Moderation is a lost art in Wisconsin

At a recent professional conference of publishers and editors from business publications across the country in Providence, R.I., I can’t tell you how many times I was asked a version of the following question: “What in the hell is happening to Wisconsin?”

Indeed.

The national spotlight has chronicled each and every wacky turn. Rallies and Capitol sleepovers. Drumbeats and sing-alongs. Senators fleeing the state and living on the lam. A prank phone call gets through to Gov. Scott Walker. Laws being passed in violation of the state’s open meetings act (“Just because we can.”) Supreme Court justices upholding those laws anyway. Collective bargaining rights being revoked for some, upheld for others. Temporary restraining orders. Federal lawsuits. Missing ballots. Recounts. Protesters drowning out the governor with boos and chants of “shame” at a public ceremony. Recall elections featuring “fake” Democrats on the ballot. Sudden redistricting plans being drawn behind closed doors without local input.

We’ve even got one Supreme Court justice accusing another of putting her in a chokehold.

No matter which side of the aisle you are on, Wisconsin’s national political image has been forever changed in the past six months.

So, who in his right mind would want to voluntarily enter this nasty fray?

Well, one who is considering just such a venture is former Bucyrus International Inc. chief executive officer Tim Sullivan.

The ink hadn’t even dried on Caterpillar Inc.’s recent acquisition of Oak Creek-based Bucyrus when Sullivan’s company e-mail and voicemail accounts were turned off and he walked out the door to ponder his next move.

Sullivan told my good friend Mike Gousha of WISN-Channel 12 that he has not yet made up his mind about whether or not he will throw his hat into the ring to succeed Herb Kohl in the U.S. Senate.

If he runs, Sullivan said he would do so as an independent.

“I couldn’t pick sides. Quite frankly, I have a problem with both sides,” Sullivan said. “The whole country was founded on collaboration and compromise. I don’t know what happened.”

Indeed, America’s two-party system has devolved into a dysfunctional mess. To win primaries, Republicans must receive the blessing of the Tea Party purists, and Democrats must attain the seal of approval from the labor unions. There is no room for compromise on either side.

The moderates have been cast to the sides or flushed out all together. When was the last time you heard a politician say, “I’m a moderate.” In fact, the notion of being willing to cross the aisle for compromise to do the right thing for the people is akin to treason to the party faithful on both ends of the political spectrum.

In his farewell address to the American people, George Washington warned against the inherent evils of political parties. The first president feared that powerful parties could lead people to put their partisan politics ahead of their patriotism and the pursuit of what is best for the country.

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism,” Washington wrote.

If Sullivan could run and win without the restrictions of a party label, it would be a breath of fresh air for democracy in Wisconsin. But in the meantime, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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