In This Episode
Republicans in the Tennessee assembly expelled two of their colleagues for joining a protest for new gun laws at the state capitol after a nearby school massacre. And the whole stunt blew back at them righteously. The country saw a party that responded to a mass shooting by exerting maximum punishment on gun control supporters and their democratically elected colleagues (but only the Black ones). What’s happening in Tennessee might be remembered as a clarifying moment when voters had to pick a side and sided against reactionary politics and authoritarianism and racism. Yet these clarifying moments are starting to feel all too familiar. Similar moments happened in the 2010’s with the rise of the Tea Party, and continue today through as Donald Trump retains total control of the GOP. Has anything changed since the Tea Party? Why did Democrats struggle so much to make Republicans own their extremism then, but seem to be faring better now? Are Democrats, or at least state-level Democrats, getting better at illuminating these important choosing moments for voters? Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler knows how to beat reactionary politics better than anyone, and he joins host Brian Beutler to discuss how Democrats can build on victories and public enthusiasm in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and other states.
Brian Beutler: Hey there, dread-heads. It’s Brian. A quick note. Positively Dreadful. Will be dark next week while I take a little vacation, but will be back for the last week of April. I’ll catch you then. Bye. [music plays] Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. Since last week you’ve probably seen or heard or read about the news out of Tennessee. And if so, you know that over the course of several days, Republicans in the state assembly there tried to expel three of their Democratic colleagues, the so-called Tennessee Three, for joining a protest for new gun laws at the Capitol after a nearby school massacre.
[clip of Cameron Sexton]: We’re voting on House Resolution 63. All those in favor vote I when the bell rings. Those opposed, vote no. Has every member voted? Does any member wish to change their vote? [overlapping chatter]
Brian Beutler: When it came time to vote, though, they were only able to expel two of them, the two who were Black. Those two 27 year old legislators are Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, or the Justin’s for short.
[clip of Cameron Sexton]: I hereby declare Representative Justin J. Pearson, of the 86th representative district expelled. I hereby declare Representative Justin Jones of the 57th representative district expelled.
Brian Beutler: They instantly became avatars for a whole generation of young Democrats, or young progressives who are who are eager to lead, but are also they’re exhausted by gun violence, by powerlessness, by by Republican scapegoating and abuses of power and bad faith simply by standing up for themselves. So they were able to make Republicans regret the whole stunt. I’d even say it blew back at them righteously. Both of the Justin’s have already been awarded their seats back, been reappointed by their local councils, whereas Tennessee Republicans. Well, the whole country got to see what they’re all about.
[news clip]: This is clearly an overreach by the Republican Party to exercise their racist actions, to silence voices and divide democracy.
Brian Beutler: And even those Republicans seem to get that the country doesn’t like what they saw. The country saw a party that responds to children getting slaughtered at school by imposing maximal punishment on gun control supporters or Black protesters anyhow, and that’s bad for them in the short term. It’s probably also bad for Tennessee, which isn’t going blue anytime soon. It’s also obviously unpleasant to watch a bunch of Bull Connor wannabes condescend to and try to make examples of young Black protesters. But beyond that, I think what happened in Tennessee will be remembered as a clarifying moment when we’re even crossed pressured voters, voters who maybe like their guns or don’t like rowdy, progressive protesters had to pick a side and sided against reactionary politics or authoritarian politics or racism. And there’s a lot of that going around. The dust up in Tennessee came right on the heels of important elections in Wisconsin, and Chicago. in Wisconsin. Janet, Protasiewicz a judicial candidate supported by the state Democratic Party crushed her MAGA rival Dan Kelly, giving liberals a majority on the state Supreme Court. And that leaves the state poised to uphold women’s reproductive freedom and impose nonpartisan legislative maps and even protect the will of voters in 2024 from another attempt to overturn the presidential election. In Chicago, a labor organizer won the race for mayor against the kind of centrist opponent that a bunch of national Democrats believed better represents the party’s base. And all of that comes on the heels of the midterms where Democrats more than held their own and even swept elections against