Chaos, backstabbing and the butt-crack debate: The week in politics

In Washington and Wisconsin things are going downhill

October 6, 2023 5:15 am
Man wielding an ax

As House Republicans self-destruct and Wisconsin legislators pursue a culture-wars arms race, politics is increasingly alienating for most people. | Photo by Getty Images Creative

Republican dysfunction reached a new low this week in Washington with the crackup of the GOP caucus and the history-making ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 

To their credit, none of Wisconsin’s Republican members of Congress voted to fire McCarthy — a move led by eight far-right nihilists and merrily joined by every House Democrat.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan explained why Democrats did not see it as their job to rescue McCarthy, who repeatedly broke his promises and sold them out. Most recently, immediately after relying on their votes to pass a stop-gap government funding measure, McCarthy went on TV to blame Democrats for the shutdown threat his own caucus created. Democrats had no trust or respect left for him and were offered no incentive to bail him out, Pocan said.

Certainly playing footsie with the far right and failing to stand for anything did McCarthy in. The Republicans own both his failure and the difficulty of moving forward in a party that continues to embrace wild conspiracy theories and violent insurrectionists. 

The upshot, though, is that neither political party is leading us out of the chaos that threatens to engulf Washington and the country as we face another looming shutdown deadline.

Meanwhile, Republican state legislators in Wisconsin kept their focus somewhere below their belly buttons this week, bringing up bills limiting transgender kids’ access to health care and school sports and an urgently needed measure that would subject parents who bring their kids to an annual “world naked bike ride” to criminal charges. 

Rep. Barbara Dittrich, who authored AB 377, the anti-trans school sports bill which, by her own count, would apply to six kids throughout the state, explained in a hearing Wednesday that the issue is much bigger than that, because “63,000 females … participating in female sports don’t want to see a naked male with their penis hanging out in their locker room.”

Not to be outdone, Wisconsin Senate President Chris Kapenga declared in a hearing Thursday on SB 477, the anti-nude-bike-ride measure, “A strip of cloth from Joann Fabric costs about 37 cents. So, if they have to buy 100 strips to cover their butt crack, I’m OK with that.”

These are the issues animating Republicans.

What are the Democrats doing? 

On the anti-trans bills, Wisconsin Democrats made a lot of strong statements in support of trans kids, with Gov. Tony Evers declaring, “You are welcome, you are wanted, and you belong here.” 

Republican Rep. Scott Allen, who co-authored AB 465, a bill to deny those kids gender-affirming medical care, felt it necessary to begin his testimony on the bill by agreeing with Evers: “To any transgender individual who may be listening today … I want to say you matter and you contribute to the state of Wisconsin.” 

But the tone of the hearing that followed was anything but reassuring. As Baylor Spears reports, it was filled with misinformation and a kind of leering, willful ignorance that sparked outrage from members of the public who came to testify against the bill and from Democrats.

State Superintendent Jill Underly put out a statement describing a pile of backpacks outside a memorial service at a funeral home, by way of explaining that Republicans’ anti-trans rhetoric is killing children. Underly is right about the alarming data on depression and self-harm among LGBTQ youth. It doesn’t help, though, to have two groups of adults talking past each other, ramping up the outrage about who is the real protector of children and who is the abuser. 

Reporter Phoebe Petrovic took a gentler approach in a piece for Wisconsin Watch this week headlined  “What gender-affirming care means to these Wisconsin families.” Petrovic’s journalism, collecting the stories of actual kids and families, could help boost empathy and understanding.

That’s important because a lot of people don’t understand what it means to be transgender, or the struggles of kids and families who rely on the medical care that is being subjected to bans in states across the country. We badly need a less politicized, more civilized conversation about that.

Outrage is good for firing up the base. And that’s the main point of the anti-trans bills, which Evers has promised to veto, as well as the measures that provide new penalties for people who expose children to naked grownups at public gatherings. Getting a rise out of liberals, stoking tribal hatreds, dragging us all down into a nasty, dirty brawl, is the whole point of this conversation.

That noxious brand of politics engulfed Republicans and left House Democrats on the sidelines this week, shaking their heads as their GOP colleagues self-destructed, potentially taking a lot of people with them, from Ashwaubenon to Ukraine.

In Wisconsin’s culture wars, Democrats are in a bit of a bind as they decide whether and how to engage. 

On Kapenga’s butt-crack bill, Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) pointed out during Thursday’s hearing both the moral and economic problems with criminalizing parents who, for example, take their kids to a Beyoncé concert that might run afoul of the measure’s strict prohibition on nudity. Big acts featuring scantily clad performers might just decide to skip Wisconsin if the bill passed, she suggested.

That gave Kapenga an opening to shoot back, “I highly doubt that Beyoncé would not come because she can’t expose her crack.”

As badly as we need bipartisan dialogue, some conversations are not worth having. 


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Ruth Conniff
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 the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She 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 lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.