Commentary

Speed of trust: politics and power in rural Wisconsin

May 30, 2023 5:30 am
Participants in the GrassRoots School, a leadership workshop for people who want to learn practical skills to organize for change in their local communities. | Photo courtesy of GROWW

Participants in the GrassRoots School, a leadership workshop for people who want to learn practical skills to organize for change in their local communities. | Photo courtesy of GROWW

This spring, Wisconsin held a massively consequential election for state Supreme Court. As control of the court teetered between a liberal and conservative majority, important issues like reproductive rights and gerrymandering were at stake. State Supreme Court elections are typically low-drama affairs, but pundits declared this “arguably the most important election in America in 2023”.

Obscene amounts of money poured in. Reid Garrett Hoffman of California, co-founder of LinkedIn, wrote $2 million in checks to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Richard Uhlein from Illinois gave $5 million to conservative PACs. JB Pritzker of Illinois gave $1 million to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The people of Wisconsin experienced a weeks-long bombardment of television ads, text messages, robocalls, targeted digital ads, billboards, full color mailers, fundraising emails and push polls deployed by an army of consultants, communication strategists, field directors, pollsters, digital marketers and data analysts. 

The race — which lasted only five weeks from the primary in late February to the general election in early April — cost more than $45 million, an amount that would fully fund my kid’s school district in Elk Mound, Wisconsin, for three-and-a-half years

The election is over. The barrage of ads has stopped. The money has slowed to a trickle. The consultants have moved on. Political life in a swing state can feel like a boom and bust cycle: short bursts of intense activity followed by long periods of dormancy, punctuated from one election to the next.

Yet life continues here as it did before the election. In rural west-central Wisconsin, 1 in 3 people struggles to cover the bare minimum costs of surviving. Many of our small towns lack affordable housing, public transportation, child care, a primary care doctor or even a single grocery store. In some towns, Main Streets feel vacant, with many storefronts having been turned into storage units. Our rural medical centers have closed; our schools struggle to retain teachers. Some paved roads have been converted to gravel due to a lack of road maintenance funds. For years, Wisconsin has led the nation in farm bankruptcies, straining local economies and contributing to the high rate of suicide among farmers. Food banks are overwhelmed by demand. Rising homelessness goes unseen, as many couch surf or live in cars. Things may not be easy here, but we are resilient people and we stick together.

In February, while the Supreme Court race was underway, I received a phone call from a woman in the next county over. We didn’t talk about the election. She was worried about rumors of a corporation planning to expand its dairy operation to 5,000 cows in her township of fewer than 500 people. The expansion will have real consequences. People’s wells will be sucked dry. Nitrate-contaminated water will be undrinkable. Air will be filled with particulates of animal waste. Roads will crumble under the weight of heavy manure-hauling trucks. Nearby trout streams will be poisoned. The stench of incinerated carcasses will become a regular part of life.

She had been holding meetings in her garage with her neighbors to discuss their concerns and invited me to attend the next one. Plastic folding tables were set up. I found an empty seat, settled in, and introduced myself to those sitting next to me. As more people walked in, they were greeted by two friendly dogs. A plate of cookies was passed around. When the meeting started, the fear and anger in the room became palpable. One person said, “They could run us out of water, but they don’t even live here.” Another said, “It feels like they’re making our home a sacrifice zone.”

The rise of large-scale industrial farms in our community is not an accident. It is the result of decisions made by someone somewhere. It is the result of politics. The regulatory landscape has been hollowed out by lawmakers, allowing corporate agriculture to externalize costs of doing business, placing them on  local communities. Laws that enable local control have also been whittled away by our state Legislature. Decades of monopolization in the farm economy have pushed out small family operators in favor of large-scale, corporate operations. What the people in that meeting need is power.

Rural politics

I was baptized into politics at an early age. At eight years old, my dad dragged me into the crowded bleachers of a gymnasium in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to hear Bob Dole campaign for the 1988 Republican presidential primary. That same year, I entered a voting booth with my dad and watched him pull the lever for George H.W. Bush. 

From there, politics has been a drum beating in the background of my life. When in 2011 the collective bargaining rights of workers were under attack by our governor, I marched with 80,000 people to the dome of our State Capitol in Madison. A month later, I stood on an icy sidewalk outside Wal-Mart, collecting signatures to recall the leaders who had passed the bill that stripped workers of their rights. In 2018, I was elected chair of the Dunn County Democratic Party. After the 2020 election, I stepped down and discontinued my membership with the Democratic Party after realizing how partisan politics has failed to deliver for people in my community.

For me, something has always been missing from politics, like what I was searching for was just out of reach. Last year, I quit my job to join others who started their own organization, bound by a similar yearning to see how we might do things differently, called Grassroots Organizing Western Wisconsin or, GROWW, for short. It felt like a risky leap, but an important one, to see if we could prove it is possible for ordinary people to carve their own path through this messy and fraught terrain. Since getting started, more than fifty other grassroots leaders have joined us, suggesting this vision resonates with others. 

This spring’s Supreme Court race was a reminder of how ordinary people have been displaced from politics. Elections have become sophisticated marketing campaigns marshaled by professional operatives supplemented by highly funded voter contact programs disguised as grassroots organizing. The modern electoral campaign feels like a ritual invented by those who stand to profit most from it: wealthy donors who wish to influence the election’s outcome and consultants whose accountability is to wealthy donors who write their paychecks. More often than not, elected officials become creatures of this ecosystem, insulated from the very people they are supposed to represent. An average member of Congress spends 30 hours per week fundraising, on phone calls or over steak dinners or at cocktail parties, meeting with their wealthy donors rather than their constituents. 

