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Split Focus: Seeing polarization up close

MILWAUKEE — The people who came out to see Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., at his town hall meeting in the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls this past weekend were angry and resentful. The immigration crisis, they worried, is threatening their way of life. “Who were these people trying to sneak into the country, and why wasn’t the government doing more to keep them out or send them back?” they would ask.

“If we have portions of our border that are unprotected, I’m really concerned,” said Chris Bauman, who lives in nearby Waukesha, roughly 1,500 miles north of the nation’s southern border. “Not everyone comes to the country for the American dream. There are people who come to the country who want to do harm to the people that live here.”

At various other times in the meeting, the names of both the attorney general and the president were uttered with disdain. The word “impeachment” was invoked, although Sensenbrenner swatted it aside. It was like climbing directly inside a talk radio broadcast.

Less than half an hour away, a different type of Sunday afternoon meeting was taking place at “Coffee Makes You Black,” an urban café in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood that was serving up smothered chicken and a different type of anger.

The concern here was about a spate of gun-related violence playing out on their doorsteps.

“I’m afraid for my kids to go outside,” said Kimberly Williams. “I have a four-year-old son. I have thought of moving a whole million miles away just so that I can feel like he can go to the playground and I won’t get a phone call saying he was shot.”

The divide was stark. In Menomonee Falls, there will be a Civil War reenactment this weekend. In Riverwest, there will be a neighborhood rummage sale.

Just as the concerns in Riverwest and Menomonee Falls could not be more different, so too are their voting patterns. There are few places in America where red and blue divisions are on starker display. In 2012, city residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of recalling Republican Governor Scott Walker, while the suburban residents in the state’s collar counties voted to keep him. (Walker survived the recall effort; however, divisions remain.)

But Sensenbrenner says the divisions are also carved into place by the way politics is now practiced.

“Unfortunately there has been a great decline in the civility of our political disputes,” he told me just before his town hall meeting began. “You find more and more people who do not think that the other side of a controversial issue has any legitimate arguments at all, and I think that that’s a result of how campaigns have been run, through the negative ads, and the polarization of our society.”

Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat who represents Milwaukee’s urban core, says politicians like Governor Walker have exploited polarization by pitting interest groups against one another; by weakening labor unions; and tightening access to voting.

“It’ll be a sad case if we can’t really talk to each other again,” she said. “It would really be great to see a governor, or statewide leadership that really says, ‘you know, devil be damned if I just look toward being re-elected, I’m going to do what’s best for folk.’”

For Wisconsinites – who have been energized to record levels of voter participation in recent years – the question is whether their needs are being served.

“Certainly this is about politics, this nation, and that’s how it’s run, but shouldn’t it be more about people?” said Earl Ingram, who was running the Internet radio show at the urban coffeeshop. “Shouldn’t we spend more time being concerned about humanity, and human beings, than we are about politics? That’s the shortcoming of the nation. We are more concerned about separating ourselves politically than we are about understanding the things we have in common.”

But it’s hard to see how the separation ends.

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