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May 05, 2014 1:24 PM Can’t We Just All Get Along? Not in Metro Milwaukee

By Ed Kilgore

If you’re one of those folks who think partisan polarization is mainly the product of political elites who are ignoring the reasonable, centrist views of the public and refusing to cut obviously available deals to solve problems, you owe it to yourself to read a long, dispiriting piece about metropolitan Milwaukee by Craig Gilbert for the Journal-Sentinel. He paints a intensely colorful (red and blue) picture of an area where voters are quite literally divided by geography, race, population density, and attitudes towards government, in perfect alignment with the two major parties, and with no more than 5% of the electorate up for grabs in any significant way.

What makes metro Milwaukee especially polarized, says Gilbert, is an unusual level of residential segregation (mainly by race, but also by proximity to the central city) and perhaps an unequalled recent experience of high-visibility warfare over the policies of Scott Walker. Terms like “different worlds” and even “different planets” are sprinkled throughout the quotes from local politicians and activists. One of the most illuminating passages involved a Milwaukee Democrat named Sheldon Wasserman who was running in a state Senate district that encompassed both urban and suburban neighborhoods:

A doctor, Wasserman said he knew he was doomed when he went to the door of an emergency medical technician in the Washington County village of Richfield (where Walker won by 60 points in 2012) and got into an argument over the merits of taxpayer-funded defibrillators.
“You’re going to raise taxes,” the man admonished him, says Wasserman.
“I knew I’d lost, if I’m going to lose a volunteer EMT,” he says. “There was absolutely no way in the world I was going to win that vote out there.”
A lot of Republicans agree, though they tend to characterize the divide very differently — not as “public interest vs. private interest” but “makers vs. takers.”
“Some people still value hard work and self-reliance, and other people want to take advantage and get something for nothing. That seems to be what’s driving the divide,” says Keith Best, a 60-year-old salesman who became active in the Waukesha Republican Party during the 2004 Bush-Kerry battle for Wisconsin, the closest state in the nation that year.

You get the sense the mutual hatred of party activists in this area is as ferocious as anything you’d see in Mississippi. And it’s getting worse:

[N]o other major metropolitan area went through the crucible of the labor wars and recall extravaganza of 2011-‘12, an upheaval without any parallel in recent American politics. Metro Milwaukee’s partisan divisions long predate the civil war over Walker’s first term. But they were clearly exacerbated by them.
The convergence of all these factors helps explain why metropolitan Milwaukee can feel like ground zero in the modern-day clash between red and blue.
“The politics that have been practiced is very much an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality,” says Graul, referring to both parties. “We don’t try to convince people we’re right. We just try to turn out our side.”

Remember that if Scott Walker is re-elected this November and decides to run for president. Issues aside, he may have more national appeal than is commonly understood to conservatives whose fondest wish is to bludgeon Blue America into submission.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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