Wisconsin’s D-Day: From War to Recall

June 6, 2012     
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June 6 is D-Day in Wisconsin, and the United States as a whole. We remember the brave men and women who struggled on to the Nazi-controlled beaches of Northern France sixty-eight years ago. That was a different America. We were a society deeply divided by race, ethnicity, religion, class, geography, and, of course, educational attainment. Even the wealthiest citizens had a lot less than the average American today. As sons and fathers shipped off to war, and daughters and mothers took up new jobs in factories, a divided population found a common public cause to unite around. President Franklin Roosevelt captured this common cause in his call for ecumenical prayer on D-Day:

“Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace, a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.”

The United States needs the promotion of a common cause again today. The most striking phenomenon about the bitter recall election in Wisconsin (only the third in all of U.S. history), and Governor Scott Walker’s victory, is how separated the pro- and anti-Walker voters are. They all live in a small state that one can comfortably drive across in a single day, and they all root for the Green Bay Packers, but they still seem to reside in different universes. They now speak different languages that come from the same root (a midwestern English twang), but are almost incomprehensible to one another. The languages are, however, close enough that shouting loud one can hope the other side will undersand. In fact, people are only hearing those who speak the same way.

Pundits comment everyday on the “divided,” “partisan,”, and “combative” nature of American politics, but that only tells part of the story. This is about much more than ideology and politics. It is about more than money and race. Fundamentally, Americans have used the feet, their churches, their schools, and their iPhones to create huge affinity groups that can speak to one another in shorthand, and ignore everyone else. This, of course, is how separate languages are created: the echo chamber of familiar sounds.

The Wisconsin Recall was about two echo chambers. My friends, neighbors, and former colleagues in the cities of Madison and Milwaukee had strong and persuasive arguments about why Scott Walker has committed unforgivable sins. He slashed public services while he approved give-backs to his friends in business. He denied workers the right to bargain, drained public education and health institutions, and disdained peaceful student protesters, even admitting in a phone call call that he had considered inciting violence against them. My friends, neighbors, and former colleagues worked incredibly hard to unseat this evil man. They cannot understand why anyone would support such a terrible person.

Many other Wisconsinsites (about 53 percent of the state) cannot comprehend these heresies. Their perspective is more than a disagreement. It is an entirely different vision of the world. The recall advocates paint the state like Picasso with ominous colors and bright brush strokes; their opponents return to Norman Rockwell with virtuous, hardy, ordinary men and women, trying to make their way. The evils are off-screen: the elites and the dependents who do not belong. The unseen elites and dependents do not really work, they do not maintain good families, they do not go to church, and they do not love their country. They are leeches who have sold out the good American stock. They must be contained and reformed by simple and sincere ordinary men, like Scott Walker.

Anti-elitism is a powerful and persuasive message that resonates in difficult economic times today, as it did before the Second World War. The great historian Richard Hofstadter called this the “paranoid” style of American populism, but we might also see it as a strong strain of American anti-cosmopolitanism. To be good and trusted is to be simple and ordinary: “one of us.” This is a language that many small town and rural businesspeople, teachers, and parents speak everyday. It is not a language that my Madison and Milwaukee friends, often communicating with colleagues far away and running to airports to catch planes, can understand.

Oh sure, we can claim quite sincerely to care about the “people,” but the “people” we imagine really look much more like us than the large numbers (a majority in Wisconsin) who view us as elites. Although we sincerely seek diversity, what we get in our colleagues, our students, our neighbors, and our Facebook friends is more of the same. Even when we travel around the country and abroad, whom do we meet? People with similar education and professional status. People who speak our language.

The Recall in Wisconsin is a new D-Day because it should clarify, as the landings at Normandy did sixty-eight years ago, the common stakes we all have in “saving our country,” to quote Franklin Roosevelt. The clear tendency of our time is toward separation into affinity groups. We are losing the words to speak as one society. Again, this is not a new phenomenon. It is a sobering reminder of our history.

Unity and civility are not organic in such a large, dynamic, and conflict-prone society, even one with the midwestern modesty of Wisconsin. Unity and civility require a common cause. They require hard and creative work among figures who believe there is a pressing need for antagonistic citizen groups to come together. Most of all, unity and civility require the leaders of affinity groups to model common cause, to reach across divisions and try to speak the other’s language. Grand gestures matter. Humility persuades. Charity to one’s adversaries provides a basis for some new trust.

We should remember that Franklin Roosevelt chose not to give a full-throated attack on his enemies, at home and abroad, during the first D-Day. Instead, he prayed. He prayed for togetherness, for mutual devotion, for faith in one another as American citizens: “And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose”

I have trouble imagining Governor Scott Walker, or my Texas Governor Rick Perry, in this healing and uniting role. As much as I try to see all sides, I speak the language of those who like Picasso, work in comfortable professional jobs, and support gay marriage. I spend much more time on airplanes than in church (synagogue in my case). I need convincing that Walker or Perry or Romney or someone else in the Republican Party really wants to bring Americans together for common cause, rather than dividing us for provincial short-term gain. I also remain to be convinced that there is anyone (including President Obama) who is capable of this in the Democratic Party.

One way or another, inspiring and then building common cause is the challenge of our time. It is the necessary requirement for the next great national leader. It will require someone, perhaps one of the individuals named above, to undergo the kind of transformation that turned Franklin Roosevelt from a scattered executive into a clairvoyant war leader, or the evolution that changed Ronald Reagan from a full-throated Cold Warror into a prophet of peace.

Who will change? Who will take the first step on the new shores of our battle-hardened political landscape?

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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