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Issue of the Week: White GOP Flight Led to Our Current Political Polarization

May. 22, 2014
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In a recent Journal Sentinel series, journalist Craig Gilbert has documented what we’ve all known intuitively: Southeastern Wisconsin is plagued by intense political polarization fed by highly segregated communities. Milwaukee is turning bluer, while Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties are turning ruby red.

This didn’t happen by accident, according to two presentations at a JS/Marquette symposium last week. Rather, our toxic political polarization is driven by race.

Katherine Levine Einstein of Boston University found that our region is more polarized than the national average. The biggest factors underlying segregation in general are race and income inequality, with wealthier whites in one area—the suburbs—and poorer African Americans in another—the city.

This division was intentional, at least on one side of the political spectrum. White Republicans have fled urban areas to settle in Republican-dominated suburbs, according to Clayton Nall, an assistant professor at Stanford University. But Democrats, black and white, have stayed in the city—partly because African Americans and low-income city dwellers have fewer housing options than more affluent white Republicans, who can choose to pick up and leave without many barriers.

This severe segregation has huge implications for our communities. It’s allowed Wisconsin Republicans to create gerrymandered legislative maps that pack Democrats and African Americans in fewer districts than Republican-controlled seats, pretty much securing Republican legislative control of Wisconsin for a decade. As a result, primary races are now the truly competitive campaigns; in these intra-party battles, typically the most liberal Democrat and the most conservative Republican win their race, pushing the parties further apart. The rise of tea party candidates is a testament to the power of this trend.

Our deep segregation has also made regional cooperation terribly difficult, because Milwaukee leaders and suburban leaders are representing two utterly different constituents with utterly different concerns. Think about our region’s failure to develop comprehensive transit options, low-income housing in the suburbs, adequate funding for our public schools and the fight over tax support for cultural amenities like the Bradley Center, and you’ve got a glimpse of that white suburban/black urban split at work.

“The metropolitan areas that most need cooperation are the least able to do it,” Professor Einstein concluded.

These findings aren’t surprising, but they are deeply troubling. If Wisconsin is going to live up to our state motto and move forward, we’re going to have to overcome these divisions—before it’s too late to do so.


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