The New “Wisconsin Idea," political polarization, and what it all means for American politics

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Three big issues, all connected, are currently vexing domestic politics in the US: first, the fight over the future of big government and the welfare state, which even its friends agree has serious shortcomings; second, the inability of either major party to lay out a plausible replacement vision for the present-day bureaucratic model; third, as a consequence of the first two points, the extreme polarization of American politics, in which both parties are plenty angry, in part because of their own failures.

If the two parties can’t outthink each other, it seems, they will instead try to outshout each other.

In any given election, one politician or party has to win, of course, but success in one election only seems to breed a backlash in the next election.

As the last few decades have demonstrated, it is perfectly possible that this sort of no-win trench-warfare politicking could continue indefinitely--unless, of course, the US collapses into some sort of Greece-like banana-republic status.

Or, on a more optimistic note, unless one of the two parties figures out a distinctly superior social-welfare political model and manages to persuade the American people to follow that better way.

If one party or the other figures out that formula, it then will win majority status. This four-part series is an attempt to outline how that reform process might occur, and where the needed new ideas might come from.

But first, let’s review exactly where we are today:

Now that Mitt Romney has effectively won the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, the next big fight is going to be in Wisconsin, where Democrats are seeking the recall--that is to say, the removal--of Badger State Governor Scott Walker.

Walker, of course, has famously taken on his state’s public-employee unions, and so now they and their allies are taking it right back to him. The recall election is set for June 5; Walker currently has a slight lead in the polls.

The Walker Wisconsin contest is widely regarded as a foreshadowing of the November national election in which Romney’s challenge to President Obama will be part of an even bigger debate--the national debate over the future of the welfare state and the proper role of government.

And in that bigger debate, perhaps the central player will be another Wisconsinite, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, who has pushed a profound reconsideration of the government’s role onto the national agenda.

In fact, Wisconsin has often been at the forefront of important national debates. Beginning in the late 19th century, Wisconsin was the the first American state to begin importing welfare-state ideas from Europe; “the Wisconsin Idea,” as it was known, soon spread to the rest of the country, culminating in the New Deal.

Yet in the late 20th century, as the shortcomings of the New Deal welfare state became more obvious, Wisconsin led the way in rolling back its worst aspect--a runaway welfare system and the resulting culture of dependency and pathology.

Gov. Tommy Thompson, elected to the Madison state house in 1986, was able to reduce his state’s welfare rolls by more than 80 percent; his efforts were controversial but popular--he was re-elected three times. In other words, while the voters of Wisconsin in one era were eager to see the welfare state built, in a later era, they were eager to see it pruned back.

Now, in the 21st century, Wisconsin is a battleground of ideas yet again, as what political scientist Walter Russell Mead calls “the blue state social model” continues to unravel.

The Walker recall effort is sure to be a hard-fought contest, as money and energy pours in from around the country to reinforce both sides; as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz points out, Walker received 1.1 million votes in 2010, but the recall petition against him received 900,000 signatures.

In addition to the battle against Walker, Democrats last year attempted to recall six Republican state senators who had voted with Walker on his anti-public employee union legislation; the Democrats succeeded in recalling two of those six, reducing the Republican margin in the chamber to a razor-thin 17:16.

This year, the Democrats are trying four more recalls, and one of the Republican senators targeted has already resigned, leaving the state senate tied at 16:16.

The four state senate recall elections will also be held on June 5, and so on that day, everything in Wisconsin could change. Or, if Walker remains in the governor’s office and the Democrats gain control of the state senate, then nothing could change--which is to say, gridlock until at least the next election.

So if Wisconsin is ground zero for the national argument over the welfare state, it is also ground zero for another phenomenon: deep and chronic polarization, in which the two parties, and the two sides, seem to be evenly matched. In other words, the real “Wisconsin Idea” could be polarization.


And that polarization phenomenon, of course, is nationwide.

In America today, neither of the two major political parties can win and hold a sustained majority. And there’s one huge reason why: The voters are not happy with the way things are going, and they take it out on their politicians.

According to Gallup, just 26 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going, while 72 percent are dissatisfied.

