Every Midwestern state has some claim to the state of niceness, as in “Wisconsin Nice” or “Minnesota Nice,” etc. And yet the civility of Wisconsin somehow resulted in a political landscape that over the last 10 years was so cheap-skating, mean-spirited and cheese-headed that going to the state Capitol and yelling like a New York cab driver at somebody seemed the only rational thing for some nice Wisconsin liberals to do.
It took 10 years, but the vociferous liberal resistance to former Gov. Scott Walker and Trumpublicanism in the state finally resulted in the election of a Democratic governor and attorney general. Tony Evers was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee presumably because his was the name most Democrats and independents could recognize. It was an uninspired choice, especially since two highly qualified, boldly eloquent women (Kelda Roys and Kathleen Vinehout) were in the running on the Democratic side.
Compare the political charisma of Evers to, for example, the woman that the NYC boroughs of the Bronx and Queens recently sent to Congress — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC comes across via various media as friendly and nice, but she does not let her cheery personality edit her public convictions. Even before she had been sworn in, Ocasio-Cortez participated in a protest at House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding support for a “Green New Deal” to address the harmful effects of climate change and provide good, clean jobs. Some of the protesters were later arrested when they refused to leave. Publicly protesting against a fellow Democrat was not the most civil thing Ocasio-Cortez could have done to begin her political career.
Compare the AOC response to that of Evers concerning the Republicans’ vengeful lame-duck coup. On Jan. 2, Gov.-elect Evers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was considering not obeying the lame-duck laws but couldn’t say exactly which laws to ignore because “the entire thing was a hot mess.” But the next day Evers said he would eat all the disgusting duck Republicans were serving and leave the resistance to liberal groups. “I have no intent of breaking the law,” said Evers, surely one of the most stirring statements of political civility ever uttered. Republicans praised his civility. Liberal groups procured lawyers.
The objection to comparing Ocasio-Cortez to Evers will be that Wisconsin is not New York City; I’ll concede that NY is more liberal than “purple” Wisconsin, though AOC beat a well-financed, white male incumbent in the primary by 15 percentage points. Would a more liberal, dynamic candidate for Wisconsin governor have done better?
Capital Times associate editor John Nichols tries to make the best of Evers’ unimpressive progressiveness: “[Wisconsinites] know that Evers defeated Scott Walker precisely because the former state superintendent of public instruction speaks to a longing on the part of Wisconsinites for a presumption of civility. . . This instinct does not incline a governor toward unprincipled compromise but toward fruitful cooperation.”
I think Evers beat Walker (barely) only because he wasn’t Walker. And short of a miraculous Republican epiphany, to cooperate with the current Republican Party requires a “civility” that can only be unprincipled compromise. It’s nice that Assembly Republicans now say they want to play nice, but civility alone cannot overcome essential, philosophic policy differences.
On Inauguration Day in Madison, Nice Tony was a model of civility. As reported by The Capital Times, Evers told the crowd: "As elected officials, we are reminded that our obligation and our allegiance are to the people of this state, not any political leader or party. . . May we dare to transcend divisiveness and party line. May we have courage in our conscience.” (Italics mine.)
To have courage and follow conscience in politics sometimes requires us to dare to be divisive, even, dare we say — civilly disobedient. To honor “our allegiance to the people,” we must sometimes actively, publicly oppose bad, immoral laws. Henry David Thoreau put it in the form of a question: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” Had Evers at once disobeyed the Republican power grab, he would have sent an AOC-like message to a Republican Party still enthralled by the unwholesome tactics of Walker and Trump.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that a spokeswoman for Gov. Evers says that the governor “will be consulting with legal counsel to determine an appropriate course of action” regarding the lame-duck laws.
Here’s some counsel, Tony: Give the Republicans a Bronx cheer. Let your conscience speak. Dance your butt off.
John Kaufman, of Wauwatosa, is a writer and poet.
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