Thursday, May 31, 2012


On June 5th Wisconsin is holding an election about whether or not to recall the Governor.  He's been in office for about a year and the role he's played in that span of time has proven divisive in our state.  I've become somewhat accustomed to the polarizing effects of politics on the national stage because it's so broad it feels distant.  I don't like it, but it's more theoretical and less personal somehow.  This kind of polarization on a local level is different.  And for many it is deeply personal.

Politically, I think of myself as liberal.  In terms of my personal choices I'm fairly conservative, but I don't believe in imposing my own lifestyle on others because one, that's not fair, and two, that would make the world incredibly dull.  For instance, I believe marijuana should be legalized, but I personally have zero interest in trying it.  (I don't even drink coffee, I am just that boring.)

Truthfully, I'm not sure anymore how other people define the terms liberal and conservative.  The words are charged with unintended meanings and are often just shortcuts to describing other things with derogatory stereotypes.  Here's what they mean to me in their basic, ideal forms:

Conservatism is about preservation, conserving things that are good.  I always think of our local 4th of July celebrations as classically conservative affairs.  I like the tradition of parades and fireworks and I want my kids to have what I had and I hope their kids one day enjoy the same.  I like feeling pride in my country for all the wonderful things about it and I'm glad I was born here.  Conservatives focus on values and traditions worth protecting, and that core informs their opinions.

Liberalism is about freedom to change.  Just because something has been done one way for a long time does not mean it's worth preserving, and just because something works for one person or group does not mean it's appropriate for everyone.  Liberals see things that need fixing and want to employ new approaches so that we can move toward something better.  Some things are too important (like ending the oppression of minorities) to be left to natural forces of change that would take too long to be fair, and sometimes we as a society have to collectively implement those changes. 

By these definitions all of us can to some degree relate to both sides.
There are plenty of things about my country and my state and my city that I think we should be conservative about, and I'd prefer we not tamper with.  But there are also many things that need to be changed and improved upon.  Disagreement comes in the what and the how.  And we get into trouble when people divide up all the issues as if they belong to opposing sports teams and blindly root for policies without thinking carefully.  Protecting things should not have to mean fearing change.  Change does not have to mean dismantling things others hold dear.

In general, conservatives don't want government involved in finding solutions to problems.  They trust individuals, businesses, and collectives such as church groups to address needs in the community directly.

This is both too idealistic and unrealistic for me, which is why as a liberal I believe certain things can be addressed better and more fairly through elected officials.  I don't want our social safety net left to the whims of my community on a given day, I want systems in place to help people who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

To me, government means having the power to do things collectively that are difficult to do as individuals.  I don't mind paying taxes because they go toward roads and parks and schools and food aid, etc.  Of course I don't like seeing that money wasted, but what I really don't like is when other people or companies don't pay their fair share.  As a small business owner I pay more in corporate tax than do some large businesses around Wisconsin and I resent that, because they should chip in too.  

I believe the default in a society should be to make sure that people have a baseline of safety, education, shelter, food, and healthcare.  That seems decent and humane to me, and something I want to contribute to.  Liberals believe the fairest most accountable way of working toward that goal is through government.

The flip side of this is the old 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' attitude that asserts that it does people a disservice not to let them do things for themselves.  There is certainly something to that, but the playing field is never level, and the obstacles some people face are enormous.  Most of the people I know who resent taxes going to welfare and food aid programs don't know what it's like to be truly disadvantaged.  I would rather err on the side of some undeserving person leaching off the system (which is no great prize to begin with and not a situation I would trade for my own) than risk not giving a child (or anyone, frankly) the opportunity to succeed.  A child should not be punished for the circumstances into which he or she is born.  Every child should be able to attend a good school and live in a safe neighborhood and not go to bed hungry.  That shouldn't be some kind of reward for having money or being born a certain color or living in the right zip code, it should be what we want for all our kids.  That sink or swim element to modern conservatism I find disturbing.  Too often I see the poor framed in a light that suggests lack of money is a moral failing of some kind.  That if you were a good person, you would not need help.  That's not compassionate and not a good frame of mind from which to make decisions for other people.

Is government perfect?  Far from it.  But only because it is run by us, and we are far from perfect.  I am mystified, however, by people who hold up deregulation and capitalism as some solution to all our problems as if it is different people working in business than work in government.  The same range of trustworthy to horrid people work in business, which is why it needs to be regulated.  At least in government we have some voice or the possibility of removing people from their offices if we feel betrayed.

