RTT Update 04-25-2017

This week we met with a representative from the office of Speaker Robin Vos to discuss Senate Bill 13 (SB13) and Assembly Bill 44 (AB44) and his stance on the constitutional convention. Speaker Vos is a representative of the Wisconsin State Legislature. He was unavailable due to business in D.C. so we spoke with Steve F., his policy adviser and legal affairs coordinator.

For more information on SB13 and AB44 see the link at the bottom of the post.

Question: What is the Speaker’s stance on SB13 and AB44?

Steve: He supports the state’s position that redistricting should be left to the legislature, of course.

Question: Why ‘of course’?

Steve: The proposed system where a nonpartisan review board helps with redistricting would not solve all the issues we are facing. Lawsuits are still possible with a nonpartisan group, which would cost the state money. This would also overturn 100 years of constitutional precedent. The bills would need to be a Constitutional amendment and would not pass before the next redistricting. Tradition dictates that the controlling party has the right to determine redistricting.

Question: Gerrymandering is illegal in most of the democratic world and calls into question if we are actually a full democracy or a flawed one. Wouldn’t it be better if we removed partisan politics from redistricting?

Steve: We have existed this way for over 100 years. This is obviously working.

Question: But tradition does not mean that this is the best method. Do you think that redistricting should be a partisan matter or should it be representative?

Steve: Redistricting has always been partisan, we have been satisfied with this method in the past. It’s fine if this process is influenced by partisan politics.

Question: But couldn’t we use computers as a tool in redistricting to help ensure that the efficiency gap is as small as possible?

Steve: Because of the natural geographic layout of our state, a computer drawn map would not alleviate this gap. Besides, fair representation is the in eye of the beholder. You could have a long debate about what ‘fair representation’ means.

Question: Switching topics, what is the Speaker’s stance on the constitutional convention?

Steve: He is in favor of having a constitutional convention.

Question: What is he hoping for as an outcome of this convention? And is he worried about the convention going off topic and making drastic changes to our constitution?

Steve: We could legally limit what can be discussed during the convention. His hope would be to add a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.


Tradition, or Bad Habit?

Tradition isn’t a valid reason to undermine democracy.  Both Speaker Vos and State Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald have recently made appeals to ‘tradition’ while defending gerrymandering in Wisconsin.  In fact, ‘tradition’ is the only defense they offer for their intentional disenfranchisement of Wisconsin voters.  

Tradition prohibited minorities, women, and non-landowning citizens from voting.  Once laws changed, calls to tradition supported other voting restrictions like poll taxes and literacy tests.   History will group the voter suppression perpetrated by Vos and Fitzgerald together with these unconstitutional and illegal practices.

Partisan gerrymandering promotes partisan politics.  I’ve heard many times already this year how tired people are of political divides.  Removing partisan politics from redistricting entirely will help mend these divisions.  Senate Bill 13 and Assembly Bill 44 would achieve this goal by putting non-partisan boards in charge of redistricting.

Defending unconstitutional maps in court also costs tax payers a substantial amount of money.  The law firms hired to defend our district maps typically charge $800 an hour.  The entirety of the amount paid to the lawyers comes out of tax payers’ pockets.  

Vos and Fitzgerald should hold a hearing on SB13 and AB44 and listen to the opinions of the people of Wisconsin.

Consider the Flag

When Donald Trump won the election, Polish activist Martin Mycielski freaked out a little. Mycielski is a member of the Committee for Defense of Democracy, an organization that’s currently committed to opposing (or at least slowing down) the Neo-Authoritarian Law and Justice Party that has recently taken power in Poland. After the US election Mycielski believed he saw the same situation happening here in the United States. In an effort to save his American counterparts the confusion he and his friends went through as they watched Poland regress, Mycielski wrote a guide called Year 1 Under Authoritarianism, What to Expect? The guide started as a PDF, but eventually grew into the website LearnFromEurope.org.

The entire site is a great read, but what stood out to me was expectation number 12:

#12: They will take over your national symbols, associate them with their regime, remake them into attributes of their power. They want you to forget that your flag, your anthem and your symbols belong to you, the People, to everyone equally. Don’t let them be hijacked. Use and expose them in your fight as much as they do. Show your national symbols with pride, let them give you strength, not associate you with the tyranny they brought onto your country.

When it comes to our own national symbols, what do we think of when we see the American Flag? What do we think when we see it flying over someone’s house, or see it on a bumper sticker or in the rear windshield of a pickup truck. Without words, the symbol tells a story. And there’s a set of assumptions and politics embedded in that story. Maybe the individual flying the flag wants to tell that story, or maybe we’ve just heard it so often that we tell it to ourselves each time we see the flag. Either way, the story it tells is undeniable. And that story isn’t always a good one. When Trump speaks at his rallies he is lined with American flags. His self-association with this symbol is not an accident. He’s trying to tie himself into and reinforce a specific story about America. A story about xenophobia, hate, and greed. It’s a story that’s not our story. It’s a story we don’t identify with.

As concerned citizens we have a different vision of America. A vision that most of us have realized is going to take an enormous amount of hard work. Given the effort we’ve all undertaken it might seem strange that I’m talking to you about stories. How can the flag and the story it tells help us? Well, part of the work we must do involves changing that story the flag tells, to ourselves, and to the rest of the world.  How can we rewrite that story? The road is far shorter than you think. Let’s start with what makes us ‘concerned citizens’ in the first place. We are concerned because we hold a vision of America in our heads that we don’t see happening. We have ideas about what America should be, and, by proxy, what the American flag should stand for. In our America, the flag would stand for equality instead of class immobility. Inclusion and religious freedom instead of homophobia and xenophobia. Prosperity for all instead of prosperity limited to only a few. Democracy instead of voter suppression and gerrymandering. That’s not a complete list but I think it covers quite a bit of our shared vision.

