David Michael Miller
Congressman Sean Duffy couldn’t have asked for more. The Republican who represents the 7th Congressional District, covering a good portion of northern Wisconsin, took a shot at Madison last week in an interview on Fox News. Madison’s leaders gave him the response of his dreams.
Duffy said that Dane County was the only one in the state that was hand-counting ballots in the recently concluded recount called for and paid for by Green Party candidate Jill Stein. (Trump’s margin increased slightly when the recount was concluded.)
Duffy was dead wrong about his claim, as Dane County was one of dozens of counties that hand-counted ballots. And since some of those counties were in Duffy’s own district, it’s not unfair to suggest that he probably knew he was wrong or, at the very least, should have known.
But Duffy, rumored to be a candidate to take on U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018, didn’t stop at telling untruths. He went on to take the obligatory swipe at Madison, calling our unpretentious little town a “progressive liberal communist community.”
Well, give the guy credit for being 75 percent correct that time. We are, for certain, progressive and liberal and we are a community. Communist goes too far. In fact, you really can’t be a liberal and a communist at the same time. Liberals want to work within the existing free market structure to sand off some of its rough edges, while communists subscribe to a fully different economic system.
But let me make a wild guess here. I’ll bet Duffy wasn’t interested in political science definitions and academic distinctions when he was talking to his Fox News audience. I’m going to guess that this was a calculated attempt to feed red meat to them and, he hoped, elicit a huffy response from our fair city, giving his story legs.
And that’s exactly what he got. Our good Congressman Mark Pocan issued a predictable missive demanding an apology and pointing out that Dane County “is one of the leading economic drivers in our state and the county is responsible for 73 percent of the new jobs created in Wisconsin in the last decade.”
Mayor Paul Soglin echoed him, saying that Madison is an “economic success that is unmatched and unrivaled in the rest of the state.” For good measure the mayor labeled Duffy a “liar” and a “charlatan.”
Not to be outdone, the Cap Times editorial board frothed that Duffy’s comment “was an insult not just to Dane County but to the counties in Duffy’s own congressional district across the northern part of the state.”
The Cap Times joined Pocan in the ritual demand for an apology they know will never come.
Look, I’m not criticizing Pocan, Soglin or the Cap Times. They all did what you’d expect: vigorously defend their community. I might have done the same in their positions.
The problem is that this will have no effect on Duffy at all, and it won’t improve Madison’s standing with the rest of Wisconsin. Duffy got a rise out of just the folks he wanted to irritate. And it probably played in the rest of the state just the way he had hoped. Maybe it played even better because Madison leaders came off as not just defensive, but arrogant when they went out of their way to point out how much better Dane County was doing than everybody else. And let’s not forget that the primary reason we do so well is the good judgment of the people of Wisconsin when they located their flagship university here. So, those comments only fueled the resentment that Duffy intended to incite in the first place.
This kind of thing is as old as the state itself. Running against Madison is the local equivalent to the conventional national political routine of running against Washington. It’s amazing how hard a politician will fight to be returned to the very place he professes so vociferously to hate. I guess going back to Washington or to Madison is just another sacrifice these brave public servants make on behalf of the people.
As the state Capital and home to Wisconsin’s largest public university, Madison should expect to take its share of unkind shots. It’s a fine American tradition to mock and rage at the power, whether that’s the president, the governor, the big corporation or the place defined as the center of authority. It’s actually a healthy thing and an instinct that needs to be fully applied to our self-important president-elect.
Our local leaders need a better, more strategic response the next time this sort of thing happens, as it surely will. UW-Madison is already doing some interesting things trying to build stronger connections to the rest of the state. For example, the UW Foundation and the Alumni Association bought billboards this fall all over the state linking some local notables who got their education at the UW to the community to which they returned. And a good person to consult is UW professor Kathy Cramer, who has spent a lot of time hanging out all over rural Wisconsin and just listening to how our fellow Wisconsinites talk about us. She explains her findings in her book The Politics of Resentment. But maybe the best source to consult would be the spirit of the late, great Madison prankster Leon Varjian.
My sense of it is that we need to somehow humanize Madison, to get our fellow Badgers to think of us as maybe the eccentric uncle in the family but not as the obnoxious cousin with the trust fund and the attitude. And it wouldn’t hurt to take some of the edge off by poking a little fun at ourselves.
Maybe rather than giving Duffy exactly what he wanted for Christmas, we should send him a pink flamingo and a package of granola from the Willy Street Co-op with a solstice card wishing him glad tidings from his comrades here in the People’s Republic of Madison.