We went to Waukesha because a friend from Milwaukee told me this suburb had suspiciously turned up with thousands of extra Republicans votes. Driving from downtown Milwaukee out towards the western suburbs we passed through the divided territories created by this state’s recall election. The core parts of the city were covered with anti Scott Walker signs and then as we passed into neighborhoods beyond the city limits the signs changed to showing strong support for Walker.
The Waukesha Republican headquarters is in a sleepy looking strip mall, but when we were there people were coming and going all the time. I hoisted my flag onto my shoulder and went into the office to see what would happen. I chose one of the people bustling around the office to say hello to and explain that I was from the Westcoast and would they please tell me about a more conservative, Midwestern perspectives on our country. The older man at the desk gave me some looks but went to get someone to talk with me. I noted that they didn’t offer me a seat.
A younger man came from the back room and I explained to him again what I was doing. He wore a t-shirt and work pants, spoke fast, and while he immediately outed himself as being an employee of the Republican party he was very open about his own point of view and didn’t come across as a person who was sticking to anyone’s script. He said that while personally he was against abortion he believed in the political liberty for people to have abortions on the basis that government shouldn’t be regulating people’s lives on that level. He stated that Keynesian economists are wrong: the government doesn’t make jobs, and they make bad mistakes when they try to subsidize business’s according to their ideological view of which industry should succeed – such as the current subsidies of various green energy companies. When I responded by arguing that the government also subsidizes the oil industry the older man at the desk turned to the man I was talking to, smiled and said, “look, she’s been drinking the liberal kool-aid, ” and then asked me if I knew anything about how the oil industry gets subsidized. At first I laughed out loud, realizing that it was true that I was using points I’d heard other liberal people make when criticizing the right and that I didn’t really know what I was talking about beyond the most superficial level. But when he continued to talk about me as if I everything I had said was predictable sound-bites I felt both offended and dismayed: I hated being written off. I asked the younger man if he too thought I sounded like I was just repeating the lines he expected to hear from liberals. He shrugged his shoulders and sort of agreed. I pushed back, saying that I was trying my best to be as sincere and un-jargon-y as possible and that everywhere else in the country I had always been able to find some common ground, and learn something from these conversations across difference. It seemed to open up the conversation again, but I felt how charged with conflict the atmosphere was in this state and it made me wary.
He agreed that business shouldn’t exploit their workers to make a profit and that it is government’s job to regulate industries so that they don’t become monopolies, but he believes beyond that government quickly starts to kill the vitality of capitalism, which to him corresponds with the strength and freedom of The United States. He talked a lot about the importance of the incentives that capitalism provides for people to innovate and work hard. I agreed that incentives for individual effort are important but said I was concerned with how there are always losers in a capitalist competitive economy, and how capitalism seems to lead to a society of greater and greater wealth disparity with power concentrating in the hands of the wealthy. He responded by saying to me with visible anger, “you want to keep people down.” He assumed I meant that I wanted everyone to be middle class, and to him that meant a society where there was no reward for people’s personal effort or creativity – and that would be a society where he wouldn’t want to live . Honestly, in that moment the vision of an economically equalized society looked to me like a country of trust fund kids, and I know I would not be my best self under those conditions.
I said I wish I could envision a system that had both incentives to excel and mechanisms to lift people up out of poverty and into power. He replied that he considered American Capitalism to be that system, and that we need to think about the effectiveness of political systems over the long-term, over generations. As evidence he stated that our poor are less poor than the poor of the past, or the poor of other countries. While I disagree in some important ways about contemporary poverty being easier than the poverty of the past, it still was striking to me that actually we both saw the goal of our ideal political system to be providing the opportunity for empowerment to ordinary people.
I asked both him and the older man if they had any left-leaning friends, and the old man smiled slyly and said all his kids had turned out to be Democrats. The younger guy said almost everyone in his life was conservative, but at a political convention he had gotten to be really good friends with someone in the Democratic party. They would call each other up to check about what the other guy’s take was on different issues. They would give each other the floor to say whatever they thought and just listen – then swap. It wasn’t about arguing, just about trying to understand.
This was one of the hardest conversations for me personally, because of that moment of being perceived as an unthinking agent of the other side’s propaganda. But it is so delicate to talk about these issues without perceiving each other as oversimplified examples of what we have already decided is the problem. It really sucks to be categorized and dismissed that easily.