The Progressive magazine's Matt Rothschild recently visited Fort Atkinson to poll its residents about Tuesday's recall election. Fort Atkinson is a town of about 13,000 between Madison and Milwaukee. Its biggest employer is health care; its crown jewel is the Fireside Dinner Theater , which draws an audience of older couples, families, and tour buses from nearly all of southeastern Wisconsin. The city went narrowly for Walker in 2010, giving him 52% of its 4,312 votes. Matt's results are not heartening. He chatted with 15 people; 9 are planning to vote for Walker.
A few Walker supporters explained their intentions with vague anti-Barrett sentiments: “Barrett doesn’t really have any plans,” and “I don’t think Barrett would do a very good job with how he’s doing in Milwaukee.” Those speakers seem to devote to elections the same critical thinking they devote to cross-town football rivalries. Citizenship is about cheering for one team while bad-mouthing the other.
Other comments were more interesting. Consider these:
"I think these union people are getting too much money,” a middle-aged woman told me at the Stop-N-Go. "I grew up on a farm and did a lot of farm work. I never had benefits like them. Let’s even out the table.”
Brian Price, 52, said he is going to vote for Walker “pretty much because he’s making it fairer with everyone paying a little bit. I’ve been paying all my life high dollar for insurance.”
‘Fairness’ is a fine concern, generally perceived to be a progressive one. Weirdly, however, these voters' concern for fairness has been engaged not by the champions of the working folk but by Walker and by Ayn Rand fans like Congressman Paul Ryan, whose district begins just south of Fort Atkinson.
What would happen if a neighbor helped Brian or the Stop-N-Go woman think it through? What would they respond if asked, “When every working person and wage-earner is paying as much for health insurance as you are, and when no working person gets any more benefits than you do, which Americans will be better off? Will America be fairer then? Will that get our nation back again on track towards the American dream our parents hoped for us?
At the Frostie Freeze, Virginia Kupicek, 50, said she also liked Walker’s stance on collective bargaining. “I’m a taxpayer,” she said. “I can’t afford to subsidize somebody else.”
Virginia wants her government to be careful with her tax dollars and not ‘subsidize someone else.’ That’s good. Now, who is willing to talk with Virginia and find out what she knows about how much the Walker Republicans have shifted the cost of government from their wealthy friends onto working families like hers, and shifted the benefits the other way?
Andrea, 37, a nurse whose husband is a union electrician, is also voting for Walker, “because I care about the debt burden my children will carry,” she said.
If Andrea's thinking about her children's future includes an issue as conceptual as public debt, odds are that she cares even more about things that will directly affect her children, such their ability to attend and afford college. Who has accepted the civic responsibility of speaking with Andrea about Walker’s policies regarding tuition and enrollment limits at Wisconsin universities and technical colleges? She is a nurse; can it be that no one has helped her understand the Walker Republicans’ corrosive stewardship of the public programs that likely pay many of her patients’ health care bills? And does her husband ever talk politics with his fellow union members? With his wife?
Marcie Garity, 18, said: “I’m probably voting for Scott Walker. I didn’t think he did anything wrong.”
Is there no experienced adult in Marcie’s circle of family and friends who has noticed her naivete and who can explain to her what it means when a governor has a legal defense fund and his inner-circle staff members are being indicted or are accepting immunity to testify in a John Doe probe?
Wisconsin, as I'm sure you have heard, is a divided state, but there are no islands of pure red or blue. Every Barrett supporter knows a fellow citizen who supports Walker. And yet do we talk? No.
I know some of the reasons for this. We're busy. We've been taught that talking politics is rude. We don't know how to talk politics without getting in a fight. We're afraid we don't have all the facts, or won't be able to recall them when we need to.
And so we leave our neighbors' civic education in the hands of paid political ads and ratings-hungry corporate infotainment.
Two weeks ago, I attended my husband's uncle's funeral near Kenosha. I broke the rules and talked politics. Quietly and politely, I broached the subject with one Walker supporter who relies on the state retirement system. She didn't know about Walker's plans to privatize her healthy pension program, and so I told her. I educated a union-hostile Walker supporter about Barrett's record of tough negotiations with labor. Again, news to him. Both said they were reconsidering their vote after our discussions.
Every one of the people Matt interviewed was willing to enter into a political conversation with a stranger on the street. There is low-hanging fruit out there, folks. We have got to learn to talk to our fellow citizens.