Conference Probes the Depth and Breadth of Political Polarization

“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.

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Why Partisanship Bothers Us

Red_state_blue_stateWith the Marquette Law School conference “Dividing Lines” approaching on May 15, it is worth asking why hard and determined forms of partisanship so unnerve us.

The immediate occasion for this discussion is Craig Gilbert’s study of political polarization in the Milwaukee metropolitan area, and its economic and cultural origins. Gilbert is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Washington bureau chief and this past year served as the Law School’s Lubar Fellow for Public Policy Research. Working with Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette Law School Poll, Gilbert has documented in recent elections a strong and consistent correlation between voting preferences and race, ethnicity, education, and population density (the series to date appearing in the newspaper here, here, and here, with the final entry coming this Wednesday). Marquette Law School’s Professor David Papke has also commented on Gilbert’s research, noting how deliberately conceived public policies such as restricted covenants, exclusionary zoning, and easing of residency rules for municipal employees have contributed to the climate of divisiveness.

As a scholar of journalism and media, I want to probe more deeply the meanings Americans attribute to their experience of political division.

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In (Partial) Defense of Liz Cheney

Cheney sisters

Is it possible to support a loved one’s life choices if you believe those choices should not exist? Consider the following hypotheticals:

Scenario #1: Your teenage daughter tells you she is pregnant from her no-good former boyfriend, and that she wishes to terminate the pregnancy. You are pro-life. Yet you realize that your daughter is the only one who can decide what to do (assuming she is not subject to parental consent laws, and perhaps even if she is). So you drive your child to her doctors’ appointments. You also tell her that despite your fundamental objections to abortion, you will do your best to make peace with her decision.

Scenario #2: You strongly believe children are entitled to information about their genetic parents. For this reason, you think sperm and egg banks should be allowed to work only with donors who consent to the disclosure of their identity and some basic information, and who agree to a minimum number of visits with any genetic offspring. Your sister has a baby conceived with sperm from an anonymous donor. You were beyond thrilled when she told you about her pregnancy, and you love your new nephew to pieces. Your views on the need for regulation of sperm and egg donor banks have not changed.

If these scenarios sound plausible, it is because our moral convictions don’t always dictate our personal interactions. Nor should they. The ability to appreciate that others may embrace values that are different from our own, and to react to their decisions with understanding and even respect, is a sign of maturity.

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