Getting Out of Our Bubbles and Off Our Couches: Mass Exodus, The Importance of Voting, and How All of This Could Have Been Avoided

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I will admit.  I live in a bubble.  I live in a world surrounded by family and friends who value public education, know how important tenure is within higher education, and who pay attention every day to what’s happening politically in my state. So it was with great humility when I was reminded by my very intelligent friend that there are many, many people in Wisconsin who don’t live in my world, who don’t see any inherent good in public education, and that the ideas that resonate with me do not so with a large portion of Wisconsinites.  In his post, he claimed, “To me, it feels like there are two obvious paths to understanding.  If these Wisconsin Ideas are no longer resonating with the people of Wisconsin, either people don’t have enough awareness of the benefits of these public institutions or the benefits are not tangible to enough of the voting public. Let’s start with the less popular possibility that these aren’t actually benefits to a significant percentage of voters.  There is a case to make here.  Think of our public universities or public radio.  For those of us that have engaged or do engage with these institutions, it is incredibly difficult to imagine a worldview that doesn’t see their value, but both of these institutions serve as a direct resource for a much smaller percentage of our population than many of us want to acknowledge.  In Wisconsin, as of 2013, only 28.8% of residents twenty-five or older had at least a bachelor’s degree.  While post-secondary education is of increasing importance for the next-generation workforce, this figure remains below 50%–41.3% in 2010–even when limited to the 25 – 34 age group. Educational attainment can be a dangerous segregator.  I have marveled myself at the world I occupy, in which a significant majority of my friends and family have graduate degrees.  I have to remind myself that my normal is made up of America’s educational elite (at just over 10% of the population and 3% of the world’s). Certainly this affects my perspective on education.”

In short, a large number of Wisconsinites do not think like me and either 1) have no idea what happened today, 2) don’t care, or 3) are cheerfully going about their day, happy that Governor Walker, the legislature, and now the Board of Regents totally stuck it to us lazy professors.  I can hear them now–“I don’t have job security for life–why should they?”

Reality check reminder 1:  Governor Walker got elected 3 times in this state.  3.  And he’s running on that in his presidential bid, controversially claiming “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe.”  Those looking at his chances at the presidential nomination also claim this is a huge plus for Governor Walker.  “After a fierce battle, Walker prevailed on June 5, 2012, becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt. Walker’s tussle with unions – and his ultimate triumph – endeared him to the conservative base, and some analysts believe it could be his trump card in the GOP nominating contest, enabling him to keep his fans on the right from slipping away to another conservative candidate. ‘He’s the strongest anti-union republican in the bunch, and that’s an issue that resonates both with average Republicans, but also with business Republicans that give a lot of money to the party,’ said Zelizer. ‘It defines him.'”

To my friends who voted for Governor Walker, all three times, I often asked and still do, has your quality of life improved?  Does me having to pay more for my healthcare make yours any better?  Does weakening my job security strengthen yours?  Did my pay cut help to get you a raise?  Usually I get blank stares, but the point is that the reasons for voting for Governor Walker in the first place run much deeper.  One of the most effective messages Governor Walker used against public sector employees was to tap into the deep resentment that many people feel/felt toward those they perceived to be an elitist class apart.  As he stated, it was a fight between the “have-nots” vs. the “haves.” To many who voted for Walker, it wasn’t about making things better for your fellow Wisconsinites, for Wisconsin’s economy, or improving misguided policies.  Walker supporters wanted to even the playing field through shared misery.  Instead of working together to get better healthcare, job security, and pay in the private sector, instead, voters wanted some kind of justice where everyone suffered equally.  Public workers were and still remain an easy scapegoat with our “Cadillac benefits” and “job security for life.”  Even though tenure is not job security for life and those “Cadillac” benefits were bargained for in exchange for lower wages, most have no idea of those realities unless they know someone or personally work in higher education or in the public sector.

Reality check reminder 2:  Voting matters.  In a statement today put out by Jason Rae who is currently running for chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, he stated “The Regents’ unwillingness to stand up to the Legislature and the Governor today will have a devastating effect on the quality of the UW System. In a state where job growth has consistently trailed the national average, the likely exodus of the best and brightest faculty will only impede our chances at a stronger recovery. This is why elections matter. We have to put people in office who will fund higher education and ensure we govern the university in the right way. Attacking tenure and shared governance takes us in the wrong direction. It’s time to turn Wisconsin around.”  Exactly.

