We’ve never seen anything quite like this in our politics.
There have been bitter divisions in the past — the Civil War and Vietnam Era come to mind — but at no time in our history has politics been so fraught with anger, distrust and disinformation — and turbocharged by algorithms that reward fighting and conflict and discourage deliberation.
We need to find our way through this thicket, and I think it begins with encouraging thoughtful discussion.
That’s why we’re collaborating this year with the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Public Radio on a project we’re calling Wisconsin’s Main Street Agenda.
We'd like your answer to this central question:
"What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for your vote?"
And then plan on coming to the free town hall meetings we plan across Wisconsin this fall, starting Sept. 21 in Milwaukee. Please register now and make your voice heard.
What is the Main Street Agenda project?
Launched on the Fourth of July weekend, we’re trying to learn what is top of mind for Wisconsin residents heading into the midterm elections in November. Our goal is to get beyond the sound bites and backbiting of the daily politics beat and go straight to the residents of our state. We’re doing that with an online questionnaire. You can fill it out at https://tinyurl.com/mainstreetagenda
Is this a scientific poll?
No, it’s an unscientific survey of the Wisconsin electorate. We’ve received nearly 1,400 responses so far — thank you! — and many you are writing long, thoughtful replies. But more Democrats than Republicans have responded so far, and we have a shortage of people of color. We’re reaching out across the state to seek more responses from those underrepresented groups.
If it’s not scientific, what can you learn?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. We have to be careful about drawing conclusions about what the respondents believe as a whole, of course — this is not a random sample — but we can report with confidence what categories of respondents think — say Democrats, Republicans and Independents. And the qualitative information — those long form, written answers — are perhaps the most helpful in understanding the mood of Wisconsin’s citizens.
It helps to dig into the responses.
As you'll see in a moment, all three main groups, people who identify themselves as Republicans, Democrats and Independents, say they are concerned about our democracy. But they may mean different things: For Republicans, it might mean ensuring that elections are secure. For Democrats and Independents, it might mean concerns about a continuing refusal by some on the political right to accept that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.
What do Republicans say concerns them the most?
Republicans list inflation, the economy and securing our democracy as their top concerns. Government spending, regulations and crime also rank high.
Here’s a sample of what self-identified Republicans had to say:
“At the end of the day, I have to look at my checkbook and wallet; right now, they both are looking less full than they did three years ago,” said an Oak Creek resident.
A Waukesha woman echoed that concern: “I graduated college in 1980 during the Jimmy Carter administration. The current inflation reminds me of those days. I am now retired and don't have regular income. Inflation is killing me with high gas and food prices.”
A Green Bay man said this: “Inflation has affected all people especially those on fixed incomes. Illegal immigration is a burden on our economy. I am worried that respect for police is low and crime will increase.”
What do Democrats say?
Democrats are very concerned about the future of American democracy, with climate change and abortion much further down the list. In fact, when asked their top concern, self-described Democrats were more than twice as likely to list the future of the democracy as they were climate change, which was in second place. Gun policies were also among their top worries.
Here is what Democrats had to say:
“When the party in power gerrymanders votes, (puts in) place voting restrictions, and refuses to call out lies, cheating, stealing and violence at our Capitol, democracy is eroding,” said a Franklin woman.
A Brookfield man added: “I am terribly frightened that we are heading towards an autocratic state, imposing the will of the minority over the masses.”
“The future of our planet is literally at stake,” said a Mequon man.
And a Milwaukee woman said, “I am now a single issue voter because of the supreme court Dobbs decision (which ended a federal right to an abortion).”
And what about Independents?
Independents put the future of the democracy atop their list of concerns and seem to be more worried about pocketbook issues than Democrats. Like Democrats, they are concerned about gun policies.
A few comments from Independents:
“How are (candidates) going to fight this polarization and bring back representative democracy?” asked a Sheboygan man. “How are they going save Earth from the destructive path it is on? How are they going to preserve the civil rights of women to control their own bodies?”
A Franklin woman put it this way: “All of us are in danger from that attitude as our gun laws allow almost any male at least 18 years old to buy whatever guy he wants. White men seem to be terribly threatened by the social changes that have occurred in our country in recent decades. All of us need a much better understanding of these changes. We need to discuss them.”
And an Oshkosh woman had this to say: “Polls state that the majority of people support abortion rights, gun control, and believe that their local elections are run fairly … but laws and policies are not going in that direction. So it's no wonder that people don't feel like their voices are being heard.”
Didn’t I hear you were giving away a gift card?
Yes! The winner drawn at random last week was Patricia Dwyer-Hallquist of Oshkosh. We plan to award one more card in a random drawing on Aug. 31 for everyone who has submitted a survey by that day and provided their contact information.
You mentioned free public town hall events — when are they?
The La Follette School, the Ideas Lab and WPR will host four town hall meetings across the state beginning Sept. 21 in Milwaukee. At each event, you’ll hear from experts at the La Follette School and a panel of local people, who will discuss their concerns heading into the election. We’ll leave a lot of time for discussion. These free events will last about 90 minutes. They will begin at 7 p.m.
Here are the details:
►7 p.m., Sept. 21, Centennial Hall, Milwaukee Public Library Central Branch, 733 N. 8th St., Milwaukee. Focus: Is democracy at risk? To register, go to: https://tinyurl.com/milwaukeeagenda
►7 p.m., Oct. 6, Ingleside Hotel, 2810 Golf Road, Pewaukee. Focus: Inflation and the state of the U.S. economy. To register, go to: https://tinyurl.com/pewaukeeagenda
►7 p.m., Oct. 11, Brown County Public Library, 515 Pine St., Green Bay. To register, go to: https://tinyurl.com/greenbayagenda
►7 p.m., Nov. 1, UW Stevens Point–Wausau Campus: UW Center for Civic Engagement, 625 Stewart Ave, Wausau. To register, go to: https://tinyurl.com/wausauagenda
These events are free, with support from the La Follette School. But you need to register for each individual event you’d like to attend as space will be limited.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Inflation, democracy, climate change are worrying Wisconsin voters