Which brings us back to the recall.

I gave our Governor a chance.  I really did.  I didn't vote for him, but I didn't like the Democratic Governor before him either.  I don't really care if someone labels him or herself a Democrat or a Republican, I care how they represent their constituents.  And under this Governor I don't feel respected or heard at all.

I remember way back when Ronald Reagan was president and he nominated C. Everett Koop as Surgeon General.  Conservatives rejoiced at first because he was known at the time for being staunchly pro-life and they figured he would help champion all their causes.  But in the looming dawn of the AIDS epidemic Dr Koop made a point of reaching out to the gay community to make sure they were getting proper education about HIV to help avoid transmission.  This at a time when some people in our country were literally saying, "If it kills some of them, let them die."  When asked about taking an active role in AIDS education despite the anti-gay stance of his party, Dr Koop replied that it didn't matter what his personal beliefs were.  When he was named Surgeon General the entire country became his patients.  Some of those patients happened to be gay.  They were his responsibility and he was going to do the best for them that he could.

This was a revelation to me.  And this is the standard by which I judge our elected officials.  I appreciate the impossibility of pleasing everyone, and I know that certain people will always be upset.  I even understand that on some issues there doesn't exist a compromise.  I know when someone is voted into office they want to put their agenda first, and that by virtue of being elected they have a level of permission to do it.  But you don't get to pretend that the people who didn't vote for you don't exist or don't matter, especially when the margin by which you were elected was slim.

Do I think the Governor is trying to destroy our state?  No.  But do I think he was honest with us about the direction he's trying to take it?  I do not.  I think the original election might have gone differently if his agenda had been presented to us in full.  I resent being told that since I 'lost' my opinion no longer matters.  I'm still here.  And I don't like being run roughshod over. 

But the point of this post is not to convince anyone one way or another about politics or to promote a side.  My point is to remind everyone to step back and see each other as fellow citizens first and opponents last.  I have many liberal friends.  I also have some conservative ones whom I care about and have great respect for.  I have talked to people who were stunned and appalled that I could have a conversation with anyone on 'the other side,' who have actually said to me they couldn't do that.  This is not helping.  I may never agree with you about gay rights or the death penalty or abortion but we should be able to listen to each other without shouting each other down or cutting each other off.  We should be able to see each other as people first.

Whichever way this election goes, I would like to see some grace from both sides.  Gloating is ugly.  Not being able to accept defeat is immature.  The beauty of democracy is the pendulum swings and nothing has to be forever.  Whichever way this goes it's temporary.  Half the state is going to be unhappy on Wednesday morning no matter what.  Can we try to be sympathetic and attempt to be a single state again?  Please?

UPDATE:  (Morning of June 5th)  Well, on the upside of all of this, I have to say it's interesting to see what real voter turnout looks like.  This morning after biking with the kids to school I was number 140 at my local polling station.  And when I went to swim there were lines of people at the country pool waiting for their turns to cast ballots.  I didn't even know they HAD voting at the county pool.

This whole day is making me feel nervous.  I'm going to see if Quinn wants to weed the garden with me as a distraction.


  1. Oh, this reminds me of the day after the 2004 elections, when Bush won by a minuscule amount but insisted that he now had a "mandate" for everything he had done over the previous 4 years. I would have respected him more if he had humbly admitted that he had barely over half the vote and would govern accordingly. Good luck to you Wisconsinites! The rest of the nation looks on with bated breath.

  2. I totally agree!

    I love what you said here: "Politically, I think of myself as liberal. In terms of my personal choices I'm fairly conservative, but I don't believe in imposing my own lifestyle on others because one, that's not fair, and two, that would make the world incredibly dull. "

    --that describes me exactly.

    Wishing you and all of Wisconsin much luck on June 5th!

  3. This is really well-written and I agree with almost all of it. This polarization is poisonous. People are HATING each other over politics and that's just sick.

  4. Thank you for presenting definitions for conservative and liberal that do not suffer from what I imagine to be the trappings of historically arbitrary delineations. I wonder, as a brand new Wisconsin resident, if I will be able to vote in the recall election. If so, I now know for certain which way I will cast my vote.

    I see the neighborhood around me divided with Walker and Barrett signs. To think that I would even hesitate to vote for someone with the latter name!

  5. Very thoughtful. As a Chicagoan, well... poisonous rhetoric in local politics is par for the course here!

  6. I truly appreciate this thoughtful essay, Korinthia. Thank you.