Capitol’s partisan divide looks like a middle school dance
“It takes two to tango.”
Those were usually my dad’s last words before he meted out punishment for a fight between my siblings and me. When I was the target, clearly my brother or sister started the altercation. After all, I was a model child. However, dad didn’t care and never tried to figure it out; he grounded both of us. We knew the rules and the consequences.
I feel like we’re in a similar situation right now. Much of the gridlock in Washington seems to be caused by adult versions of, “They started it!” Now I see the first seeds of these fights happening here in Wisconsin. We can’t allow our state to sink to that same level because the pace of change continues to accelerate and the problems we must address are too pervasive for us to slow down progress by dissolving into partisan fights.
The start of Wisconsin’s budget process shows this very clearly. I have close friends on both sides of the discussions and their opinions sound much like the “It’s not my fault” protests of my childhood. My friends in the Evers camp talk about how eight years of Republican rule ruined Wisconsin. Likewise, my conservative friends take every change proposed as an end to capitalism. Those of us in the middle feel torn because our friends are both right — and both wrong.
The national debate contaminates our local discussions. Both sides use harsh language — accusations we would rarely use about anyone — to demonize their opponents. The fight is to win, rather than find what’s best for the most citizens. In this environment, we hear sound-bite banter, rather than engaging discussions. These actions quickly lead to all-or-nothing positions, rather than compromise.
The initial salvos of Wisconsin’s budget process also show these disturbing characteristics. The governor invested time across the state listening to people discuss major problems, yet his budget is a very partisan proposal. Of course, the formulaic response followed from most Republicans — irresponsible, can’t afford it, the start of socialism. It seems our leaders learned their lessons too well from their national counterparts.
I understand positioning and the need for negotiating room. Still, it’s dangerous to take initial extreme positions. They can quickly harden into intractable commitments. These stances stunt compromise — compromise we desperately need.
The issues we face are far too complicated to be solved entirely by the approaches of one side or the other. Our future growth requires more than more money for education or tax credits for investment. Current trends are complex. They demand more attention than simply allowing market forces to act. At the same time, technological change and emerging capabilities move much faster than the government can react. Our times require pragmatic, not philosophical, approaches.
Fortunately, we Wisconsinites are pragmatic by nature. Our predecessors were farmers, mechanics, and manufacturers — professions that know how to get things done. Solving problems is in our DNA. Plus, our grandparents understood the importance of helping each other and making sure the community thrived. We need those skills now more than ever.
Our most pressing issues require all of us to work together and pool our talents. Almost all of us agree about these problems and the key decisions we need to make:
- Body gap — We need more people to keep our economy growing, but demographics show that our workforce will not grow for at least the next two decades.
- Aging population — We’re getting older. That creates funding issues across the economy as fewer people work and more people retire.
- Technology and cybersecurity — Expanding technology makes our lives easier and also exposes us to more threats than ever before.
- Education transformation — Knowledge changes with technology and moves faster than ever. Our educational systems must react by becoming more nimble and focused, while also preserving the value of basic learning.
- Infrastructure — Our physical support systems are a mess. Experts say we need investments of more than $1 trillion to bring them up to snuff.
We’ve ignored these issues for far too long, and exponential change accelerates the impact of these shortfalls. Conversely, responding quickly can create tremendous opportunities for Wisconsin and all our people.
This list demonstrates what we face and how critically we need compromise. Our federal leaders remain stuck because they traded cooperation for political gains a long time ago. Our future depends on local leadership. States that build the most pragmatic and nimble governance will win the battles for future growth opportunities.
The budget provides a great format to build compromise and a common vision for the future. Let’s find a shared path forward.
Dad was right: It does take two to tango! Shall we dance?
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