Why Wisconsin Is the Most Fascinating State in American Politics – The New York Times
What happens there in November will offer a preview of the political brawls to come.
Wisconsin has long been a crucible of American politics. It remains so now.
It’s where two once-powerful senators, Joseph McCarthy and Robert La Follette, defined two of the major themes we still see playing out today — what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style,” in McCarthy’s case, and progressivism in La Follette’s.
It’s a place that has also proved time and again that elections have consequences. McCarthy won his Senate seat in the 1946 midterms amid a backlash against President Harry Truman, who was struggling to control the soaring price of meat as the country adjusted to a peacetime economy. He ousted Robert La Follette Jr., who had essentially inherited his father’s Senate seat.
Four years later, McCarthy used his new platform to begin his infamous anti-communist crusade — persecuting supposed communists inside the federal government, Hollywood and the liberal intelligentsia across the country. His rise came to an end after a lawyer for one of his targets, Joseph Welch, rounded on him with one of the most famous lines ever delivered during a congressional hearing: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
The state’s modern political geography, which is rooted in this history, as well as deep-seated patterns of ethnic migration and economic development, is as fascinating as it is complex.
La Follette’s old base in Madison, the capital and a teeming college town, dominates the middle south of the state like a kind of Midwestern Berkeley. But unlike in periwinkle-blue coastal California, Madison and Milwaukee — the state’s largest city, which is about 90 minutes to the east along the shores of Lake Michigan — are surrounded by a vast ocean of scarlet.
Much of the state remains rural and conservative — McCarthy and Trump country.
And as in much of the United States, even smaller Wisconsin cities like Green Bay (the home of the Packers), Eau Claire (a fiercely contested political battleground), Janesville (the home of Paul Ryan, the former House speaker), Kenosha (the hometown of Reince Priebus, the sometime ally and former aide to Donald Trump) and Oshkosh (the home and political base of Senator Ron Johnson) have gone blue in recent decades.
The so-called W.O.W. counties around Milwaukee — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — are the historical strongholds of suburban G.O.P. power, and political pundits and forecasters watch election trends there closely to tease out any potential national implications. Other portions of the northwestern area of the state are essentially suburbs of Minneapolis, and tend to toggle between the parties from election to election.
The Republican Party’s origins can be traced to Ripon, Wis., where disaffected members of the Whig Party met in 1854 as they planned a new party with an anti-slavery platform. The party’s early leaders were also disgusted by what they called the “tyranny” of Andrew Jackson, a populist Democrat who built a political machine that ran roughshod over the traditional ways politics was done in America.
On Tuesday, the state held its primaries, and the results were classic Wisconsin: Republicans chose Tim Michels, a Trump-aligned “Stop-the-Steal” guy, as their nominee to face Gov. Tony Evers, the Democratic incumbent, over Rebecca Kleefisch, the establishment favorite. Robin Vos, the Assembly speaker who has tilted to the right on election issues but who refused to help Trump overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, barely held on to his seat.
To understand what’s happening, I badgered Reid Epstein, my colleague on the politics team. Reid has forgotten more Wisconsin political lore than most of us have ever absorbed, and here, he gives us some perspective on why the state has become such a bitterly contested ground zero for American democracy.
Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
You started your journalism career in Milwaukee, if I’m not mistaken. Give us a sense of what’s changed about Wisconsin politics in the years you’ve been covering the state.
In Waukesha, actually. Back in 2002, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel still had bureaus covering the Milwaukee suburbs, and that’s where I had my first job, covering a handful of municipalities and school districts in Waukesha County.
A lot of the same characters I wrote about as a cub reporter are still around. The then-village president of Menomonee Falls is now leading the effort to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 election results, which of course can’t be done. The seeds of the polarization and zero-sum politics you see now in Wisconsin were just beginning to sprout 20 years ago.
Republican voters chose to keep Robin Vos, yet nominated Tim Michels. Help us understand the mixed signals we’re getting here.
Well, it helped that Michels had more than $10 million of his own cash to invest in his race, and Adam Steen, the Trump-backed challenger to Vos, didn’t have enough money for even one paid staff member.
Vos, whose first legislative race I was there for in 2004, nearly lost to a guy with no money and no name recognition in a district where the Vos family has lived for generations. He won, but it was very close.
Behind the Journalism
How Times reporters cover politics.
We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.
What is it about Wisconsin that has made politics there so zero-sum? I’m thinking of developments like the Democrats’ attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker in 2012, his crackdown on union power, and the Legislature’s efforts to curtail the power of Tony Evers, the current governor. What’s the deal? How did the state get so starkly divided?
The Wisconsin political and media ecosystem has long been dominated by conservative talk radio hosts. More than any other state in the country, Wisconsin’s right-wing talkers control the political agenda, and like Fox News nationally, they generate ratings by stoking outrage — usually against Democrats, but sometimes against fellow Republicans.