authoritarian Republicans and basically wherever abortion rights were meaningfully on the ballot. With all that in mind, I want to take you back to a much different time in American politics when off year elections weren’t going quite so well for Democrats. In 2010, Democrats were staring down a pretty hopeless looking midterm, But they took some solace at the time in the fact that Republicans then as now, weren’t really putting their best foot forward. The Tea Party movement was not popular. Its avatars were just as contemptuous of big cities and cosmopolitanism and the American majority as Donald Trump and MAGA are today. Republicans back then nominated a bunch of reactionaries in winnable races, and I think the hope or as I remember, the hope was that whatever misgivings the median voter might have about the state of the country or about Barack Obama’s presidency, they weren’t going to side with that. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Democrats got absolutely crushed that year, which is why Wisconsin became a right wing autocracy, despite being such a closely divided state. But it wasn’t a passing thing either. When the far right governor there, Scott Walker, set about dismantling public sector unions, Democrats sought to recall him, but Walker survived the recall and then won reelection a couple of years after that. So something about the politics of the 2010s wasn’t making it clear to voters that they that they had to choose sides. And for this week’s purposes, the question I want to try to answer is what has changed? Why did Democrats struggle so much in off year and midterm elections when Barack Obama was unpopular, but not now under Joe Biden, who is himself pretty unpopular? On my own, I can think of several contributing factors, some of which were more or less baked into fundamentals. In 2010, Democrats had just won two sequential landslide elections, which meant they were sort of at a high ebb of power with basically nowhere to go but down. The economy back then was depressed rather than running a bit too hot. The population has aged since 2010. But counter-intuitively, what that has meant in practice is that a bunch of young progressive people have reached voting age while a bunch of older, more conservative people have died. And so in those senses Democrats today, I think are just a bit better situated than they were a decade ago. But some other stuff happened, too. Obviously, Donald Trump swallowed American politics. Republicans decided to define Republicanism as loyalty to Trump, sort of above all else. They stole the Supreme Court and then their justices and legislators criminalized abortion in much of the country. But I think Democrats, or at least some Democrats, Democrats at the state level in particular, have just gotten better at making voting decisions easier for those cross pressured voters I mentioned earlier. And if anyone working in politics understands how to do that, I think it’s my guest this week. So when I first moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid aughts, some mutual friends introduced me to this other young guy named Ben Wikler, who was active at the time at MoveOn and in Progressive Media. And at the time a lot of people I knew fit that basic description. But many years later, after Tony Evers finally unseated Scott Walker in the Democratic wave election 2018, Ben announced that he and his family would relocate back to Wisconsin so he could run to lead the state party there. And then he won. And I think it’s safe to say that Wisconsin Democrats in the Evers Wikler era have fared much, much better than Democrats did from 2008 through 2016. And since so much depends on Democrats continuing that trend in Wisconsin and hopefully replicating it in other narrowly divided states, we thought, why not ask Ben how to do that? So, Ben Wikler with with apologies for ever having underestimated you. Thanks for coming on Positively Dreadful.
Ben Wikler: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on Brian, and I’m really excited about this conversation. American democracy depends on what happens in the States. We are, in fact, the United States, and it’s listening to your intro, one thing that strikes me is the 2022 midterms were, in a sense, a split decision where it was a regular midterm in a lot of places, and it wasn’t in other places, Democrats got hammered in 35 states and did well in 15. So I think there’s there are both big structural forces at work, but there’s also a lot that, you know, actual volunteers and activists and donors and and candidates and candidate campaigns and all those things have done in different places on both sides that have affected the results. And I’m really excited to dig into what some of those things might be.
Brian Beutler: Can I get your sense of then how much we can attribute to what extent we can attribute Democrat Democratic success, where they did well to choices they made and to what extent it has to do with them doing well in places where Republicans made choices that made them toxic to even Republican voters.
