If you’re curious how Republican legislators in Wisconsin rationalize passing last-minute legislation aimed at hobbling the state’s governor-elect, Tony Evers (D), allow them to explain.
“Listen. I’m concerned,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said at a news conference on Tuesday. “I think that Governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.”
If the legislation isn’t passed, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) warned on Tuesday night, “we are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”
The fear, from the top-ranking Republicans in the state legislature, is explicit: They are worried that Evers will advocate for policies and actions that are at odds with a conservative agenda, that he’ll make decisions that Republicans — “many of us” — disagree with.
Well, yeah. That’s how elections work. The person who wins more support from the state’s voters gets to run the state. Many of those voters won’t be happy with those decisions, but more of them, presumably, will be. Arguing that the power of the governor must necessarily be curtailed because a candidate won an election and will advocate the positions he ran on fundamentally goes against the spirit of democracy.
But the problem here isn’t only with how Fitzgerald and Vos are reacting to Evers’s win. Another problem is that the gulf between the two parties on policy issues has never been wider. Another is that elections have often become fights between two electoral poles instead of moderated appeals to unity.
To the first point, we can look at data provided by Pew Research Center polling. Pew has tracked opinions on 10 policy issues since 1994, including things like corporate profits, race, homosexuality and government. The gaps on views of those issues were about as wide between racial groups in 1994 as between members of either major political party. In the years since, though, that latter gulf has widened dramatically.
In other words: If you are a Republican, you’re much more likely to hold divergent views from a Democrat on these issues than if you’re a white person comparing views with a black person — than if you’re a man comparing views with a woman, than if you’re a young person comparing views with an old person.
When we were looking at the effort in Wisconsin on Tuesday, we noted that this overlapped with another divide between the parties: Most members of one political party see the other as a serious threat to the country.
In this context, Fitzgerald’s and Vos’s comments take on a different light. They are claiming to protect Wisconsinites from political views that many of their constituents deeply disagree with (even in the abstract) coming from a member of a political party that many (or most) see as posing a threat to the country.
Evers ran as a progressive, advocating for an expansion of Medicaid coverage in the state and for things like the legalization of marijuana. He advocated increased protections for gay Wisconsinites and for reforms to the criminal justice system. These are, by now, mainstream ideas in the Democratic Party, a party whose base has grown increasingly liberal in recent years.
In past elections, candidates like Evers and his opponent, Gov. Scott Walker (R), would advocate more-partisan positions to win party primaries and then move to the middle for the general election. The goal was to persuade swing voters to choose them over their opponents.
Swing voters still exist, but there aren’t that many of them thanks to the country’s polarization. Even as the number of self-identified independents increases, most of them still vote along heavily partisan lines (often out of dislike of the opposing party). That’s meant that candidates often focus on increasing turnout among voters from their own party to win elections. Persuading an independent to vote for your agenda is a different challenge from convincing someone who shares your politics that it’s important to go out and vote. The latter effort — trying to goose turnout in your own base — can also mean heightening the threat posed by your opponent. That’s made easier in an environment in which the other party is seen as dangerous or as holding broadly divergent views.
This isn’t to say that Evers’s campaign against Walker was particularly nasty or divisive. But there’s been a lower incentive in recent years for candidates to reach out to the political middle, wherever it might be. President Trump proved that you can win the presidency even without making any significant overtures to your political opponents.
Those campaigns become even easier for candidates in districts drawn to ensure that they’ll win, isolating elected officials from negative reaction from the political opposition.
The comments from Vos and Fitzgerald run against the grain of what’s expected in the wake of democratic elections. Historically, losses are treated as chastening, not as rebellions against which bulwarks need to be built. But, historically, the gap in views between members of either party hasn’t been as broad.
Tony Evers ran on a platform that was, to use Vos’s words, in “direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” He also won. Elections have consequences, as they say, but in Wisconsin the consequences are not what you might expect.