for our nation, these past eight and a half years.
During this time, our system of government has been tested as never before, and we’ve seen the rise of a full blown anti-democracy movement in this country.
And we’ve witnessed things I thought I’d never see. Like a president of the United States who refused to have a peaceful transition of power and who engaged in a criminal conspiracy to overturn an election, up to and including fomenting a coup.
Here in Wisconsin, we suffered through the last years of the Scott Walker onslaught. And we’ve witnessed things here that I thought I‘d never see: Like three rightwing justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court being perfectly willing to toss out tens of thousands of votes in Dane and Milwaukee counties and thereby pick, by themselves, the winner of our presidential race in this state.
Or like a group of self-appointed false electors who tried to pass themselves off as Wisconsin’s actual electors and thereby flip the state to Trump at the Electoral College, with an assist from the odious Sen Ron Johnson.
We can never forget how out of bounds, how off the beam, these times have been.
Through it all, you could count on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, every step of the way, to be defending our democracy against those who would tear it down.
You could count on us to keep exposing the big and dark money in our politics, and you could count on us to keep advocating for a broad range of pro-democracy reforms.
That’s what we do, at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, day in and day out.
I’m proud to have been a part of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, I’m proud of the work we’ve done and the work we do, and I’m proud of the pro-democracy coalitions we’re a part of.
I’m going to touch upon three of the issues we’ve worked on most over the last eight and a half years, and then I’ll briefly discuss the situation of our imperfect democracy nationally, and then I’d like to leave you with some reasons for hope because I’m actually confident in our future.
One of the issues we’ve worked hardest on, of course, is gerrymandering.
And on this one, we’ve gained a lot of ground!
Along with our partners, we’ve helped make this a popular issue, and made gerrymandering almost a household word, and now we’re closer than ever to getting the rigged maps overturned.
Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz ran on this issue and the abortion issue, and won the recent Supreme Court election by 11 points. She was right when she said the maps were rigged. She was simply echoing what a panel of federal judges had determined in the Whitford case: That the rigged maps curtail the freedom of association rights and the equal protection rights of vast numbers of voters in Wisconsin.
Now with Protasiewicz joining the court shortly, it’s quite conceivable that the new liberal majority will order that these rigged maps be redrawn, and then we’d get fairer maps, finally, for Wisconsin.
It won’t be the end of the fight. We’ll still need to pass legislation to ban gerrymandering, but it will mark a huge step forward.
Congratulations to everyone who has worked so hard on this issue:
- The grassroots activists in the 57 counties that have passed resolutions or referendums urging the Legislature to give us fair maps.
- The Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, which the Democracy Campaign is a part of, along with the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Wisconsin Conservation Voters, the Fair Elections Project, and several other great groups.
- Former Majority Leaders Tim Cullen and Dale Schultz for championing this issue for so long.
- Bill Whitford and the other plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case.
- And special thanks to Carlene Bechen, the tremendous statewide grassroots organizer who helped make this happen.
On the second issue we’ve spent so much time on, the issue of money in politics, I’m afraid that success is as far away as ever.
And actually, it may be even a little farther away than before because I worry that Democrats may learn the wrong lessons from our latest elections. They may think they can continue to beat the Republicans at their own game: Milking the fat cats. So why bother with campaign finance reform?
Well, here’s why:
First of all, there simply are more right-wing billionaires and multi-millionaires than there are liberal ones. You can bet that Leonard Leo, Charles Koch, Richard Uihlein, and their cronies were paying attention to what Ben Wikler’ has been doing, and they’re gearing up to outspend him.
And even if they weren’t, the interests of liberal billionaires aren’t identical to the interests of a lot of even liberal Wisconsin citizens, especially on issues of wages, unionization, and fair trade. One example close to home: Judy Faulkner over at Epic is a pretty big donor to the Democratic Party. She also took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court that curbed the rights of workers to organize. And she won.
Most fundamentally, of course, our campaigns shouldn’t be a tug of war between a handful of billionaires on one side and a handful of billionaires on the other. In a real democracy, we’d all have an equal tug on that rope. And we just don’t. And everyone knows that in their gut.
So we still need fundamental campaign finance reform.
To get there, we need to undo the damage of the horrible rewrite of our campaign finance law, which the Republicans rammed through in 2015. Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee has a comprehensive bill to do just that. But it will take a change in the Legislature to get that done, and then we need to move to full public financing.