Scott Walker was raised in this environment. He was a backbench state assemblyman who became widely known from calling into the Charlie Sykes show on WTMJ in Milwaukee. Those shows always had a villain — usually, whichever Democrat or newspaper reporter was in the host’s cross hairs for the day.
When Sykes would spend a segment attacking one of my articles in the morning paper, my voice mail box at the office would be full of angry callers by the time I got to my desk. Imagine what that does to elected Republicans when are on the receiving end.
Skyes has since reinvented himself as a never-Trump podcast host and columnist — and he now trains his considerable rhetorical talents against the Republican Party he once enthusiastically supported. He’s traded his local influence for a national platform.
You cover a lot of the machinations over the control of American democracy. Is there anything unique about how these battles are playing out in Badger country?
Republicans have such control of the levers of power in Wisconsin that voters are almost immaterial. It is the most gerrymandered state legislature in the country — a 50-50 state where Republicans hold 61 out of 99 seats in the Assembly and 21 out of 33 seats in the Senate.
There is at the moment no functional way for Democrats to carry out any sort of policy agenda in Madison; their only hope is to have a governor who will veto things. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a 4-to-3 conservative majority that has, with some exceptions after the 2020 election, toed the party line for Republicans.
Some states, like Michigan and North Carolina, have managed to work through many of these same issues and create a more level playing field that reflects the real balance of power between the parties. Why hasn’t Wisconsin done so?
Wisconsin doesn’t afford its citizens the opportunity to petition things into law or the state constitution like Michigan and dozens of other states do. So the only hope is through the Legislature, where Republicans have shown no compunction about maintaining their hold on power through whatever means necessary.
What to read on democracy
Jane Mayer of The New Yorker writes that state legislatures are torching democracy.
Historians privately warned President Biden recently that the current moment in America is among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance, The Washington Post reports.
There are now fewer competitive congressional districts than at any point in the last 52 years because of gerrymandering, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Also from the Brennan Center: Lawmakers from the whitest districts in the most racially diverse states are most likely to sponsor anti-voter bills, while racially diverse states controlled by Republicans are far more likely to pass restrictions on voting.
A ‘vote-a-rama’ in Congress
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Haiyun Jiang told us about capturing the image above:
When the Senate began its “vote-a-rama” for the Inflation Reduction Act, a marathon series of votes on amendments, I was on Capitol Hill trying to capture the mood and action as senators prepared for an inevitably long weekend.
Around 9 p.m., Senator Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, walked into the press gallery for a briefing with reporters. “I heard that you all wanted a little post-dinner entertainment,” he said as he sat down.
A tall man, Wyden was visibly uncomfortable in a sofa chair that was low to the ground. As the briefing went on, he periodically stretched his legs. I decided to wait for the moment when he stretched again.
His posture conveyed the exhaustion and weariness that I hoped to capture, with a long night of debates and votes looming over everyone on Capitol Hill.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
China, Russia face sanctions from US states now. That’s dangerous – Al Jazeera English
Sanctions have become all the rage in international politics. The United States and its allies are imposing them on rivals with increasing frequency and severity. And those rivals are reciprocating where they can.
Now, American states, too, are increasingly getting in on the act. And that’s bad news — for the world, and for US foreign policy. A much-publicised episode of a Chinese balloon entering US airspace seems to have created new energy for such restrictions and has led to legislation being proposed in at least 11 states.
On Wednesday, the South Carolina State Senate passed a bill barring ownership of land in the state by citizens of US geopolitical adversaries Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba. The bill’s top sponsor even compared a planned purchase of South Carolina land by a Chinese biomedical firm with the Trojan Horse plot of Greek mythology.
Meanwhile, Texas State Senator Lois Kolkhorst has proposed a similar law that has drawn strong condemnation on human rights grounds but has been defended by Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor. A simple reading of the original version of this bill would lead one to conclude that any individual who holds citizenship from any of the mentioned countries, or any firms which they own, would be barred from owning property. This would have included American citizens who hold dual citizenship. Since then, the language has been softened to protect dual citizens and permanent residents but not citizens of those countries residing in Texas on a visa.
Implementation of such language would impose new and unusual due diligence requirements on common land transactions. Meanwhile, creating special restrictions on various immigrant communities to own property poses human rights concerns.
Existing sanctions laws and Treasury Department designations already block leaders from those American adversaries from transferring money into the US or owning property in the country. Meanwhile, recently introduced federal legislation aims to ban US adversaries from purchasing large swaths of farmland in the US.
So why would a state engage in what is essentially a foreign policy and national security matter?
On the one hand, some scholars see sanctions as often being a product of domestic politics, aimed at portraying muscle to the electorate, at times influenced by pressure groups such as “ethnic lobbies”. Those in this camp of scholars are more inclined to believe that sanctions are not particularly effective. If sanctions are for the satisfaction of domestic onlookers, they will not be designed and implemented with an eye towards efficacy and the security context.
