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In politically divided Wisconsin, little incentive to seek middle ground

July 18, 2014 at 6:42 PM EDT
The residents of metropolitan Milwaukee, Wisconsin are increasingly split by race, political party and geography. A major fight over Gov. Scott Walker in 2012 helped widen the divide. Gwen Ifill talks to residents and local politicians about the fractured political landscape and what the polarization means on a national level, and Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh in with analysis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight, some domestic politics: a look at the intensifying clash between red and blue America.

Few places reflect the growing political chasm in the U.S. as does the state of Wisconsin, and in particular metropolitan Milwaukee, home to an engaged electorate and deep racial, social and economic divisions.

Gwen traveled there this past week.

EARL INGRAM: Fifty years ago, we had that battle. Why are we fighting it again?

GWEN IFILL: Lifelong Milwaukee resident Earl Ingram lives on one side of the divide.

EARL INGRAM: Wisconsin has had a terrible history, like many other states in this country, of not being fair when it comes to people of color — well, not just here, but across the nation, with the conservative reality that has come back.

GWEN IFILL: Keith Best, who left the city for the suburbs in his ’30s, lives on the other.

KEITH BEST: I saw jobs were leaving, I saw taxes were going up, and I saw the school system was failing, and that’s why I moved out to Waukesha.

GWEN IFILL: Best and Ingram are from the essentially the same place, battleground Wisconsin, minutes away from one another in distance, but miles away in their politics.

In Milwaukee’s Riverwest at an urban cafe named Coffee Makes You Black, the topic was how to curb neighborhood violence. Thirty children have been shot in the city this year.

KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: It takes politics. It takes churches. It takes every single resource that we have, not out in Waukesha, not in Menomonee Falls, not in Mequon, right here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

GWEN IFILL: By contrast, at Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner’s community town hall a few miles away, the hot topic was immigration.

CHRIS BAUMAN: I believe it is not only a humanitarian crisis, but it is a national security crisis.

GWEN IFILL: The audiences, black and white, Democrats and Republicans, urban and suburban, reflect a sober truth. Residents of metropolitan Milwaukee, once home to ticket-splitting independent thinkers, no longer view the world through the same lens.

The city of Milwaukee is majority-minority, 56 percent black and Hispanic, but the minority population in the surrounding suburbs is somewhere in the single digits. And here in southeastern Wisconsin, it goes way beyond race, to social, economic, and partisan segregation.

Milwaukee’s suburbs are redder than almost anywhere else outside the south.

GWEN IFILL: Craig Gilbert, who tracked Wisconsin’s growing polarization in a four-part series for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said the split widened in 2012. That’s when an effort to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker drove record partisan turnout in the blue cities of Milwaukee and Madison, as well as in the red suburbs clustered around both.

CRAIG GILBERT, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: He’s just so divisive. I mean, it’s just all about how you feel about how he’s governed this state over the past three or four years. And every piece of evidence we have is that it’s almost right down the middle.

GWEN IFILL: One example: Republicans give Walker 91 percent approval rating. Among Democrats, President Obama gets 93 percent.

MAYOR THOMAS BARRETT, D, Milwaukee: All you have to do is look at a map and you can see, in voting results, just how widespread the differences are, and Milwaukee, the city of Milwaukee, a deep, deep blue. You get the outlying areas of Waukesha County, and you can’t get much redder.

GWEN IFILL: Milwaukee Mayor Thomas Barrett has slammed headlong into that partisan wall, running unsuccessfully for governor three times, the last time on the losing end of the effort to recall Republican Walker.

Polarization, he believes, has been driven by the strength of conservative talk radio.

THOMAS BARRETT: I think it’s horrific economically…


THOMAS BARRETT: … to have that much of a schism. I think it’s bad in terms of race relations. I think it’s bad in terms of growth for the region, because I think if you have got an area that’s pitted against each other, you’re not trying to find the similarities, you’re not trying to find the commonalities that would allow you to work together as a team. And it’s very unfortunate.

GWEN IFILL: The divide is deep and enduring.

Carmen Murguia is a poet who was born on the city’s South Side.

CARMEN MURGUIA: We don’t talk to each other. We — at least from what I have seen, we keep ourselves separate because we don’t think, A, we’re going to be listened to, other side of the aisle, or understood, or even come to a happy medium.

GWEN IFILL: Sally Kabacinski also grew up in Milwaukee, but now lives in nearby Wauwatosa, Scott Walker’s hometown.

SALLY KABACINSKI: I don’t understand liberalism, because, believe it or not, I was a Democrat. My family was a Democrat. And…

GWEN IFILL: What changed?

SALLY KABACINSKI: Their liberalism.

GWEN IFILL: Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch says Wisconsinites are merely voting with their feet.

LT. GOV. REBECCA KLEEFISCH, R, Wis.: Wisconsin is really no different from the rest of the country. As population trends have evolved over time, so have political trends. And so folks are looking for candidates, leaders, representatives who speak to their wants and needs regardless of geography.

GWEN IFILL: Walker’s move to roll back union protections for public workers, she said, actually helped.

GWEN IFILL: Did that leave the state divided?  Because Democrats overwhelmingly wanted to recall the governor; Republicans overwhelmingly didn’t.

LT. GOV. REBECCA KLEEFISCH: You noticed that too.

GWEN IFILL: I did notice that.


LT. GOV. REBECCA KLEEFISCH: I think the whole country noticed that.


