Wineke: Examining ‘civility’ in Wisconsin life

Columnist examines what's ailing Wisconsin
Wineke: Examining ‘civility’ in Wisconsin life

By Bill Wineke
Special to Channel 3000

Some of my friends in the Madison religious scene created a civility service last week in order to promote friendlier relations between people who disagree: Sixteen people showed up.

This may not be a good omen.

The problem of “civility” is this: The divisions between people in Wisconsin are not rooted in differing politics. This is not a matter of two sides of an issue using alternative means to get to a common goal.

A year or so ago, the government of the State of Wisconsin voted to cut the wages of its employees by close to 10 percent and then promised to never again let those employees bargain for better working conditions.

While it was at it, the government of the State of Wisconsin also voted to cut funds going to public education by almost a billion dollars but crowed it had given local school boards “tools” to make up the difference, namely by cutting wages of teachers and other employees.

These actions showed a certain contempt for the people who make the government and the schools work. Not surprisingly, the subjects of that contempt feel rather bitter toward those who are demonstrating the contempt.

“Civility” will return soon enough. People will be polite to one another. But it will be a long time before they once again trust one another.

And that, I think, will be the tragedy of the Walker administration. It came to power by capitalizing on long-term divisions in our society and it used that power to make the divisions deeper.

I don’t think the matter has much to do with “liberals” or “conservatives.” And it doesn’t have much to do with Democrats and Republicans. I think the real division in Wisconsin is between those who believe in Wisconsin exceptionalism – with the idea that this is the best state in the union – and those who don’t want the state to get too big for its britches.

It is not a matter of partisanship. The most powerful and popular proponent of Wisconsin exceptionalism was Gov. Tommy Thompson. Tommy was always trying to convince anyone who would listen that Wisconsin has the best schools, the best cheese, the best beer, the best workers and, well, yes, the best governor the world has ever seen.

He was followed by Gov. Jim Doyle. Despite the invective hurled by Walker advertisements, Doyle’s administration was characterized by years of zero pay raises, cuts in public services and an atmosphere of austerity. It is easy to forget that it was Doyle, not Walker, who pulled the plug on high-speed raid between Madison and Milwaukee. There are reasons for that – but you know, I know and the dog knows that Tommy would never have done that.

And for all the money spent in the recall election, the campaign was between two candidates who offered little vision to the people. I’ve voted for Tom Barrett twice but in neither case did I really understand just why he wants to be governor. I can’t believe that even the billionaires who now lionize Scott Walker think he is a serious leader.

Instead, both candidates argued about jobs, although governors have little ability to actually create private sector jobs. Barrett promised to bring us together — but I have a hunch that, had he ousted the governor, Walker supporters might have been a touch unhappy.

So, I wish my church friends well. But I really don’t think our problem is a lack of civility. I think it is an excess of mediocrity.