Representative government should encourage, not discourage, open debate.
It has become the pattern in Wisconsin state government, and no one—regardless of partisan persuasion—should feel good about it.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, called the legislature into session for the purpose of considering a package of policing reforms. Bound by law to convene when called, the Republican-led legislature last week gaveled the session open and then immediately shut down again. It took less than a minute.
It’s not the first time. In November of 2019 legislators immediately closed down when asked to consider gun control proposals put forward by the governor.
The message, loud and clear, is this: Nothing to talk about here. Stop asking us to meet. Move on.
It’s a measure of just how polarized Wisconsin government is these days and it’s painfully unbecoming in a democratic system that, in theory, embraces pluralism. Representative legislatures are supposed to be places where the issues of the day can be debated by advocates for all sides. That’s how disagreements are supposed to be resolved, through civil discussions and reason.
But today, partisan division precludes all that. When there’s an unwillingness even to talk or begin a search for common ground, what’s the point? If the law requires convening, fine, gavel an opening and then immediately shut it all down. Control counts. Nothing else.
Let’s make this as clear as we possibly can: This commentary is not intended to take sides and opine about whether Evers or legislative leaders are right when it comes to policing policies. It is to say the purpose of government is to represent the people—all the people—with a willingness to reason together for the common good. The absolute division in Wisconsin state government is a cancer on the body politic, preventing any appearance of a serious attempt to bridge political differences among the population.
For now, that mostly works for Republicans who control both houses of the legislature. The party can stifle anything the Democrat governor tries to do. As for Democrats elected to the Assembly or Senate, it’s pretty much a waste of tax money to pay their salaries and per diems to show up for work. They have no more say in anything than a Capitol bench.
But what goes around comes around. Political tides roll in and roll out. The other party always wins an election cycle, at some point, and when that happens next expect Democrats to show Republicans the same dismissive treatment.
By the way, that includes confirming members of a governor’s team. Heretofore, a governor’s Cabinet picks routinely and quickly sailed through Senate confirmation with rare exceptions. For Evers, not so much. There have been a handful of confirmations, but his Cabinet is still mostly of “secretary-designee” status. That’s unheard of in previous Wisconsin administrations. Obviously, it’s one more way legislative leaders stick a thumb in Evers’ eye.
The loser in such take-no-prisoners partisanship, as usual, is the people. Government that’s only interested in representing half the state at any given time is a poor and dangerous excuse for the deliberative system our visionary Founders intended.
The fix isn’t all that hard. Majorities should let all sides have their say in open debate on any timely topic, and at least pretend to listen respectfully. Then vote. The outcome might be the same. Or, maybe, somebody—wait for it—changes their mind and impacts the final vote. If nothing else it would send a message to the people that’s much less disrespectful and dismissive. And when power shifts again, as it eventually will, it might encourage more civil discourse going forward. Imagine that.