Commentary

Wisconsin is a major front in the war on U.S. democracy

December 7, 2023 5:15 am
Protester in a MAGA cheesehead at the Reopen Wisconsin rally at the Capitol on April 24, 2020 (photo by Luther Wu).

Protester at the Reopen Wisconsin rally at the Capitol on April 24, 2020 (photo by Luther Wu).

It was startling to read in The Washington Post this week that former President Donald Trump, following the lead of right-wing conspiracy theorists, has demanded that the Justice Department turn over “all documents” on John Nichols, whom the Post describes as “a liberal journalist in Wisconsin who rightwing media have suggested encouraged violence at the Capitol on behalf of the ‘deep state.’”

As soon as I read the story, I texted Nichols, a friend and colleague to just about the entire Wisconsin press corps. He said his daughter was amused by the suggestion that her dad was in Washington, D.C., leading the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — since actually he was driving her to an orthodontist appointment in Madison that day. He wrote a column about it for the Nation headlined “Unfortunately for Donald Trump, I’m not his Alibi.”

Nichols, a Wisconsin writer who carries a torch for the anti-establishment, progressive populism of Fighting Bob LaFollette, is a strange target for the conspiracy theorists who claim he was working for the “deep state” by trying to frame Trump for Jan. 6. 

But in some ways the right-wing blogger who formulated that theory wasn’t totally off the map when he went digging around in the Badger State for the instigators of the Capitol insurrection. The real Jan. 6 conspiracists were, in fact, working in Wisconsin.

This week, as Henry Redman reports, the first-in-the-nation lawsuit against Trump’s fake electors reached a settlement in Dane County circuit court.

The 10 Republican operatives who met in secret in the Wisconsin State Capitol to cast phony electoral ballots for Trump were forced, as a condition of the settlement, to sign a statement acknowledging that their votes were part of an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and disrupt the peaceful transition of power. 

As part of the settlement, Law Forward, Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) and Stafford Rosenbaum LLP are publishing 577 pages of discovery materials, including emails and text exchanges revealing how the fake electors were organized. More about Wisconsin’s role in the effort to overturn the will of the voters will soon be public.

Former Wisconsin Republican Party Chair Andrew Hitt, current Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Robert Spindell, Bill Feehan, Kelly Ruh, Carol Brunner, Edward Scott Grabins, Kathy Kiernan, Darryl Carlson, Pam Travis and Mary Buestrin all signed a statement withdrawing their electoral votes and conceding they were not real electors. Meanwhile, claims against Trump lawyers Jim Troupis and Kenneth Chesebro continue. These Wisconsinites along with U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, whose office attempted to transmit their fake electoral ballots to then Vice President Mike Pence, were the real conspirators. 

But in the alternate reality inhabited by Trump and his hardcore fans, a photo of someone who looks like John Nichols standing on some scaffolding helped fuel wild conspiracies that the effort to overturn the election results on Jan. 6 was a deep fake. 

“One of the real challenges we face as a nation is that, instead of looking for ways to engage in a democratic discourse, we’ve got people imagining that everyone they disagree with is a bad actor,” Nichols told me, reflecting on the stardom among internet conspiracy theorists that propelled him to the top of Trump’s enemies list.

“Democracy can’t work when people are not just polarized but absolutely certain that those they disagree with are scheming against them,” he added. “Sometimes, we just disagree and that’s OK, because throughout American history people with sincere disagreements have found common ground. Unfortunately, there seem to be some political figures — especially on the right — who are more interested in gaining an upper hand than in building the spaces where Americans might be able to address the real economic, social and political issues facing the country.”

Nowhere is this more true than in Wisconsin, as a new report released Thursday by Michael Sozan, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan progressive think tank Center on American Progress, suggests. The report zeroes in on just two states — Wisconsin and North Carolina — where extreme partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, lies about voter fraud and attacks on democratic institutions are driven by an “aggressive countermajoritarian movement” made up of “opponents of a more pluralistic democracy.”

The  people behind this movement don’t want a public dialogue about the real economic, social and political issues that face us. They want to enforce minority rule on a population that mostly doesn’t agree with them. Part of their strategy involves stirring up discord. Another part is undermining democracy itself. 

By 2044, the report points out, white people are projected to be a minority in the U.S. Democrats have won the national popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections in part by building coalitions of young, urban, racially diverse and more educated voters. And the trend toward a more diverse, more educated electorate continues.

Republicans, meanwhile, increasingly draw their support from a shrinking number of older, white, rural and less educated voters. No wonder their policies are out of step with majority public opinion.

In order to hold onto power, the GOP has resorted to “hyped and misplaced fears of voting irregularities and apprehension about changing demographics … coupled with a steady assault on long-held democratic norms,” the report states.

That background helps explain some of the more vexing positions taken by Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated Legislature recently, including withholding funding from the University of Wisconsin and standing behind an extreme and unpopular abortion ban.

The good news is, there are ways to fight back against entrenched minority rule. The Center on American Progress recommends a series of steps including a federal Freedom to Vote Act that overrides state laws that make it difficult for voters to access the ballot, as well as full implementation of Biden’s 2021 executive order designed to expand voting access. It also recommends that Congress and the states pass laws to ban partisan gerrymandering. 

Here in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court is in the process of deciding what to do about our gerrymandered voting maps. If fair maps emerge from the current court challenge, Wisconsin Republicans will find themselves in more competitive districts, which will push them to listen to a broader cross-section of voters. That alone will have a salutary effect.

Even under our current, Republican-dominated Legislature, there are some signs that politicians recognize that voters don’t appreciate their campaign of division and destruction. This week a crack appeared in GOP’s anti-UW position when Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said he supports releasing the $32 million Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been holding hostage, refusing to allow UW employees to receive pay raises until the university roots out every last trace of diversity, equity and inclusion programming. LeMahieu also indicated that the Legislature will move forward on funding for the UW engineering building, another sticking point that ought to receive broad, bipartisan support.

However diabolical the counter-majoritarian movement to hold power might look, it still requires the support of voters to succeed. And as mixed up as our conspiracy-fueled politics have become, voters still have some basic common interests. If we can get beyond the lies and conspiracy theories, as the democracy advocates who sued Wisconsin’s fake electors did this week when they got them to admit that Biden won the 2020 election, those common interests could come into focus.

“When your rivals are demonized, it’s easier to dismiss their ideas. That’s the real danger,” says Nichols. “Conspiracy theories, fake news and propaganda are designed to lock in division. That only benefits the economic and political elites that fear the prospect that broad coalitions of Americans might demand fundamental and necessary change.”

Here’s to pushing aside the lies and building that broader coalition. Imagine the possibilities. 

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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.

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