Must Read: “Dividing Lines” in Milwaukee

Milwaukee 2012
Almost 60% of metro Milwaukee voters lived in a ward decided by 30 points or more in 2012.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released an incredible piece of journalism in May in its multi-part series “Dividing Lines”. It examines political polarization through the lens of Metro Milwaukee, on most measures the most polarized and segregated urban area in America. It will really get you thinking about what the future holds and the cost of political polarization.

Polarization gets out the vote

I have been proceeding under the assumption that polarization makes everyone sad, and as a result they stay home from the polls. What if this is all wrong? What if polarization drives turnout? What if wider ideological gulfs are, in a certain sense, “good for democracy”?

From Part 3, “More polarized, more energized“:

In fact, Wisconsin’s festival of discord mobilized people on a massive scale, generating one record-breaking turnout after another.

In the last presidential election, Ozaukee County had the highest turnout of  voting-age citizens — 84% — of any county with more than 50,000 residents in America… Milwaukee had one of the highest turnouts of any big urban county in America (74%).

The suburban city of Brookfield (population 38,015), where Republican Mitt Romney won two-thirds of the vote, achieved something close to universal turnout: 90% of voting-age citizens went to the polls…

What happened to voter fatigue?

Segregation doesn’t go away on its own, and the different types of segregation driving us apart are mutually reinforcing

Which comes first, ideological or cultural isolation? Does racial segregation drive political segregation? Do they each cause each other? If this knot is tied as tightly tied as it seems, how can a place like Milwaukee break out of the cycle? In Milwaukee, we get a glimpse into what the future may hold in many American communities.

From Part 1 “Dividing Lines“:

Walker got 1% of the vote in 2012 in neighborhoods with the highest share of African-Americans; Obama got 99% in his race five months later. In metro Milwaukee’s whitest neighborhoods, the president won about a quarter of the vote and the governor won more than three-quarters. Obama won every ward in the metro area that was less than 70% white, every ward that was at least 30% Latino and every ward that was at least 15% black. The average metro Milwaukee ward carried by his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, was 1% black and 3% Hispanic.

That is just insane. 99% of the vote? You could invent a machine that dispenses free ice cream and donates puppies to charity and it wouldn’t get 99% approval.

There’s no clear way forward, and no political incentive for a different path

Also from Part 1:

In the combined counties of Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Milwaukee, Gov. Scott Walker has a  91% approval rating among Republicans and a 10% approval rating among Democrats over more than two years of in-depth polling by the Marquette Law School. President Barack Obama has a 93% approval rating among Democrats and an 8% approval rating among Republicans.

These levels of disagreement are beyond political differences. Even if inner-city Milwaukee and Waukesha County residents were sitting around the dinner table sharing their opinions (they aren’t), it would be difficult to see what they could talk about that would make much sense. Politics is informed by worldview. Divides like these point to cultural differences as stark as any two places in America, but down the street from one another.

Percentage of U.S. voters living in one-sided counties

The voters in metro Milwaukee literally cannot understand where the other side is coming from. To me this seems an unambiguously bad thing, never worth the “trade” of higher turnout. Assuming we agree on that point, what can be done to move us off of this path?

The gulf is widening and with no people or organizations to bridge that gap, there will soon be little common reality to agree on. Just because you don’t live in Milwaukee, you shouldn’t ignore it: these issues will start to see pop up in more places as our “Big Sort” continues. Enshrining the right to never have your opinions challenged is more than a passing concern. It threatens the foundation of democracy.