But we’ll also need to overturn a slew of wrongheaded U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1886 that claim that corporations are persons, and more recent ones that claim that money is speech. The best way to do this is to amend the U.S. Constitution, and the good folks over at Wisconsin United to Amend are planting the seeds for that. Another possibility is to hope we get different justices on the U.S. Supreme Court who will look to Justice John Paul Stevens’s brilliant dissent in Citizens United and start overturning these precedents that allow big money and dark money to drown out our voices.
But both of those possibilities, alas, seem a long way off.
The third issue we’ve spent a lot of time on, defending voting rights, has been a constant battle.
From Walker’s Voter ID law to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling that got rid of drop boxes last year and the raft of bills the Republican Legislature has tried to pass to make voting harder, it’s clear we need to be ever-vigilant on this front.
According to one recent study, Wisconsin has fallen from fourth in the nation in voter accessibility in the 1990s to 47th today! That’s quite a slide.
And this downhill push is ongoing.
We all heard Bob Spindell, one of the fake electors who, unbelievably, is still a commissioner on the Wisconsin Election Commission, brag about the racist effort to curb turnout in predominantly Black and Latino districts in Milwaukee last November. He said he was “especially proud” that their turnout was so low.
Republicans are still playing the voter suppression game.
You know Cleta Mitchell, the former Foley & Lardner lawyer who was advising Trump while he was on that call to Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger begging for 11,780 votes.
At a recent RNC donor retreat in Nashville, she said, “Conservatives must band together to limit voting on college campuses, same-day voter registration, and automatic mailing of ballots to registered voters,” according to the Washington Post.
She seemed especially peeved that college kids were turning out in high numbers for Democrats.
“They basically put the polling place next to the student dorm so they just have to roll out of bed, vote, and go back to bed,” she whined.
Somehow, I don’t think that’s how it works at UW-Madison or Eau Claire or La Crosse.
She also said, and you’ll love this:
“Any group with the word democracy in its name is not your friend!”
Wow! I’ve never been so flattered in my life! And you should be flattered, too.
And now the Republicans in the Legislature don’t even want any of us to be able to express ourselves on local “advisory referendums.” That’s in their shared revenue bill, AB 245. It would prohibit counties and municipalities from even putting these advisories on the ballot.
As one of our members told me after we sent out an action alert on this, “What’s next? Are they going to ban a show of hands?”
I wouldn’t put it past them. They want to limit our right to vote, and they want to limit our ability to speak and to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. They don’t care about the will of the people. They just want to be left alone, in their gerrymandered offices, to deliver for their paymasters at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
But we’re not going to leave them alone. You can count on that.
So that’s where we’ve been, and where we’re at, here in Wisconsin.
Nationally, the threats to our democracy continue.
Some are longstanding and accelerating, like economic inequality. As Justice Brandeis warned us 80 years ago, “ We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both. ” Well, wealth is much more concentrated now than it was back then.
Some threats to democracy are embedded in our Constitution, including the Electoral College and the makeup of the U.S. Senate – both profoundly undemocratic.
Some are much more recent, like the precipitous decline of journalism, which Bob McChesney has been chronicling for decades now.
And one threat has been with us even before we became a nation.hat’s the original sin of white supremacy.
We saw it, here in Wisconsin, in the November Senate race with the hideous ads against Mandela Barnes. “He’s different. He’s dangerous,” said one of the worst ones, which was funded by Diane Hendricks and Richard Uihlein, by the way.
White supremacy is a key part of the toxic anti-democracy movement that’s cropped up over the past seven years, aided and abetted by Donald Trump. The white nationalists are out in the open now, for all to see. And they’re not pretty. And as my son, Sam, told me, “They even have their own flags!”
Not just the Confederate flag, but the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, and the American flag with the blue or black line added on it.
The white nationalists glorify mass slaughter. They wear shirts that say, “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” Actually, the Chilean dictator’s forces killed thousands of people and tortured tens of thousands more. The Proud Boys wear T-shirts with the initials “6MWE” on them, which stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough.” Meaning, that Hitler didn’t kill enough Jews in the Holocaust. And the guy who committed the most recent mass murder in Texas had a patch with the initials RWDS, another Proud Boy favorite, tattooed on his arm. Those initials stand for “Right Wing Death Squads.” Those death squads killed tens of thousands of people in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s.
