Eat Cheese and Die

How Politics Soured Community—and Conversation—in Wisconsin

We hear so much about presidential candidates–and so little about life in the states that elect them. In “Beyond the Circus,” writers take us off the trail and give us glimpses of politically important places. Today, Wisconsin.

Something strange is happening in Wisconsin. In parking lots and on front lawns. In the aisles of corner grocery stores and on highways. On Facebook and bar stools.

People are behaving badly.

You have to understand Wisconsin to get how unusual this is. Because Wisconsinites are nice. You can call them naïve. You can dismiss their state as a “flyover” and laugh at their collective fixation with all things cow, cheese, Packers, and hunting-related. As you laugh, they’ll smile and say, “Won’t you come in for a cup of coffee and a muffin?” And say you were to turn down that muffin? “No problem,” they’d say. “I’ll bring it next door to Mildred after I mow her lawn later. Because she just had her hip done and all.”

I know because I’ve spent most of my life here. I was born and raised five miles from the state border in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which might as well be part of Wisconsin. We cheered for the Packers, not the Lions, after all. I have been to Detroit only twice, save for the occasional airport transfer, but ventured to Green Bay and Milwaukee so frequently that I can now estimate exact travel times from most points along I-41 and I-43 better than my GPS. I went to college in Wisconsin, left briefly for graduate school (back to the UP), and then promptly returned.

I thought all places were like Wisconsin. I assumed that, outside of Los Angeles and New York, traffic regularly backs up at four-way stops because drivers are too busy ceding their rightful turns with frantic hand-gesturing and insistent smiles. (“You go.” “No, you! Please, go ahead.” “No, you!”) I assumed that store clerks nationwide chat with you like old friends as they bag your goods, wondering what you have planned for that night or weekend.

Then I moved to New Jersey.

On the East Coast, I learned to wield a grocery cart first defensively, then offensively, eschewing the need to look both ways at the end of an aisle before proceeding. I learned not to signal a lane change until I was well past committed to it. I stopped smiling at clerks when I got the impression that I might have ruined their day simply by approaching the register. I longed to be back in Wisconsin, honest to God. See? In Wisconsin we say things like, “Honest to God.” It isn’t a put on. It’s a way of life.

Or, it was.

Things have changed in the past year. Things have changed a lot.

You’ve probably read about all our political news, about how Governor Scott Walker and the legislature’s Republicans ended collective bargaining for public employees, about the massive protests against those actions, and about the vote to recall Walker next week. You probably haven’t read that, in communities all across the Dairy State, decades-long friendships have cooled. Parents send vitriolic e-mails to school superintendents who they believe are either being too sympathetic to teachers’ unions or not sympathetic enough. Billboards for and against the recall of Governor Walker dot the highways. One billboard on 41 North between Oshkosh and Green Bay reads, “Governor Walker–Working for all of Wisconsin, not just the spoiled few.”

People are flipping one another off after a good horn-honking in a state where most people have never used their car horn, because that’s just rude. Or was. And neighbors who used to shovel one another’s sidewalks now stay behind closed doors and let their yard signs do the talking. Sometimes, especially in rural areas, those signs are hand-constructed and hand-painted.

The bad behavior has come from all sides. At the annual Wisconsin Law Enforcement Memorial ceremony in early May, the governor had just started his remarks to the families and comrades of fallen police officers when a protester disrupted the service by shouting, “Scott Walker, you suck!” After appearing in a pro-Walker TV ad, teacher Kristi LaCroix received threatening phone calls and emails.

Later in the month, a Walker supporter was arrested after leaving messages at Democratic campaign headquarters saying that he wanted to blow up the offices and that he had a concealed carry permit, so his foes “better be wearing bulletproof vests.” On the day of the primary for the recall election, a Chippewa Falls man tried to stop his estranged wife from getting to the polls, so she couldn’t vote for a Democrat (he was a Walker supporter). He repeatedly jumped in front of her SUV, which was parked in a dead-end alley, and climbed onto the car’s hood at one point. When she finally tried to make a move around him, the man jumped in front of the SUV once again, but this time, the woman didn’t stop. He was hospitalized and she was arrested. “These crazy liberal nuts are always pulling this,” the man’s brother told the local paper.

Just last week, an anonymous group printed a flyer that it put in newspaper tubes in homes in Janesville, a city in the southern part of the state. The faux ad listed more than 300 local teachers who had signed the recall petition and included their salaries and “Local Educational Facts,” one of which implicitly links the educators’ compensation and benefits to a 300 percent jump in area home foreclosures. A tear-off “Parents’ Rights Protection” form at the bottom can be sent to the Superintendent requesting that one’s child be assigned to a “non-radical” teacher.

