Commentary: Hope for Wisco politicos

Civic discourse erupts in unusual spot

By Ellen Foley

Special To Channel 3000

The American Future Fund just called the land line at the house. It's very cheerful robot had several personal questions for me, such as how much money does your family make?

Should I have counted the unemployment compensation?

This annoying pre-election practice is the latest in incessant robocalls from taped dignitaries and patriotically named organizations from all political parties trying to woo Wisconsin voters as we head into the historic recall election for governor.

Most of us in Madison don't fall for the bait from faux-friendly callers who use our first names but know nothing about how our breadbasket state became a place in which nearly 20 percent of our neighbors have been unsure where their next meal will come from.

We are girding for Wednesday, the day after the primary, when the pleasant robots turn into screaming mimis dominating our electronic media for the next five weeks. During one of our previous state elections, one candidate's ads were deemed to be satanic.

We are a state trained to be nice to our neighbors. This is not nice.

The June 5 recall election for Gov. Scott Walker looks like a doozie with high-buck war chests fueling a media frenzy that will make some of us despair.

But wait. There's hope.

There was an outbreak of civil discourse recently at the most unsuspecting place: The Madison Club, an old line club in an historic building near the convention center on Lake Monona.

On Feb. 29, University of Wisconsin-Madison Political Science professors Donald Downs and Ryan Owens spoke to a group of alums of the Political Science Department at a UW-Madison-sponsored breakfast. The topic was the Supreme Court's decision on health care reform. The court's decision is due any day now and could scuttle reform.

Very liberal county attorneys sat next to very conservative real estate attorneys, and at least three members of former Gov. Tommy Thompson's cabinet shared scrambled eggs with journalists and social activists. We were in our 70s and in our 40s. We were male and female, rich and poor, town and gown.

We had a pointed, if polite, conversation about the fate of health care reform.

We even had a little bit of consensus.

I attribute the pleasant and intriguing moment to the audience's shared love of our home department, Political Science, and the almost fraternal notion that we all did pretty darn good having survived the trials at North Hall, the great leveler.

There was a sense of trust in the room. And a recent study reported in the Wall Street Journal confirmed what I -- and what I hope my fellow alums -- may have been feeling.

Connections between people, who gather, sing, dance, or in this case debate together, increase production of what is called "the trust molecule," according to a Wall Street Journal article April 27. Its official name is oxytocin, a drug known to women in labor, but also one which some researchers believe may be the antidote to demonic political advertising.

Face-to-face interaction with others appears to do the trick, and the Poli Sci breakfast fights the stereotype that Republicans and Democrats can't get along. It's such a small sign but an encouraging one.

I'll test it again when I go in for my next infusion of oxytocin at the Poli Sci May 31 breakfast at which professor Charles Franklin will share the latest in polling data on the gubernatorial race. It was neck and neck this week, and many predict this will fuel extremely mean and desperate tactics on both sides.

Franklin reported at this writing that a poll showed almost 30 percent of Wisconsin respondents have stopping talking to some people because of the divisive election.

Foley At Large is opposed to silence before election. We were trained at UW-Madison by Booth Fowler, another professor of political science, who emphasized the wisdom of James Madison's philosophy, arguing that the more discussion about political issues, the better.

It would be profoundly sad if a city named Madison would give up and endure the electioneering in stony silence. We have had far too much communication shut down at the state Legislature in the past year of contentious maneuvering. Silence is part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Foley At Large challenges Madison and Wisconsin with a campaign of our own. We will monitor the media in the next five weeks and point out ads and messages that are helpful to voters. We will identify some of the stinkers also.

You can help with the effort by sending your favorite positive ads to Foley At Large through the comments box at the end of this column. You can also email me at Ellen.madaline@gmail.com

Any suggestions will earn you a spot in a drawing. One lucky winner will receive a dinner for two at Alt N' Bach's Town Tap, a West Side eatery and bar where in previous generations Republicans and Democrats sat shoulder to shoulder sharing burgers and beers in what we used to proudly call clean, friendly and progressive (with a small p) Wisconsin Politics.

Let's connect. Let's bring back some trust. Social media may not generate as much of the trust molecule as face-to-face meetings, but let's give it a try. 

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