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What the 34th Assembly Debate says about Wisconsin Politics

Kirk Bangstad

So it has been a few days since the WJFW debate, and I’ve reflected on what happened and wanted to share how I think it went.

I was confident I would win the debate.  I studied hard, lived and breathed these issues all summer, and most polls suggest my views are in line with the majority of the population—thus easy to argue my side.  

Also, the deceit coming from the Republican party on issues like containing Covid, the economic (non)recovery, gerrymandering, and voter suppression would take a MASTERFUL spin doctor to be convincing.  Rob Swearingen is not that.

However, there are more important issues here than winning or losing a debate. The issue is how an average guy like Rob Swearingen representing the Northwoods  can be so dangerous for Wisconsin.

Let me go through how I think he blew it during the debate and follow with what that says about Wisconsin politics.

First, you could see his intellectual laziness on display.  He read prepared speeches in his opening and closing statements that seemed written by someone else.  He actually said something to the effect of “after hearing the complete differences between me and my opponent,” that was written BEFORE the debate. 

Next, he didn’t have facts or figures at the ready to prove his party’s policies were working. Guess why?  They aren’t. Swearingen completely relied on disproven talking points for almost every single question. Here are a few examples:

Gerrymandering?  “I took an oath to follow the constitution to have the legislature draw the maps,” Swearingen regurgitated, hoping that no one in his district has read that the legislature didn’t in fact draw the maps, but hired an expensive lawyer to use a computer program to draw the districts that would be most favorable to Republicans.

Marijuana?  “It’s a gateway drug,” recited Swearingen from the Greatest Generation, the youngest of which is 95 years old.  Years of research have shown that marijuana is medically great for cancer patients and no more harmful than drinking alcohol.

Medicaid expansion?  “It’s like welfare and will bankrupt Wisconsin,” quoted Rob from conservative rags written before Obamacare even became a law. Seemingly, the 38 states, including deep red states Oklahoma and Missouri, who have already taken the federal money and helped tens of thousands of their citizens gain access to healthcare, aren’t going bankrupt.

And lastly, I just laughed at his ending line about me not being able to represent the Northwoods because I went to Harvard and am an opera singer.  Jesus man!  WTF?  I hope I don’t sound too cocky here, but I think the Northwoods is lucky to have me. Most kids from Stevens Point or the Northwoods who go to college don’t come back because there’s more opportunity in bigger cities. I busted my ass in high school to earn a spot at America’s best college, worked on both coasts with brilliant people at America’s top tech companies, and then spent 2 hours a day for 10 years training my voice to break into the nichiest field imaginable.  Because of these experiences, not in spite of them, I understand success, and I actually want to help people in the Northwoods become successful.

This last dig from Swearingen was the most insidious, however, because it has been proven that you can win votes for being “anti-intellectual,” and “anti-elite.”
Now I’m not saying there haven’t been some truly awful Harvard grads working in the banking or pharmaceutical lobby, for example, that fund terrible public policy to benefit the rich, but the reason we’ve fallen so far as a country ISN’T because we all went to college and got better at critical thinking.  On the contrary, it is exactly this “anti-intellectual” mindset that has set so many Americans against science and fact-based truth that has hurt us so much.

So what is Rob Swearingen, and why is he so dangerous to Wisconsin?

From this  debate, I saw a man who could use another $50K a year to support his family, knew that running as a Republican in this gerrymandered district was a slam dunk, and knows that if he keeps voting the way he is told, those paychecks keep coming.  

I see a guy whose paycheck means more to him than seeking out facts or actually learning about policy that helps his constituents most.  

I see a guy who knows he’ll get re-elected as long as he doesn’t have a primary opponent, thus keeps moving to the right ideologically, and doesn’t care to become a more gifted legislator through education, working on his public speaking, or preparing for a debate.

Is Rob evil?  No, I don’t believe he is.  I do believe he has allowed himself to be made a pawn for Robin Vos, who I actually think is evil, or Vos’ partners in crime, who are probably a mix of corporate lobbyists, ALEC, and Republican consultants who grease the wheels for corruption.

So why is Rob dangerous to Wisconsin?  He’s dangerous for the very fact that he’s not evil; he’s likeable.  He grew up in Rhinelander and knows everyone there.  People who went to high school with him will trust him as their state rep, not because he’s doing a good job, but because the dude sat next to them in math class.

Very few people in the Northwoods, or anywhere for that matter, want to have to care about state politics.  In fact, we only care when something terrible happens, like ACT 10 which hurt state employees and teachers, or the regulations stemming from Covid that have forced businesses to close.  So we vote for the guy who went to high school with us, trusting that he’ll care so we don’t have to.

This is why Rob is dangerous.  Rob is a likeable pawn who votes the way he is told, and those votes are destroying Wisconsin’s democracy and creating an economy that only works for the rich.  Unfortunately he is not smart enough, nor is he empathetic enough, to look beyond his world of political paychecks, the ego that comes with the tiny powers of his public office, and the maintenance of an upper-middle class lifestyle for his family.

How do we fix the insidiousness that allows Rob Swearingen to become our representative and to be made a pawn that breaks Wisconsin?  It’s going to take a LOT.  First, I think we need to once again prioritize education, make it “cool to be smart” again, and teach critical thinking and media literacy at the earliest ages possible. This will hopefully help curb the belief that Fox is actual news, or that conspiracy theory websites like Qanon aren’t a sham. 
Second, we have to end gerrymandering and get money out of politics.  Fair districts are more likely to create moderate politicians who are more likely to work with each other, and getting money out of politics will allow middle class folks to run for office without selling their souls to raise campaign cash.

I would also argue for term limits and a part-time legislature, thus putting the “public service” back into the legislature instead of incentivizing folks to think of it as a career.

There is a LOT of work to do to get Wisconsin back on track, and honestly, it’s overwhelming to me to think about having to shoulder that burden.  It’s going to take an army of people who care enough about this state to get on the same page and elect folks willing to make the reforms needed to get there, and that same army has been put through the wringer over the last 4 years with psychological warfare in the form of gaslighting and misinformation from the Trump administration.

I, and I know I'm not alone, would certainly love to forget about politics for a few years after what we've all been through.

Unfortunately that can't happen.  Our work doesn’t end with this election on Nov 3, but it certainly will help if there’s a huge blue wave that rejects our state Republican party, and the corruption that has enveloped it.

Here’s to ending this nightmare on November 3rd, and waking up the next day and rolling up our sleeves to bring Wisconsin back to where it used to be.

Written by Kirk Bangstad on 10/12/20

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