Indeed, this trend of discontent has been rumbling for a long time; the number of “satisfieds” in America hasn’t been higher than 35 percent since 2007, and the last time that the country was more pleased than displeased was back in 2003. That’s a strong undertow of unpopularity for both parties.

No wonder, then, that elections over the last decade have been rough for both Democrats and Republicans.

In 2004, President George W. Bush was re-elected by a narrow margin, and yet the Republican Party did well in other elections, defeating Democrats and picking up four US Senate seats.

But just two years later, in the 2006 midterm elections, as the frustrations of the Iraq war took their toll on the national psyche, the GOP lost control of both houses of Congress. And in 2008, not only did John McCain lose in a landslide, but the Republicans took another drubbing in Congress; cumulatively, in the ’06 and ’08 elections, Republican strength fell in the Senate by 14 seats and in the House by 54 seats.

Then in 2009-10, once Obama and the Congressional Democrats were in charge, the onus of voter anger reversed field, and Republicans were once again beneficiaries. Within months of Obama’s inauguration, GOPers had won high-profile gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and then, in 2010, the Tea-Party-energized Republicans recaptured the House and made major gains in the Senate.

Yet over the last two years, we have seen still another reversal of partisan fortune, well beyond Wisconsin. Last spring the GOP lost a closely watched special election in a seemingly Republican district in upstate New York, mostly on the Medicare issue--or, if one prefers, the “Mediscare” issue, in which supporters of the Medicare status quo decried any proposed change in the system as a catastrophe for seniors.

Across the nation, Republicans seem to have gotten bogged down, angering swing voters and demoralizing their own base.

So as we look ahead to November, it seems as if both parties could face disappointment. In the presidential election, the RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows that Obama is about two points ahead of Romney--too close for comfort at the White House.

Meanwhile, the national generic ballot for Congressional elections, also computed by RealClearPolitics, shows House and Senate Republicans up by almost four points.

In other words, the two parties could be destined to divide power for at least another two years; one might fairly conclude that the voters don’t trust either donkeys or elephants--and that, of course, would be a formula for more frustration within the ranks of both parties.

Yet strangely, at the moment when both parties are failing to build an enduring majority, Democrats as well as Republicans seem to be retreating into their respective “bases”--that is, into their treasured, if not necessarily popular, orthodoxies.

And so today Democrats are once again the party of redistribution, and Republicans are once again the party of austerity. And as the partisan rhetoric heats up, the political divide between the two parties deepens.

In his December 10 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, Obama declared “balance and fairness” in the economy to be “the defining issue of our time.”

In February, he proposed a budget of tax hikes and spending increases, and since then, he has relentlessly campaigned not only against Romney, but also against Republicans on Capitol Hill.

On April 3, for instance, Obama singled out Ryan, the budget chairman, for his purported “radical vision.” Ryan’s proposed budget was, in Obama’s telling, “thinly veiled social Darwinism”--that is, a cold plan for leaving ordinary Americans to fend for themselves. And Obama has renewed his campaign to impose a “Buffett Rule”--which is, of course, a substantial tax increase on the rich.

Whatever one might think of the overall wisdom of Obama’s policy, even its proponents don’t argue that it would actually help the economic recovery. The Buffett Rule might be pro-fairness, but it is anti-growth.

Not surprisingly, Ryan has reacted fiercely to the Obama onslaught, even using the same word, “defining”--albeit to describe a different concern than Obama.

Defending his recent budget, which was passed by the House--but not, of course, by the Democratic-controlled Senate--Ryan declared, “History will not be kind to a president who, when it came time to confront our generation’s defining challenge, chose to duck and run.”

So there we have it: Both parties see the “defining” issue or challenge of our time in diametrically different terms. Indeed, they don’t even agree what the defining challenge is.

For his part, Ryan seems as confident in his cause as Obama seems in his. In late March, Ryan called his budget “morally right, legally right, and politically right.” Not much rhetorical room for compromise there.

Moreover, in an attempt to show that his budget is also mathematically right, Ryan released a detailed document, replete with charts, depicting the American future all the way to 2022, 2051, even 2080. Liberal critics, in an attempt to show that the budget was wrong, blasted the Ryan plan because it fails to show a balanced budget until 2040, even as it is said to “slash,” in the meantime, most federal programs.