Last year, our organization knocked on a thousand doors simply to ask people how things are going for them. We walked down sidewalks, clipboards under our arms, going from one house to the next. We climbed front steps and talked to anyone who opened the door, listening and asking questions. It’s interesting to watch people’s facial expressions change as they realize you are there just to listen, not to sell them something or ask for their vote or convert them to a religion. It doesn’t take long and they begin to relax. They open up. They share stories. Sometimes, they laugh. Sometimes, they cry. Rarely do they slam the door in your face.

Talking to strangers

We hear lots of things. Fear for a family member struggling with addiction. Anger about being mistreated at work. Gratitude for a neighbor who comes over to mow the lawn. Frustration at not being able to afford rent. Shame for having to visit a food pantry. Exhaustion from having to work three different jobs in three different towns. Appreciation for family. Loneliness. Contrary to the myth that small towns are tight-knit places where everyone knows each other; people wish for more opportunities to gather and connect. Love of home. Blame of the neighbors — sometimes, outright racist — for causing the problems they see in their town. Annoyance that there is no store to buy socks or shirts. Cynicism after being unheard by politicians and unserved by institutions. 

In a society with so much division and isolation, knocking on a stranger’s door can be a radical act. It is a rare opportunity to have an honest and open conversation about why our communities look the way they do. Near the end of each conversation, our canvassers read aloud this statement

We are working for our community to be a place where all working people can have a chance to live comfortably, raise a family, and make ends meet. No matter what you look like or the color of your skin or where you’re from, most of us want the same things.

But some corporations and politicians have rigged the rules of our economy to grab wealth and political power for themselves. But they blame people of color or poor people or immigrants; trying to divide us and distract us from what we have in common.

We believe things can get better when we stand up for each other and join together with people from different walks of life. What about you? Do you agree?

Last year, 97% of the people we spoke to agreed with this statement. People’s reaction to it often leads to a larger conversation. Together, we think out loud about why storefronts on Main Street are empty, why their out-of-state landlord raised rent, why small farms have disappeared, why the health center closed, why they can’t find childcare for their kid. Usually, it comes down to the question of power. Someone somewhere made a decision that affected their life. Sometimes, we see a light bulb go off: power isn’t just for politicians or CEOs, it’s for each of us and our communities. 

Before leaving the doorstep, we invite people to a follow-up conversation with one of our organizers to sit down for coffee and talk about how we could work together. Next, they may come to a meeting. Then, they might volunteer or join a grassroots team. Soon, they meet others who care about the same things. They taste a new kind of leadership. This is the slow, transformative work the political industry does not offer.

In many ways, we don’t know what we’re doing. There’s no instruction manual for this. We treat everything like an experiment. We make mistakes and learn from them. We debrief everything: our meetings, our actions, our events; asking ourselves what we did well and what we could do better. We learn from lessons shared by other organizers, working towards a similar vision, in other areas of the country. We will continue to knock doors and listen. It’s messy and difficult, but also fun and exciting. That’s the point. We’re going to figure it out for ourselves. One thing we know for sure is what’s needed most is a revival of politics as it should be: people building real power together, engaging with each other in the work of moving policy in a direction they care about and getting what they want for their community. 

Imagining something better

This calls for us to reimagine politics as something not limited to the timeframe of election cycles. Instead, to imagine politics as the pursuit of solidarity — bridging race, class, gender, partisanship and geography — where neighbors realize they share a common fate, whether it is a pothole on their street or not being able to afford to see a doctor. We start small and go slow, moving at the speed of trust, with a single conversation, building one relationship at a time, human being by human being, town by town. In the face of daunting challenges like income inequality and climate change, this approach may seem naive. A single conversation or relationship may seem small and insignificant, but so does a single brick until it is added onto another brick, then another, until it eventually becomes a foundation that can hold an entire house.

With so much money in politics, it’s fair to worry about the threat of corruption, bribes, political favors and insider dealing. However, there is perhaps a more insidious danger: money robs politics of its basic humanity. Voters are not real people with real lives; they are data points on a poll or in election results. Problems facing our communities are not real problems, they are abstract issues to be turned into campaign messages or talking points. Every election season, politicians repeat the claim that they will fight for us, a patronizing message which suggests that we can’t fight for ourselves. They have heard our stories and felt our pain. They offer up dazzling policy plans, ripe with technical detail and superlative language, that will solve the problems we face. They tell us to vote for them. What’s left unsaid is the singular problem facing American democracy, for which they don’t have a plan: ordinary people don’t have enough power. 

Developing a strategy

Which brings us back to the garage. Last week, we held another meeting, and this time it was a strategy session. The two dogs were there to greet us again. It was early Saturday morning, someone brought donuts, someone else brought coffee. One person said, “The company has a strategy; so we should, too.” We brainstormed ideas, taking notes with a marker on an easel pad. We mapped out who in our community will be directly affected and made a plan for how to engage them in the fight. We developed goals, discussed local politics, set a timeline and made assignments. 

We walked out of that meeting with an agreement to fight for a 12-month moratorium on factory-farm expansions. Once we get that, we’ll need to keep working. We’re gathering signatures on a  petition. Next week, some neighbors are attending the county land conservation committee meeting. Others are attending town board meetings. We’re putting together a team, with roles and responsibilities. What we need is power of our own. No politician is going to save us. No government agency is going to save us. We’re going to have to save ourselves. 

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Bill Hogseth
Bill Hogseth

Bill Hogseth is a community organizer and a sixth-generation native of Dunn County, Wisconsin. For over fifteen years, he has worked on issues including health care, agriculture, conservation, voting rights, and elections. His work is focused on building community power through issue campaigns, civic engagement, and leadership development to tackle problems impacting people's daily lives. Currently, he is the organizing director at Grassroots Organizing Western Wisconsin.

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