David Michael Miller
The Democratic Party is lost in the wilderness. I went looking for it.
Let’s start by documenting just how deep in the forest it is.
The Republicans hold a 64-35 majority in the state Assembly, their biggest margin since 1957, and a 20-13 edge in the state Senate, their largest since 1971.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has won three straight elections. In 2012 he became the first governor in American history to survive a recall election.
While technically a nonpartisan body, Republican-backed candidates hold a five-to-two majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Democrats could not even muster a candidate to challenge conservative Justice Annette Ziegler.
How could it possibly have gotten this bad? To try to understand it better, I tapped a handful of the best political thinkers I know. Whenever I could, I plied them with coffee or cocktails in cozy settings.
I did not go to official party sources because we already know what the party line is; it goes something like this: By losing both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in a national conservative uprising in 2010, Republicans were handed the keys to decennial redistricting after that year’s census. They used their power ruthlessly and, combined with the latest data and software, drew districts that will lock in their majorities until the next redistricting, which won’t be in place until 2022.
There is truth in that. Democrats have won a federal court case challenging the Republican gerrymandering as unconstitutional. This will wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court before too long, and, if they can win there, new, more fair districts might be in place in time for the next round of elections in 2018.
Or maybe not. If the high court rules in favor of the Democrats, it would be the first time in history that the court has struck down a map based on political, as opposed to racial, considerations. In short, don’t count on it.
The gerrymandering argument is now such an ingrained part of party lore that it has become a crutch, a way to avoid dealing with deeper problems. We know the Republicans did a bad thing to the Democrats. They dropped them off in the middle of nowhere without a compass. Okay. So how do they find their way back?
It’s the week before Donald Trump will become president. Paul Maslin and I are sharing lunch in downtown Madison. The Democratic pollster has worked for lots of top-shelf clients, like former U.S. Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl. He also takes second-tier pols, like me in 2011, when I tried for a third term as Madison mayor. Gregarious and with a deep, loud voice, Maslin does not hold back.
He recounts a conversation he had with another Democratic operative just after the 2016 election. That person suggested that the working class is gone, and that the party should reach out to affluent suburbanites.
“This guy thinks the future of the party is in Waukesha,” Maslin says with disdain. “If our future is to be the affluent, educated, latte party, then I’m checking out. That ain’t my party, because if that’s who we are, then we’ve lost our soul.”
Maslin thinks the solution may be to answer Trump with a liberal populist message and to downplay, but not abandon, the party’s message of social diversity. “We should be proud that we are the more tolerant and diverse party. But just for a second, can we not lead with our chin so much?”
He believes that the party hits on the diversity message to such an unrelenting extent, “that anybody who’s not black or Latino or gay or urban hip feels like they’re put off, that they’re not part of the special club.” He re-emphasizes that he does not want his party to abandon social justice for an economic message. But, he asks plaintively, “Can’t we do both?”
“We owe it to ourselves to try a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren populist approach as much as we can.”
Mahlon Mitchell and I grab a cup of coffee in the “glass bank” building on the Capitol Square. It was just outside those big windows that Mitchell, clad in his dress firefighters uniform, led marches during the 2011 Act 10 protests. His activism helped propel him to be the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in the following year’s recall election against Walker.
Today Mitchell, who attended the same Delavan high school as the governor, is still a Madison firefighter, and he leads the 5,000-member Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin.
“Our membership is probably 95 percent white guys, and a lot of them voted for Trump,” he says. “They just didn’t feel that Hillary Clinton was speaking to them.”
After he got over the anger and grief of the November election, Mitchell spent a long January night writing down his thoughts, trying to make sense of it all just for himself. When he finished he had 21 pages of notes.
His central conclusion was that the Democrats need to change their message from one of “silos” of interest groups to one of “commonality.”
He faults Clinton for listing in her stump speech all the groups she would fight for, including African Americans. “But if you’re going to start naming groups of people you better name all of them, or the ones who don’t get named are going to notice,” says Mitchell, who is black.
I ask him to name a group that got left out. “Well, obviously white guys,” he says with a laugh. In other words, a lot of his members.
Mitchell also echoed a common theme of those I interviewed. Democrats, he says, rely too heavily on reason and policy proposals. “But politics is about getting people in their gut. It’s about emotion.”