The two sides, Obama vs. Ryan, will likely never truly agree on a budget, now or in the future.

But one point, at least, seems indisputable: The vast majority of Americans oppose key elements of Ryan’s budget.

A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that just 25 percent of Americans support Ryan-type changes in Medicare, changes that Ryan calls “premium support,” and that opponents call “vouchers.” Indeed, a whopping 70 percent of Americans oppose the Ryan changes to Medicare. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Obama seems to be running against Ryan as much as he is against Romney.

On the other hand, as we have seen, Americans think that the country as a whole is seriously on the wrong track.

Thus the conundrum for both parties: People realize that there’s an overall problem, and blame politicians for not fixing it, and yet they seem to mistrust the specific solutions put forward.

Does that mean that the voters are inconsistent? Even hypocritical? That’s one explanation.

Another explanation is that politicians have not yet put forward solutions that win the voters’ justified confidence.

So let’s take another look at the budget brawl. Some might say it’s a shame that the two parties are fighting over future budgets, because both parties are sure to be wrong.

And why is that?

Because the world’s realities, as they unfold over the decades, usually fail to conform to the ideological precepts of the past. After all, even the truest of true believers possess no special insight into the future. And budgets play out in the real world, not the theoretical world.

We might ask ourselves, for example: What crucial variables would someone who might have been working on a federal budget 30 years ago have gotten right, and wrong, about the situation today?

Could that past budgeteer have foreseen the Internet and its fiscal and economic impact? Or natural gas “fracking”? Or the collapse of the Soviet Union? Or 9/11 and the global war on terror? And how about the jump in immigration, both legal and illegal? Or the AIDS epidemic which surged and then subsided?

Similarly, nobody today has any real idea how plausibly to balance the budget decades hence. Let’s take a simple example: What will a cell phone look like a single decade from now, to say nothing of many decades from now? The answer, of course, is that nobody knows what we will use to communicate.

Maybe our future phones--in reality, our future computers--will be in our automated cars, or in our eyeglasses, or on our skin. Those ideas, in fact, near to reality.

Or maybe cybernetic technology will be implanted in our brains, giving all of us instant working access to googols of knowledge, or maybe such capacity will even be grown inside our brains, giving us all innate supercomputer capacity.

If anything close to these visions proves to be true, then we’ll likely be challenged by physical abundance, not fiscal scarcity; the only budgets we’ll be worrying about will be the budget for colonizing Mars.

Ordinary folks might not be factoring all those techno-possibilities into their voting decisions--they simply know what they don’t like. And they don’t like budget cuts that affect them.

Indeed, at a time when the federal government seems to have plenty of money for Wall Street bailouts, strange foreign wars, and gleeful overspending at the General Services Administration, it will be impossible to persuade seniors, for example, that they should suffer cuts in their entitlement lifelines of Social Security and Medicare.

All Americans would likely respond to a call for shared sacrifice that was truly shared, coupled with true efforts at cutting costs everywhere, including Washington DC, but neither party seems able effectively to make that call.

In addition, all attempts at projecting budget savings for programs such as health care suffer from a reversal of cause and effect.

If people are sick, such programs will be expensive, no matter what some Beltway bean-counter might decree. So therefore, self-declared budget experts would be better advised focusing on ways to cure sickness, because if people were healthier, budget savings would come automatically.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, absent big new game-changing ideas, the two parties are locked into their increasing partisan polarization.

Some might say that polarization is okay, so long as its one’s own party that’s polarized into a position of power.

But what if neither party is persuasive enough to win over the voters for any length of time?

What if both parties are polarized into sub-majorities?

A CNN/ORC poll from late March finds that public favor toward the Democratic party stands at 48 percent, while 45 percent view the party unfavorably. That’s a thin margin for the Democrats--not exactly the makings of another New Deal. But Republicans are in no position to chortle, because their favorable/unfavorable rating is in deep negative territory: 35 to 58.

So Republicans, it would seem, are even more in need of new ideas than Democrats. If so, then Republicans should pay particular attention to reservoirs of new thinking--and new votes--that remain untapped in the current political crisis. We will take that up in the next installment of this four part series.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He is the editor/founder of the Serious Medicine Strategy blog.