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Wisconsin’s Economic Realties In Partisan Times

September 20, 2020

The final sentence in two articles in the Sunday newspaper popped off the pages and are statements not only about the issues of the day which need to be addressed, but more importantly they speak to a deeper truth concerning the partisan times in which we live. Over the past few years the most confounding topic I have attempted to better understand is how facts and data matter less than partisan alignment. We are not talking about small details at the margins of the issues, but rather the stark bold facts right in front of the eyes of state residents.

From the Associated Press Josh Boak reported the following.

Marvin Murphy, the 80-year-old owner of Fox Cities magazine lamented that so many people only process the world based on what they see and hear on TV.

“Reality is is not the most important thing,” Murphy said. “The perceived reality is what’s important.”

The article pointed out that by almost any measure, Trump’s promises of an economic revival in places like Appleton have gone unfulfilled. The area has lost about 8,000 jobs since he got elected.

Meanwhile Tom Still at the Wisconsin State Journal wrote a column about a congressional bill which would ramp up funding for research, drive manufacturing and provide innovative tools for more places nationwide. It is precisely the type of legislation that should be talked about in light of a pandemic and difficulty with supply chains worldwide. Still’s final sentence is not about the substance of the bill, however, but the higher mountain to climb in this unsettled partisan climate.

Let’s see if our fractured political times can bring it into sharper focus.

We have all read and heard much about the political tribalism that has embedded itself into our system, and we know this is not the first time when reason or facts have taken a back seat to the needs of the state. But the depth of the canyon between reality and partisan perspective seems, from my observations, to be more pronounced than anytime in my nearly six decades.

I grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin that was primarily older, blue-collar, Christian and mostly Caucasian. My adult life has been spent in largely the opposite environment with urban, multi-cultural, higher educated, and upwardly mobile people all around. I know how to talk with both groups, but have not found the answer as to why the same facts about an issue can be presented but the acceptance of that data is so different. It is that dilemma which stresses our political system not only in Wisconsin, but nationwide.

The New York Times Sunday reported from Janesville where economic promises and hope-for renewal has yet to occur.

Lingering hopes that the factory would be resurrected were dashed when the final smokestack that dominated the 300-acre campus was demolished in 2019.

Several shipping warehouses eventually arrived, including a huge Dollar General distribution center. While some residents welcome the new jobs, others say they’re no substitute for highly paid auto work that once guaranteed pensions and lifelong health insurance.

So how do we talk about the data from multiple places statewide showing economic distress over the past years and not have it rejected out of hand by those on ‘the other side’ of the divide? We know the wise route as citizens, and the essential path for our future, is to find a bridge for the sake of our state. Having said, however, we need to ponder the impact of marginalizing facts for the sake of unity. That is a price too steep for us to ever take.

I do not have an answer for the complexity of how to marshal facts for those who simply reject them. But I do wish to end this column with an uplifting thought. I enjoy having conversations with those who vote and think differently than I do and find the best way to make headway is to talk in broad strokes, and from the larger array of ideas ‘on the table’, gravitate to the ones where common ground exists.  If the other person is open to that style of conversation a cup of coffee and an hour can make a difference.

As Wisconsinites that might be the best place from which to start at rebuilding our shared factual commonalties.

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