Elections matter.  Voting matters.  Immensely.  None of this would be happening right now had voters shown up at the polls.  Many of my friends believe that our government is so corrupt and broken that voting is pointless.  Let’s call this the Russell Brand ideology behind voting.  As he claims, “I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. Billy Connolly said: ‘Don’t vote, it encourages them,’ and, ‘The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.'”

I have many issues with this line of thinking.  One, not even all Americans have the right to vote, so to not use that privilege because you’re “disenchanted,” in my opinion, is criminal.  As John Oliver claimed in a piece reminding his viewers that Americans living in the island territories don’t have the right to vote, he pointed out that despite the lack of that right, “Guam’s registered voter turnout is actually higher than the rest of America.”  We have a long history of people literally dying for the right to have a voice in their elections.  This argument doesn’t bode well with me, but it’s also illogical and selfish.  I get it.  You don’t care to get off the couch and vote because you feel those running don’t represent you and that the system’s broken.  But when that happens, guess what? All of those other people who turned out get a say in what happens to you, your family, your friends, your state, and your country.  To not use your voice allows others to make important decisions for you, is irresponsible, and frankly, unconscionable.

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I make no apologies for the strong language because as the title states, all of this–all of this could have been avoided had people shown up to the polls.  The Governor didn’t win because the overwhelming majority of eligible Wisconsin voters agreed with his policies.  He won because his opposition decided to check out.  And yes, you can blame the Democratic party for weak candidates, you can blame Republicans for redistricting and their endless work to suppress voting rights.  But at the end of the day, I blame us.  Myself included.  Because even though we shouldn’t have to convince people that teachers aren’t the enemy, that public education is a public good, that dismantling education hurts businesses, our economy, and our state, clearly those messages aren’t getting through to a large portion of Wisconsin voters and it’s why this Governor has been able to do insurmountable damage making us the laughingstock of the nation.

I do want to make clear that in many ways our government and the election process is broken.  A new poll suggests that “Americans of both parties fundamentally reject the regime of untrammeled money in elections made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other court decisions and now favor a sweeping overhaul of how political campaigns are financed, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. The findings reveal deep support among Republicans and Democrats alike for new measures to restrict the influence of wealthy givers, including limiting the amount of money that can be spent by ‘super PACs‘ and forcing more public disclosure on organizations now permitted to intervene in elections without disclosing the names of their donors.”  But demanding changes to campaign finance reform so that we have freer and fairer elections and working to change the system through voting and being civically engaged is very different from being disenchanted and removing yourself from the political process.

So what is the answer? Get out of your bubble.  Talk to people with whom you disagree–about the importance of public education, the Wisconsin Idea, and how so many of these policies will affect their friends and families.  And as angry as you may be regarding the countless injustices being placed on the people of Wisconsin, I ask that you be tolerant of the intolerant and careful with your words and criticisms.  To be clear, I am 100% guilty of doing this, but making fun of Governor Walker’s intelligence or mocking him for his lack of degree is not only counterproductive but feeds into the narrative that educators are elitists.  Calling those who voted for Governor Walker “morons,” “idiots,” etc., doesn’t help, either.  As my marvelous advisor in graduate school said, “Kelly, no one is evil.  They may just be incredibly misguided.”

And I don’t think Governor Walker is evil.  I don’t think those who voted for him are evil, or hell-bent on destroying my life and my livelihood.  We’re all just so disconnected that we feed on stereotypes and abstractions and when those aren’t challenged, when our news media gives us “stories” that merely reflect our already existing opinions, we never get out of our bubbles.  And neither do those with whom we disagree.

I’ll leave with this.  What happened today will cause many great and talented professors to leave this state.  As Chuck Rybak points out in his “UW Struggle: Real People Edition,” many already have and we will see a mass exodus in the coming months.Mass Exodus

Governor Walker’s policies have hurt many in my life, but sadly, I’m not mad at him.  At this point, I’m not even shocked by his policies or those proposed by Republicans in Wisconsin.  But I fear these policies will drive the Russell Brands in Wisconsin further into their couches, overwhelmed by the power this government has wielded over this state.  I fear that Instead of fighting back, they and others will retreat into the land of apathy and we will have even less of a voice over what happens to our lives, our families, and our loved ones.  I fear those who have fought against this administration for so many years now will finally give up.  I fear good people won’t run for politics, and that the ones who currently serve will be so daunted by the helplessness they must feel going to work everyday, they will soon find other career options.  And when that happens, the “incredibly misguided” voters will rule us all.

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