Conference Probes the Depth and Breadth of Political Polarization

Posted on Categories Media & Journalism, Milwaukee, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Speakers at Marquette

“I believe in my heart that we have a lot more in common than we have differences,” said Tom Meaux, Ozaukee County Administrator.

But if you do the numbers, we have a dramatic amount not in common. And no one has done the numbers the way the Marquette Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have.

The numbers – voting data, polling results, a wide range of demographic statistics – spell out the polarization that has become a dominant fact of politics in Wisconsin and especially in southeastern Wisconsin. A six-month fellowship at the Law School, funded by the Lubar Fund for Public Policy Research, allowed Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to collaborate with Professor Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, in producing an analysis of the growing political divide that offers remarkable depth and breadth.

The result was a four-part series in the Journal Sentinel and a conference Thursday at Eckstein Hall, sponsored by the Law School and the Journal Sentinel, that brought together Gilbert, Franklin, political leaders, and academic experts to discuss what unites us, what divides us, and what lies ahead, given the intense current divisions.

“I hope you like maps,” Gilbert said as he began the presentations with a vivid set of graphics based on election results in Wisconsin and in the Milwaukee area in races for president, governor, and US senator. While the shades of Republican red and Democratic blue colors on the maps were fairly mild in  the 1960s and 1970s, things began to change in the 1980s, Gilbert said, and the reds and blues grew more vivid. That’s been particularly the case since 2006. The result now is that you can trace the borders between a generally blue (and in some places intensely  blue) Milwaukee County and the red (and often very red) Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington Counties by looking only a map of voting data – no need for putting in the actual boundaries. Voter involvement is also among the highest in the United States, Gilbert said.

As people cluster in highly-partisan patterns, there are fewer elections that are actually close contests. Gilbert said. As he put it in the opening slide of his presentations, “Politicians splits apart, voters split apart, communities split apart.”

Using data from more than two years of the Marquette Law School Poll, Franklin demonstrated for the capacity audience how opinions on Gov. Scott Walker were dominated by people with strongly favorable or unfavorable opinions, with few people with less intense views. ”There are a few living people in the middle, but there aren’t very many of them,” he said.

But, Franklin said, on some issues, the divide in opinion is less intense and the graph of public opinion has much gentler curves. The punchline, as Franklin put it, is that there are deep divides in the state, especially when it comes to the Republican governor, but Wisconsinites are not so divided on some important issues.

Two political scientists, Katherine Levine Einstein of Boston University and Clayton Nall of Stanford University, added national perspective.

Einstein said polarization is strongest in places where there are large minority populations and high degrees of racial segregation, where there is a high degree of income inequality, where there are many units of local government, and in some regions of the country, particularly the South. She said, “Overwhelmingly, racial demographics explain political polarization.” She said her “really depressing conclusion” is that metropolitan areas most need in need of cooperation are likely to have the hardest time achieving it.

Nall said polarization, at least by residential patterns, is not as strong in most places as it is in the Milwaukee area. He described research he had been involved in that reached different conclusions than those held by some who say people are intentionally choosing to live in places where others have like-minded views. Nall said Republicans and Democrats give similar priority to factors such as safety, schools, and proximity to work in choosing where to live, although there are some partisan differences when it comes to lower-rated priorities, with Republicans preferring to live outside urban areas.

Two political strategists, Democrat Paul Maslin and Republican Mark Graul, described how the partisan divides and the intensity of voting patterns in Wisconsin shaped campaign strategies and even who becomes candidates. Both suggested that it would be difficult to sustain the level of political intensity in Wisconsin in coming years and that it was likely that something or someone, perhaps a “transformational figure,” as Graul put it, would emerge to bring some greater level of political unity in the state.

The conference ended with eight leaders in Wisconsin politics giving their reactions to the Journal Sentinel series – they were generally not surprised by the level of polarization – and expressing, in one form or another, hopes that leaders would work together more. Several said there is more cooperation, including between Milwaukee and its suburbs, than people realize. Conflict attracts more attention in the news than cooperation does, but there is cooperation, they said.

However, after Republican State Sen. Alberta Darling and Democratic Rep. Mandela Barnes offered contrasting views on the degree of cooperation within the state legislature, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said, “You can see where we live in different worlds.” He listed several issues that are important to leaders of the city ”and there’s no one who will listen” in Madison.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and newly-elected Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly gave examples of issues such as waste disposal and administration of social service programs where Milwaukee and suburban government bodies were working together well, although each agreed there is political pressure in some cases not to cooperate.

Meaux, formerly a Milwaukee County Board member and administrator of Ozaukee County since 2000, said people are more united than many suggest. He said he favored the state easing up on requirements imposed on local governments, so that leaders could figure out their own solutions to budget pressures, which could include ways to consolidate services and cooperate more.

Cory Nettles, a business leader and former state official, said, “Shame on us as a community” if knee jerk partisanship obstructs doing things that will make the future of the Milwaukee area better overall. He said leaders need to get a message from the public that they should “make love, not war,” and that people expect them to come together and “get the deal done” on major issues.

The analysis of polarized politics produced by Franklin and Gilbert offers an uncontested body of facts that should inform any discussion of the state of politics in the Milwaukee area and Wisconsin as a whole. But what lies ahead is a different question. Thursday’s session brought some optimism, some pessimism, and a lot of questions about what, if anything, would change the sharply divided trajectory of the region.

The entire conference may be viewed by clicking here.

The Marquette News Center has compiled links to Craig Gilbert’s series and other information on the project that can be found by clicking  here.

The Journal Sentinel’s news story on the May 15 conference may be found by clicking here.





One thought on “Conference Probes the Depth and Breadth of Political Polarization”

  1. For my money, the best comment in the afternoon came from Mr. Nettles, when he decried politicians who claim that they will “fight for me” in favor of those who will actually “work for me.”

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