His prescription? “Democrats are in a state of emergency right now. Firefighters like to keep things simple. You get to a scene and you just try to sort things out and do what you can and move on to the next problem.”
For him the simple answer is to move a common message about economic opportunity to the center of the Democratic agenda. He believes that that kind of message will resonate “from La Crosse to the inner city of Milwaukee.”
Show up and listen
Kathy Cramer’s new book, The Politics of Resentment, hit the market this fall just as Trump shocked the world. Critics put it in the company of other books, like Hillbilly Elegy, that try to make sense of a white working class that seemingly votes against its own interests.
Cramer, a UW-Madison political scientist, spent six years traveling the state, visiting several times with each of 39 groups at gas stations, bars and diners. She listened in as they talked about Madison, taxes, the Department of Natural Resources, their schools and their towns.
What she heard was a way of thinking that makes sense if you listen closely enough. They oppose social welfare programs because they think that they will benefit only the undeserving in places far away from them. They oppose regulations — even ones that would protect their own water — because they believe more rules will cost jobs and be ineffective anyway because they will be administered by bureaucrats in Madison.
Above all they see themselves as residents of a place — rural Wisconsin — that is little understood or cared about by the big shots in the cities.
I ask Cramer, while having a beer at the Memorial Union’s newly remodeled Rathskeller, how her book had been received. She tells me that she has been invited to speak to the Congressional Democratic Caucus in Washington and to other groups of Democrats looking for answers.
She hastens to point out that her book is an academic work, that she is not by any stretch of the imagination a partisan consultant, and that before she accepted the invitation to speak in Washington she contacted Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office to offer to speak to his caucus as well. He has not yet taken her up on the offer.
After reading her book, I agree that what political lessons might be derived from it are applicable to either party. It’s just that the Republicans long ago internalized them, while many Democrats treat her study as the strange and fascinating rituals of some forgotten tribe.
Cramer, who is a true Wisconsinite with the accent to prove it, still keeps in touch with some of the dozens of people she talked with all over the state.
Her advice to Democrats: “Showing up and listening matters.”
A week later and just down the corridor in the Memorial Union, UW political science professor Ken Mayer and I chat over a cup of coffee. Mayer is nationally recognized for his research on elections and the presidency. He is an expert witness in that lawsuit challenging the Republican gerrymander. It killed me that sitting across the table was a guy who knew more about the greatest source of Wisconsin Democrats’ distress, but, because the case is pending, he couldn’t talk about it at all.
He agreed that the Democrats’ problems went beyond the maps. Like Cramer, Mayer made it clear that he was not a partisan and that whatever insights he might have about the Wisconsin electorate were applicable to anyone who wanted to heed them.
“A segment of the electorate feels like they’ve been left behind. Whether or not that’s true is beside the point,” he says.
But he does cut the Democrats some slack. He emphasizes that what happened in Wisconsin is not just a national phenomenon. The white working class seems to be in revolt against the establishment everywhere. He notes the Brexit vote and other movements in Europe. He also reminds me that while Wisconsin had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Reagan, many of the Democratic candidates won by razor-thin margins.
But he doesn’t think the prescription is to double down on identity politics. “The Democrats are perceived as a party of identities as opposed to a party of interests,” he says.
Taking the long view, he says that African Americans were Republican voters before the Democrats made progress on civil rights in the 1960s. In the same way, he says that Democrats should not be too sanguine about a fast-growing Hispanic population coming to their rescue in the future. Times change, so counting on particular demographic groups can be disappointing.
But he also notes that after the Democratic rout of Barry Goldwater and congressional Republicans in 1964, that party was given up for lost much like the Democrats might be now.
His prescription is identical to Cramer’s. Listen and “ask what voters really care about.”
Somebody not like you
Gaylord Nelson put the minority in minority leader. When the future governor and U.S. senator served in the state Senate, Democrats were even deeper in the wilderness than they are now. In the mid-1950s, Nelson was the leader of only five Democrats in a 33-member body.
I met his daughter, Tia Nelson, for a drink at a cozy bar in downtown Madison. Years ago Tia and I both worked at the Nature Conservancy, she running international programs out of Washington while I was the Wisconsin chapter’s government relations guy.
You may recall her name because up until last year she led a quiet state agency that manages 80,000 acres of public land and administers a fund to help public schools. At least it was quiet until a member of her oversight board banned her or her staff from so much as talking about global climate change, even though these changes affect management of public lands. She eventually resigned and now works for the upstart Outrider Foundation.