*

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Stoughton, Wisconsin, 20 miles from Madison, although it might as well be 20 years away. Stoughton is a town of about 13,000, and its main street is called “Main Street.” People gather there for the Syttende Mai (the “Seventeenth of May”), a celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day. Street vendors sell leftse (but not beer), and it’s considered not at all dorky for local teenagers to perform in traditional Norwegian regalia as part of the high school-sponsored dance troupe.

This year, Syttende Mai fell on a weekend with temperatures north of 80 degrees, and the whole town turned out. At the local Recall Walker headquarters, housed in a cheery little building on the banks of the Yahara River, people were bustling in and out of the office, which was a large room with a bunch of folding tables adapted to a variety of uses. A slew of red signs with the names of the Democrats challenging Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch leaned against what used to be a small bar. Tacked to the wall was a handwritten sign on loose-leaf paper: “Being Harassed in Any Way? Let the Police Decide. Take a picture!” It listed the emergency and non-emergency numbers for local law enforcement.

A fit-looking, middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard asked if he could help me. He was wearing a T-shirt popular with the anti-Walker crowd: a closed fist in the shape of Wisconsin, bright blue on a red background, with the word “Solidarity” printed underneath. He had kind eyes and a firm handshake. I pointed to the sign and asked him if I could talk to him about it–not, I clarified, about the sign itself, but the idea behind it. The need for it.

His name was Roger Thompson, and he was more than happy to–as long as I promised to take a cookie before I left.

“There’s this weird combination of togetherness and anger right now,” he said. “This isn’t political any more. What it is is a difference in decency.”

That difference had led to family rows between Roger and his siblings, who are evenly split along party lines. Family gatherings, which didn’t happen too often before January 2011, were now even fewer and farther between. “I’ll be cordial to them,” he said, referring to his sister-in-law and other conservative relatives. “But it’s a cold cordial. ‘Hi, how are you doing,’ and I’m out of here.”

He’d lost friends, too. On Valentine’s Day 2011, Roger and his wife stopped by to see a friend who had been widowed more than a decade before, and who they had looked after ever since. But on that Valentine’s Day, the subject of Walker popped up in conversation. The friend, a retired teacher, said that she wholeheartedly agreed with the governor. Roger tried to change her mind, to get her to reconsider. Because for him, this was not simply a difference in political opinion. His mother, a victim of domestic abuse, worked at a laundry until she was 40 years old before she got a job at a post office. That job, with its union protections, “elevated her” to a place she deserved. Roger, too, is a state worker, and he and his wife had seen their household income cut by $6,000 to $8,000 over the past year and a half-money, he said, that they’re now unable to spend at local restaurants, specialty shops, or other local establishments.

As Roger and his wife got back in their car and drove away, she asked, “I don’t think we’ll be back there, will we?”

“I just don’t see how I can,” Roger said.

When the widow sent Roger a card at Christmastime that year, saying that she felt as though she had lost a friend of 13 years, Roger wrote back and told her that it was all just too hard to understand. You worked for all those years, he wrote. You have your pension, and you deserve that. But others deserve the same.

As I was leaving the campaign office, a woman came in to get a bumper sticker. She said she’d seen too many recall stickers ripped off people’s cars, so this one was going inside–in her back window–“so they can’t get at it.”

Just then, someone shouted in from the street, “We love Walker!”

A man standing near me shook his head. “The kind of people who like Walker–those are the kind of people who’ll give you the finger,” he said.

Another woman asked one of the volunteers, “How are we doing? We got any numbers for Rock County yet?”

We, us. Them, you. And so it goes.

“Take a cookie!” Roger said to me on my way out. I wasn’t hungry, but I picked one off the platter anyway. Because it’s the polite thing to do.

Farther down Main Street I saw a row of houses with dueling yard signs. One had a sign with the names of the Democrats challenging Walker, while on either side in the neighbors’ yards were signs that said, “Stand with Walker.” One of the Walker supporters, a man with a near-handlebar moustache and red trucker hat, was standing in his yard. I smiled and waved; he waved back. The house behind him was white and simple and modest, with an impeccable lawn.

I asked about the signs.

“Well, I wish there were more of them,” he said, gesturing toward his yard sign.

Were they causing any neighborly fallout?

He shook his head. “Naw. We just ignore one another. But a woman stopped me the other day and thanked me for putting these signs up, because they destroyed three of hers.”

There was that word again–“they.” It didn’t used to be this way. It used to be “we,” and we used to be nice. Are we still?

“It’ll be a whole lot better when this election is over and all the signs just go away,” the man said.

The answer is yes–and no. The answer is complicated. The answer is, we’re trying.

Erin Celello is the author of two novels from Penguin/NAL: Miracle Beach and forthcoming in April 2013, Learning to Stay.

*Photo courtesy of Dave Hoefler.


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