Other scholars, however, argue that sanctions are indeed imposed due to a meaningful effort to address national security concerns.
Like many in the national security decision-making scholarship community, I feel both of these binary constructions frequently fail when confronted with the history of economic sanctions. The truth is that foreign policy choices are a product of complex national security matrices that accommodate both foreign policy and domestic political considerations.
Yet irrespective of one’s overall view on the efficacy of sanctions more broadly, it is hard for anyone to deny that policies against foreign nationals adopted by state governments can have little explanation other than domestic and even local politics.
In the US, the executive branch has always been best suited to make foreign policy decisions due to its clear mandate and wherewithal in this field. Congress has a constitutional role in foreign policy matters but it’s far more likely to be influenced by domestic political pressures and national anxieties.
The executive branch largely controlled sanctions policy throughout the Cold War era. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, as major threats to the homeland faded, Congressional and sub-federal forces became increasingly involved in this field.
While Congress has largely ceded its war power authority in the modern era, it has become more active in sanctioning due to an impulse of members to be seen as projecting power against American adversaries even when it interferes with the president’s efforts to engage in strategic policy.
What about state legislators and governors? They have no real national security staff nor the relevant mandate, as their elections almost always lack any meaningful foreign policy discussion and are decided based on provincial issues, whether taxes or abortion rights.
Yet their meddling in foreign policy isn’t superfluous — it can actually be reckless, for global diplomacy and for US foreign policy. Here’s how.
The folly of state sanctions
As written, the mentioned measures are unlikely to meaningfully interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy. But one can imagine a scenario in which sanctions imposed by states do just that.
New York state and California preside over major nodes of the global banking community and the international technology supply chain. Texas itself is a major player in global energy markets. Other states can wield a more narrow version of such powers as well.
There are already examples of when New York State has targeted European firms for their perceived violation of sanctions, ignoring objections at the federal level. States can, as the federal government has often done, impose restrictions on firms operating in their jurisdiction in a way that has extraterritorial consequences.
This in turn sets up a precarious dynamic. The federal government might have to mollify or negotiate with state governments led by ambitious politicians responding to special interests or catering to local constituencies.
Equally, state governments of the party in opposition can actively undercut diplomatic efforts of the federal government using such sanctions. For example, a federal effort to ease sanctions on Cuba could create political momentum for state sanctions in Florida, where families of those who fled communist rule are a powerful lobby.
Ultimately, sanctions are a tool of foreign policy and the capacity to modulate or even repeal them is critical to accomplishing the political goals behind sanctions campaigns. For the president or Congress to have to lobby with state governments, each representing a fraction of the overall population, to alter America’s sanctions against a country would represent a bizarre new obstacle to the federal government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy obligations.
The proposed Texas and South Carolina laws are textbook examples of sanctions as political grandstanding meant for domestic consumption. They are also a reminder of the jingoistic zeal that can be nurtured and exploited by foreign policy amateurs at the state level.
As we embark upon what scholar Peter A G van Bergeijk calls the “second wave” of global sanctions, states will likely look further to getting in on the act with human rights and global affairs.
Washington’s basic ability to carry out a coherent foreign policy hangs in the balance.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
'I like your teams, except the Leafs': Biden addresses Parliament – CBC.ca
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Beijing denies meddling after MP Han Dong’s resignation from Liberal caucus
OTTAWA — Beijing says it has nothing to say about ongoing allegations that China has meddled in Canadian affairs, including those regarding a member of Parliament who has left the Liberal caucus.
Han Dong is now sitting as an Independent as the Liberal government has a rapporteur investigate claims of Chinese interference, including allegations the Toronto MP willingly received electoral support through Chinese officials.
Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus Wednesday night after Global News, citing unnamed security sources, published a report alleging that he spoke about Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with a Chinese diplomat in Toronto in February 2021.
The MP says he met with the diplomat but disputes any suggestion that he urged China to delay releasing the two Canadian men, who by that point had been detained for more than two years.
Dong told the House of Commons he would defend himself “against these absolutely untrue claims” and that he did nothing to cause Spavor and Kovrig any harm.
Asked about Dong’s resignation at a press conference today in Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry says “the Canadian side may be in a better position” to comment, and that “China opposes interference in other countries’ internal affairs.”
He adds that this applies to broader allegations about Chinese interference.
“We have no interest in and will not interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” Wang Wenbin said in the official English transcript. “There should be no irresponsible comments on this.”
China’s detention of the men who became known around the world as the “two Michaels” occurred in apparent retaliation for the December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Beijing has insisted the cases are not linked, despite a close alignment in the timing of each being detained and then released the same day in September 2021.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.
The Canadian Press
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