I wanted to report that these times were just like the 1950s, when her beloved and iconic father led the Democrats from nowhere to prominence.
No dice. “These are not really comparable times,” she says. “Papa and others were building a party where for all practical purposes there had been none.”
By contrast, today’s party is well-established but with significant problems. “We’ve lost control of the narrative,” she says. “We think that the blue counties that went red are the working class voting against their own interest. I believe that to be quite mistaken, and a dangerous misunderstanding of what’s happening.”
Nelson says that rural voters know their own interests very well, that they go into elections with their eyes wide open and that they reject Democrats because they often see them as the greater of two evils. Nelson also believes Democrats have to reconnect with rural Wisconsin voters. “If identity politics worked, Donald Trump would not be president.”
She ends the evening by telling a story about how, after Bob Kasten defeated her father for his U.S. Senate seat in 1980, she worked with Kasten on environmental issues. And she did it with her father’s blessing. She laments the loss of that kind of spirit in today’s politics.
Her advice for her fellow Democrats: “Go talk to somebody who is not like you.”
It all starts with the county clerk
So, I dialed up somebody who is not like me. That someone was Pete Helios. Helios is the Democratic Party chair in Clark County and now the leader of all the county party chairs in the state. He was among the folks interviewed by Cramer for her book, and she referred me to him.
Helios is a hell of an interesting story in his own right. He grew up in Chicago, and his grandfather was a South Side ward captain in the Democratic machine. “I learned politics from Professor Richard J. Daley,” Helios says in the husky and gruff voice of a 69-year-old who has seen some of the world.
About 24 years ago Helios and his wife moved to Granton, where he continued mink farming and stayed active in Democratic politics. He remains convinced that the strength of the party is in the grassroots.
His complaint with the state party is that it doesn’t pay attention to races below the state Assembly level. By contrast he works hard to get good candidates to run for local offices like county clerk and register of deeds. He told me that the late Gov. Pat Lucey told him that a strong set of county courthouse candidates might add 200 to 300 votes to the total for a candidate for state Assembly — enough to win in some cases.
A man who clearly likes and understands people, Helios says he could feel the Trump wave coming. “I saw the people with their Trump lawn signs going out of the county fair. I’d stand there at my Democratic booth and watch them walk by with smirks on their faces. I knew something was up.”
He also believes that folks in Madison just completely miss issues in northern Wisconsin. I ask him what’s important up there right now.
“Wolves,” he says flatly.
His neighbors see the expansion of the state wolf population as a significant threat to their livestock. Remember, Helios was a mink farmer. If Madisonians think of wolves at all, we are likely to believe that they are majestic animals that should be protected. Clark County residents are more likely to think of them as predators that should be shot.
I find Pete Helios compelling, and he gets me thinking heretical thoughts. If liberals didn’t fight so hard to save every single wolf, would that really be so bad? Would I sacrifice a wolf or two to pick up an Assembly seat?
Finally, my deadline arrives. I run out of time. Even with my self-imposed prohibition on talking to anyone who would give me the official line, I have a dozen more people I want to contact. Virtually every source suggests at least one more person I just need to speak with.
Still, the diagnosis and the prescriptions are remarkably consistent. Urban elite liberals need to change their attitude. Over a strong Belgian beer, Scott Resnick, the former Madison alder and mayoral candidate who grew up in Wausau, tells me that Democrats need to make people like Pete Helios and his neighbors “active contributors to our agenda, rather than treating them like they need saving.”
The idea that working-class voters are too dense to understand their own interests is condescending, counterproductive and wrong. The notion that Democrats have policy papers to answer every need misses the point that politics is not about 10-point plans but about emotions and perceptions and narratives that help people make sense of their lives.
Democrats are not just losing because of gerrymandered lines on a map. They are losing because they are not connecting on an emotional level and they have conceded the narrative to the Republicans. A Republican will tell you a half-true story that resonates; a Democrat will show you a totally accurate graph that does not.
Still, I like to think about Gaylord Nelson and his five-member caucus, and how he helped build that into a new, dominant Democratic majority. Times are certainly different. But each party has risen from the ashes before.
Just before we end our call, Pete Helios offers a final word about his party. “Hey, listen,” he says in a voice that has become suddenly more soft. “We’ll live to fight another day.”