Next, we have to ask ourselves what our relationship is to this positive vision of America. Specifically, are we going to quit before we make that vision a reality? My answer is no. I’m willing to bet that your answer is no as well. And with our commitment to our potential America comes a subtle but monumental shift. We become the authors of the new American Story. We become the stewards of the future of this nation. We’ve just assumed imminent ownership of this country, and all the symbols and tokens of power that come with it. We’ve just assumed ownership of the American flag.


With that ownership comes responsibility. It’s now our job to show everyone what that symbol means. It’s now our job to show everyone our vision of America, and, in so doing, show them that our vision is America.How do we do we make the story of the American flag clear?It’s simple, we fly it, unadorned and unsubverted, in our homes and in the streets. We fly it alongside all our other symbols of protest and resistance against corruption and hate. Make this symbol of America part of your identity and your story as a concerned citizen. Take pictures with you and your friends with the flag. Share them on social media. And when anyone asks you about it, tell them your story and tell them about the future of America. Tell them about what the flag can and should stand for. Tell them how they can help tell this new story.

The sight of you and the flag together, the practice of displaying and flying it, is what will spread the message and write the story. Together, we’ll tell this story over and over again, until everyone knows it so well that they hear that story every time they see an American flag. Doing the work to build the government and culture we envision will take time, but we can claim our spot as the authors of America’s future right now. Let’s fly the flag together, as a symbol for all the things we know it can stand for.

Exceptional After All

Up until the election of Donald Trump, it was easy for America to tell itself that it was special, that it would never really suffer the crises of liberal government that threaten the rest of the world.  But now it seems that we’re just as susceptible to authoritarianism as anyone else.  Or are we?


Over the past few weeks we’ve seen some extraordinary demonstrations of solidarity against the actions of this new administration.  The Women’s March on Washington, with its sister marches in almost every major city, was one of the largest collective demonstrations in history.  The executive order banning travel from Muslim countries (save those that Trump has business interests in) caused a huge backlash.  Demonstrations in New York, Boston, Dallas, and elsewhere.  Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates flat out refused to tell the justice department to enforce the order.  Around 900 State Department employees openly dissented the order. John McCain, a member of the administration’s party, continues to vocally criticize the President’s actions and even attempted to mitigate some of the international damage directly after a botched call to Australia.  California Governor Jerry Brown practically dares the White House to attempt enforcement of its immigration policies on his watch:

And that’s not a comprehensive list.

Micah White, one of the founders of the Occupy Movement, has been talking about ‘The End of Protest‘ in an attempt to find the solution to Occupy’s lack of direction.  Sure, the Occupy movement seemed to putter out with a whimper, but it’s starting to look like it was just a dress rehearsal.  At the JFK protest, at least, the drums and people’s mic of the Occupy movement were in full force.  The tradition of open criticism of the government and mobilization against it is alive and well.

Most of the major early critics of Authoritarianism, whether they be Adorno, Horkheimer, or Solzhenitsyn, don’t diagnose the problem as political.  They all point to an inner sickness of some kind.  Horkheimer diagnoses the problem as a slow distortion of the use of reason over time; from a reason that seeks to discover why we should do things to a reason that seeks only articulates how best to reach any end, without questioning that end’s value.  Adorno focuses on and finds psychological predispositions towards fascism and authoritarianism independent of political climate.  Solzhenitsyn gives it a spiritual dimension: in forgetting God, people turn to brutal absolutism.  As such, they warn that the answer is not political, that only by addressing these inward problems can a nation save itself from the clutches of authoritarianism.

I think they are right, to a degree.  But this recent outpouring of American resistance suggests that, maybe, they’ve accepted one of the symptoms as the diagnosis itself.  For those cultures that fell into authoritarianism completely, of course, it must have coincided with the failure of an alternative political movement.  Which means that, on some level, the majority of those opposed to the regime must have felt as though there was some inner sickness, some sin that required purging, or some other justification for what was about to happen even though they knew it was awful.  I don’t want to discount the work of these great minds, but I’m beginning to believe that this inner facing diagnosis is, perhaps, actually the trick of the authoritarian.

There’s always a portion of the population receptive to a strong leader and the opportunity to lash out.  But in order to gain complete control, the authoritarian needs some mechanism to get everyone not predisposed to this behavior to keep their heads down while the brownshirts tear everything apart.  The ‘inner failure’ could be just such a mechanism. By planting the seed of such an inner failure (“Drain the Swamp,” “American Carnage”), the authoritarian psychologically undermines the opposition from mounting a political defense.  Part of winning, then, is rejecting the authoritarian’s message.

If that’s the case, I am very hopeful.  Opponents of the Trump regime seem perfectly confident of America’s inner strength and fearless in their criticism.  This flood of open resistance, while it will not always undo harm, will keep it from becoming the status quo.  This is where we can show the world where America is truly exceptional.

I don’t mean to declare victory as we’ve got a long way to go.  But it is important to acknowledge that we’re doing the right thing.  Let’s take the work of the great critics of authoritarianism as a warning: The real power of the authoritarian comes, in part, when those who would oppose him begin to believe that their country deserves such a leader.  So let’s insist on American Exceptionalism, let’s be the people who shout down every threat to our integrity and our progress as a nation.  May the inner strength of America never falter.