LT. GOV. REBECCA KLEEFISCH: I don’t think it left the state divided. Frankly, I think it left the state in a stronger position than she was in even before.

GWEN IFILL: Try telling that to Keith Schmitz. He spent part of his weekend campaigning for Democrat Mary Burke, who is challenging Walker this fall.

KEITH SCHMITZ: The thing about progress in any state is that, when you divide, you can’t multiply. And things have been rather divisive in this state.

GWEN IFILL: As Walker’s national star has continued to rise, Republicans are eying him as a likely presidential candidate in 2016.

CRAIG GILBERT: Governor Walker has sort of been making the argument to Republicans that you can be a very sort of staunch conservative and still succeed politically.

GWEN IFILL: Or survive, anyway?

CRAIG GILBERT: Or survive anyway in a battleground state. And we will see if that happens.

GWEN IFILL: With 18 terms in Congress, Sensenbrenner has survived.

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, R, Wis.: If you go fishing where the fish are, and the Republicans were turning the votes out in the suburbs, while the Democrats were turning the votes out in the city, and no political party is going to turn, vote south, or go vote the other way.

GWEN IFILL: Five-term Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore says the lines have hardened over time, as Republicans deny city residents funding for amenities like public transit.

REP. GWEN MOORE, D, Wis.: It’s not like your ward captain walks up and down the street and says you need to stay in line and vote as a Democrat.

But I think that when you don’t have the opportunity, you know, like we’re here in the public market, to gather and there be some sort of public forum for exchanging ideas, that it is a lot easier for people to corral you into one type of thinking.

GWEN IFILL: Sheldon Wasserman, a former state assemblyman, describes himself as a moderate Democrat. He tripped into this political chasm in 2008, when he decided to expand his reach and run for state Senate. The bigger district, which stretched across the divide, exposed him to a whole new world.

SHELDON WASSERMAN, D, Former State Assemblyman, Wis.: I represented a district that was educated, progressive, and Republican, and Democratic, but more Republican. And I thought I knew what Republicans were all about and I thought I knew what Democrats were all about.

GWEN IFILL: He lost his race to the Republican incumbent by one point.

In this environment, both sides admit there is little incentive to find middle ground.

KEITH BEST: I don’t know what it’s going to take to get compromise again, because there’s — of the polarization. It’s just a tough situation. One side is going to be proven right, and one side is going to be proven wrong. And I don’t know how that’s going to end up.

GWEN IFILL: Is it a healthy fight?

KEITH BEST: Good question. I can’t answer that. I wish I could.

GWEN IFILL: But with a gubernatorial and presidential race on the horizon, this fractured political landscape could determine outcomes for years in Wisconsin and in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And back now with Mark Shields and David Brooks.

Mark, how typical is this divide that we just — that Gwen is showing us in Wisconsin in the rest of the country?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s too typical. And just congratulate Gwen on that piece.

She interview Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Sentinel, who pointed out that, in 1994, just 20 years ago, Tommy Thompson, the Republican governor, carried Milwaukee, and Herb Kohl, the Democratic senator, carried Waukesha County, the bedrock Republican — there was a time when 40 percent of Wisconsin voters split their ballot. That is no longer the case.

And you have — where you have basically in the campaigns in Wisconsin that Gwen was describing are — it’s army politics. In other words, we’re not interested in persuading anybody on the other side, reaching around and finding common ground with them. We’re just in an army. We’re just mobilizing our troops. That’s what we’re about doing and getting them — we’re not interested in getting 65 or 70 percent, as Tommy Thompson did. We’re interested in getting 51.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what changed? In the 20 years, what has happened?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s a good question.

There’s been this debate among political scientists, is the polarization a Washington phenomenon or is it a national phenomenon? And I used to think it was a Washington phenomenon. It was the people who watch MSNBC and FOX and then all the lobbyists and all the money people.

It’s now pretty clear that it’s a national phenomenon, and that it’s much more bottom-up than it used to be than top-down. And that may be because the top-down polarized the bottom, but people are moving in with people like themselves. The ideological lines are hardening for a whole bunch of reasons.

The one thing I would point out in Wisconsin which I’m really struck by is scarcity. Remember why Walker became nationally famous?  It because of the pension fights. So, as resources begin to dwindle, some of the fights over those resources get more polarized, whether we’re going to have a lot of city services or a lot of secure state pensions or not. And different populations that live in different areas have vastly different reactions to that scarcity problem, on top of all the ideologicalization that’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it’s post-financial collapse and recession?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s part of it.

There’s also an irony that, the more educated a population get, the more polarized it gets, the more ideological people are. So, as the country gets more educated, we also get more ideological.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we can point to colleges and say that’s where the…

MARK SHIELDS: It is. It all goes back to the campuses and parking spaces problems with faculty.



But the campaign is not about persuasion. It’s not about saying, I have this in common with you, even though we don’t belong to the same party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying…

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s a real difference.

So you end up only talking to your own people and telling them how good we are and how virtuous and how terrible the other side is and how threatening they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying that’s because people have already made up their minds and they don’t want to hear anything else.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s a self-reinforcing phenomenon, if I only talk to other people on the other side.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. If your choice is between refrigerator company A and refrigerator company B, these two polarized options, you will polarize. And that’s essentially what’s happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will take the refrigerator company of Shields and Brooks.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you. Mark, David, thank you.