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Another View: Tackling the state's hyperpartisan divide

6:29 PM, Feb. 16, 2014  |  Comments
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto
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Political polarization is not just a fact of life; it's a force of nature. And with the coming retirements of politicians in Madison who have a record of making compromises, it is about to get worse in Wisconsin. What can we do about it?

The Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team crunched the numbers in a new report last week and put data behind what anyone who pays attention to state politics knows: The parties stick together and as a general rule don't work well with each other.

In fact, even retiring state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, famously the most moderate Republican in the Legislature and targeted for a GOP primary after he voted against 2011's Act 10, voted with the typical Democrat only 30 percent of the time. That is the most of any GOP senator, and blows away the 16 percent average for both parties.

The typical Republican voted with Republicans 98 percent of the time, the analysis found; Democrats were unified 91 percent of the time.

"Bipartisanship" is not an end in itself; the idea is that compromise should lead to better policy. That process - if and when it works - also helps to build a sense of legitimacy and broad support for policy changes. Look no further than the massive political backlash to both the all-Democratic Affordable Care Act and Wisconsin's all-GOP Act 10 to see the downside of single-party politics. (Advocates of both policies say the results will eventually build public support, and they may yet. But both have had an extraordinarily bumpy ride to this point.)

What's driving us apart? A few factors:

? Gerrymandering. We've argued many times for a nonpartisan way of drawing election maps. An analysis released last week by Schultz and state Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, found that the alternative system would have led to Democratic gains in 2012 and Republican gains in 2010. In other words, rather than simply favoring one party or the other, it would have made our state government more responsive to the actual will of voters.

? Disengagement. Political scientists studying partisan voting behavior have found that the fact that most people don't follow state politics leads to state legislators being ever more partisan. Why? Because it means the only people who are paying attention - the people who will be most likely to influence whether a politician is re-elected - are the special interest groups, big donors and the extreme partisan activists.

? The Big Sort. Wisconsin is like the nation: divided into political conclaves. Urban areas and the far north are deep-blue Democratic regions; suburbs and rural stretches are deep-red Republican; and there are fewer and fewer purplish swing areas. We're more divided in part because we have divided ourselves, based on where we've chosen to live.

None of these is a complete explanation, and there are more factors than this driving hyperpartisanship. That also means there is no simple, single solution. It is up to all of us to get involved, pay attention and demand that our leaders work together for the common good, not the good of one political party.

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