Saturday, May 5, 2012

Wisconsin Did It Right

I’m not a native Wisconsinite but I have been a proud Wisconsinite for many years. As a history teacher I both knew and taught the heritage of governmental and political innovation spearheaded by Robert M. Lafollette in the early 20th century. I proudly told of the history of uncorrupted (well, nearly so) administrations over the last century; legislatures, courts, and executives who worked together to create a state, unusually tranquil, prosperous, and progressive.

The last year and a half has witnessed the sudden collapse of all those things: tranquility, prosperity, and progress. Wisconsin is not wholly in control of its fate; its economic, political, and moral climate is, in part, the same as that of the nation as a whole. So it is not surprising that we have suffered the same hardships as the rest of the nation. And it is not surprising that our reaction to them is colored by the same forces that color reactions nationally. Not surprising. But not inevitable either.

Our current Governor did not have to take the course he chose to take which pitted segments of our society against each other in ways, and to an extent, not even dreamed of the day before he took the oath of office. The result has been a year of political turmoil unmatched in the memory of all but those who read history. Wisconsin has lived under a cloud of rancor for the last 17 months that has begun to seem as though it would never lift.

But last night (May 4, 2012) I saw a slight break in the clouds. The sun shone through for just a few moments. I watched the debate between the four (legitimate) Democratic candidates for Governor. It was a stimulating, thoughtful, fact-focused discussion between four people, each of whom passionately wants the opportunity to lead the state out of the mess it is currently in. But their passion and their desire for the job did not draw them into the kinds of throat-slashing rhetoric and tactic we have been observing over the last several months in the Republican Presidential primary debates.

Civility of speech and seriousness of thought characterized all of the candidates. When the debate ended I had formed a clear opinion of the relative strengths of the candidates. Although I’ve selected one for whom to vote I felt that Wisconsin would do well regardless of which candidate prevailed.

We will continue, no doubt, to endure the lies and half-lies of political campaign ads for another month. Sadly, there will be egregious ads run by or for each side. It was only a small break in the clouds I observed last night. But it let me know that there are four people left in Wisconsin politics who have the capability of leading us back to the reputation of tranquility, prosperity, and progress for which our state has been know for most of its existence.

It will take more than four people to restore the kind of civic life most Wisconsinites have enjoyed. It will require that all of us begin to practice the civility that was on display at the debate last night. And it will be greatly enhanced if all of us would focus as consistently as they did in their remarks upon the job to be done, offering clear and achievable solutions to problems. But perhaps the greatest service we can do for our state is to refuse to put in places of power and authority those whose language and agenda are aimed at division, and to remove, through legitimate means, those who are found to be untrue to that which they represented themselves to be when seeking office.

We can’t change the weather, they say. Perhaps not climatologically. But politically we can. And if we value the good things we’ve enjoyed in this previously pleasant state, we’ll work to do so.

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