This wave of white Christian nationalism has brought with it a rise in anti-Semitism and other scapegoating, as we’re seeing these days with the vicious attacks on our friends in the immigrant and transgender communities.
And there’s a hostility to representative government itself, as we saw with the expulsion of the lawmakers in Tennessee and as we see with the attempt to silence Montana’s Zooey Zephyr.
So these aren’t good signs!
But I don’t despair. Actually, today, I’m feeling more hopeful than I have in a long time. Nationally, I believe the anti-democracy movement is finally on its heels.
- Fox’s massive settlement with Dominion in a lawsuit centered on Fox’s false claims alleging election fraud.
- Tucker Carlson’s firing.
- The convictions, just last week, of the leaders of the Proud Boys for seditious conspiracy.
- And most of all, because Trump is in legal quicksand.
Not just in New York for his Stormy Daniels payments. And not just with E. Jean Carroll and the $5 million he owes her for his disgusting behavior. And not just with his blatant misuse of classified papers down in Mar-a-Lago.
But for the bigger crimes, the crimes against our very democracy, for which he he will soon have to face the music, both in Fulton County, Georgia, and finally when Jack Smith and Merrick Garland get off their tails and indict him in Washington.
For every time, there is a season, and this is accountability season.
Here in Wisconsin, I also find a lot of hope.
I find hope in the grassroots activists I run into whenever I travel around the state.
And with the reelection of Gov. Tony Evers and the big victory by Justice-elect Protasiewicz, there now are two brakes on the runaway train that’s been trampling our rights – our right to organize, our right to make health care decisions for ourselves, our right to vote, our right to have clean air and clean water.
And I find hope in the great pro-democracy nonprofit sector we have in Wisconsin, filled with wonderful and talented people, all of them younger, and most of them much younger, than me. We work together, every week on our communications efforts, and we zoom together a couple times a month to share information and think strategically. And by we, I mean about 40 different groups.
Finally, I see hope in three other developments that are already making the terrain more favorable for our pro-democracy forces in Wisconsin.
The first is the engagement of young people. We saw the amazing turnout of college-age voters in the Supreme Court race and in the governor’s race. I just saw an article today that said young voters in Wisconsin turned out in higher numbers in last November’s election than those in any other state! And we see the engagement of young people on the issue of reproductive rights, on the issue of the climate crisis, on the issue of racial justice, and on LGBTQ issues. As Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) put it to me recently, “The kids are all right.”
The second hopeful development is Law Forward, the great progressive law firm founded by Doug Poland and Jeff Mandell just a couple years ago. They’re doing pro bono work across the democracy board but especially on voting rights issues and on gerrymandering, and they’re leveling the legal playing field at last for us.
The third hopeful development is the rise of Civic Media, this new network of progressive radio stations all over Wisconsin. Not just in Madison, but in Amery, Appleton, Green Bay, Hayward, Oshkosh, Richland Center, St. Croix, Waukesha, Wausau, and Wisconsin Rapids, and I hear they’re buying stations in La Crosse and Eau Claire, too.
My hat’s off to Michael Crute and to Sage Weil of Civic Media for responding to the dearth of local pro-democracy radio in such an aggressive and creative way. They are helping to level the media playing field at last for us.
Together, all of these developments give me hope that we can defeat the anti-democracy movement and proceed to the larger task of achieving a real democracy, one where everyone has an equal voice.
And so, as I’m preparing to take my leave of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and to fully retire after 43 years in the pro-democracy struggle, I’m grateful to everyone I’ve worked with, I’m grateful to all of you here, and I’m hopeful because of all the positive signs that I see around me.
Let me close with a couple of lines from the poet June Jordan, whom I recruited to write for The Progressive for many years.
In one of her amazing poems, called “War and Memory,” she wrote: “I lust for justice, and I make my quest arthritic.”
Well, I certainly still “lust for justice” as much as I ever have, but I got to admit I do have a lot of arthritis, so it’s now time for me to step gingerly off the stage.
I’ll be cheering on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign from the sidelines, confident in its future, confident in the pro-democracy forces in our state, and finally a bit hopeful that, as a state and as a country, we’re almost through the most perilous period that our imperfect democracy has ever faced.
Thank you all so very much!
(This column is an edited version of farewell remarks Matt Rothschild gave upon his retirement from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign at the group’s annual celebration on May 10.)
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