In the final issue of Isthmus for 2014, I wrote about what I considered to be the top 10 stories of the year that would have the most impact in 2015 and beyond. I listed the top three as Governor Walker's reelection, the big Republican majorities in the Wisconsin Legislature, and local reactions to the Ferguson protests, in that order.
I now wish to revise and extend my remarks.
Some make a case that the Ferguson story should be in the top spot. The argument goes that the issue referenced by the word "Ferguson" is in fact much bigger than the killing of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in that community. It's actually a nationwide issue, spurred by similar racially charged incidents in New York, Cleveland, Milwaukee and elsewhere, and there will likely, and unfortunately, be a continuing series of these issues going forward.
All true, but I'm sticking to my original ranking for Ferguson. My reasoning is that there's no guarantee that the protests or the press interest or both won't fade away. As evidence I offer Newtown. In December 2012, twenty young children and six of their teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School just before Christmas. I thought that after that carnage, Americans would for sure do something about the scourge of gun violence. And, just like Ferguson, Newtown has been followed by a more or less endless stream of similar incidents. But instead of resulting in meaningful change, these tragedies have almost become routine. Another report of several people massacred at a church, a mall, a school and... on to sports and weather!
But after some consideration, I would change something in my list. I would actually move the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature to the top. The reason is that, while we can't be sure the Ferguson story will be sustained, it's a dead certainty that the GOP will start 2015 with a 63-36 majority in the Assembly and a 19-14 advantage in the state Senate. And this, I think now, is even more significant than Governor Walker winning three elections in four years.
I have a hunch that this mismatch between where the public is at on the issues and the extreme right-wing nature of its representatives will be the dominant story over the next decade or so. That's true both here in Wisconsin and at the national level, where Republicans now control the U.S. Senate and have the largest majority in the House that they've enjoyed in over half a century.
The reason it's such a big deal is that it indicates a fundamental breakdown in our democracy. Our system of representation does not appear to be working. While America becomes more liberal in its views, our government grows ever more reactionary. It's not just that Republicans enjoy huge majorities that are all out of relation to the partisan breakdown among voters, but that those elected officials are extremely conservative. Our nation as a whole is purple and trending blue, while our representative bodies grow even redder.
Look, I'm not trying to make a case that the rest of the state or the nation is as liberal as Madison. Of course it isn't. But neither are that much more conservative.
A recent Gallup poll found that 31% of Americans identify as Democrats while 25% call themselves Republicans; meanwhile, independents dominate at 42%.
But the recent election doesn't reflect the views of Americans as a whole, regardless of party affiliation or lack of it, on a variety of issues. A review of recent polling data from numerous sources indicates that Americans give Democrats the edge or even strong majorities on their approach to issues like immigration, Social Security, health care, education, reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. Those same polls found that Americans, by substantial percentages, found Republicans to be more confrontational, extreme in their views, less willing to make government work, more influenced by lobbyists and special interests, and less ethical than Democrats. And by a 53% to 34% majority, Americans said that Democrats were "more concerned about the needs of people like me" than are Republicans.
Yet, despite the fact that almost three out of five people identify with the Democratic Party, and the fact that majorities of Americans agree with the Democrats on most key issues, Republicans will hold 54% of the seats in the U.S. Senate and 57% of seats in the U.S. House as both bodies reconvene in a new Congressional session next week. And Republicans will control 63% of the seats in the Wisconsin Assembly and 57% of the state Senate in their upcoming sessions.
That's what I see as the fundamental breakdown in our system of democracy -- the people who are supposed to represent us don't reflect majority views on the issues and are out of touch with where the nation is going culturally. We're becoming more accepting of gays; Republicans remain opposed to same-sex marriage. We're becoming less religious; Republicans have a strongly evangelical Christian bent. Vast majorities of Americans, even firearms owners, support at least some modest gun control; Republicans are adamantly opposed to the smallest improvement. And the list goes on and on.
This is a prescription for growing frustration, not on the part of a put-upon liberal minority, but for a majority of Americans and Wisconsinites who have the right to expect that their government should represent them. It's a type of frustration that breeds a lack of confidence in the system itself -- what we've got coming is nothing less than a crisis in American democracy.