Ben Wikler: I think there’s both. And in some ways they’re hard to disentangle. Especially when you have instances where, you know, Democratic candidates were picking their opponents. So [laughs] you end up having Republican candidates who are exactly who Democrats were ready to defeat given the stakes of the moment. But I do think it’s really critical as Democrats try to recognize that we can’t attribute success just to our own work and we can’t attribute failure just to our own work, because there really are two sides of the equation. And we see that in Wisconsin. I’m incredibly proud of the work of everyone at our state party, of our candidate campaigns, of the all progressive infrastructure, which is an extraordinary kind of collective movement. And at the same time, Republicans have really cracked up here. And they they are not the party of 2010, when Scott Walker and Reince Priebus and Ron Johnson and Paul Ryan and these kind of Republicans that, you know, they. I don’t know—
Brian Beutler: Fascist? [laughter]
Ben Wikler: —if luminary is the right word given that they were spreading darkness. Yeah, maybe that’s a better word. But this this group of kind of Republican leaders united their party and drew in national resources and attention and defined the narrative of the playing field. And that team is now scattered to the four winds. And right now, the GOP here is in a civil war in a way that it wasn’t then. And I think it’s not just that conditions have created that. There was an article, a great article in the National Review, about how Wisconsin’s Republicans gain so much power and how they did so much better in 2010 and 2012 and 2014 here than they did in some other states. And they pointed out that in places like Nevada and other places, you had Republican establishments that were at war with their grass roots. And in Wisconsin, they were all united. And so Republicans were really, Wisconsin Republicans were the poster children for Republican unity and effectiveness the way Florida Republicans are right now. And now, in this moment, as Democrats, we have united. We figured out how to sort out our differences in all these other ways and get everyone focused on the things that we absolutely have to do to save democracy and stay mobilized all the time and move the conversation back to the things that unite us and divide them over and over and, you know, we’ll dig in to a lot more of what these different pieces look like. But the two sides of the story are about Republicans doing a whole lot of own goals and disunity and doing a lot of the things Democrats self-lacerate for. Like being off message all the time and constantly having factional disputes and all, you know, all that kind of stuff. Republicans are doing those things in places where Democrats are winning and Democrats are doing things right and. It’s interesting to dig into what the structural forces behind those things are, because I actually think there are a lot, some of which have to do with state law in ways that I want to get into. But, you know, making the most both of our opportunity for strength, but also really driving a wedge into the internal contradictions of a Republican Party that is has a lot of proponents of doing away with democracy altogether is is one of the keys to success in this moment.
Brian Beutler: So I, I take your point about how hard it is to disentangle this. In a way, I think it’s even harder than we could possibly get into because it’s structural factors and candidate quality and resources. And I mean, just like it’s not easy to compare two races even in a single state. But there were places like I’m thinking of Ohio right now, and I didn’t write this question down, so forgive me if I screw something up, but you had a race there for Senate and race there for governor. And the Republican senatorial candidate was J.D. Vance. And he did much worse than incumbent Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who. You know, say what you will about him. Did a better job creating distance from Trump and the MAGA movement than Vance did. Now they both won. So in the end, it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of Ohio, but I do think it’s instructive how much more DeWine won by than Vance did. And I’m wondering if you I mean, not to second guess your Ohio colleagues, but if you have Democrats who are running in places where Republicans have managed to find candidates who have at least a, you know, papers, breath distance between themselves and Donald Trump enough for them to sort of disclaim MAGA in some sense, what should they do about that? Should they run different styles of campaign where they were, they just drop the the sort of like all out war with MAGA. Or should they do more to try to tie. People like DeWine. To the unpopular forces that are dragging other Republicans like Vance down.
Ben Wikler: So Liz Walters is the Ohio chair. She is great. And she is building you know she Ohio is—
Brian Beutler: Very tough.
Ben Wikler: Yeah, it’s so tough. And the Republicans have rigged it six ways from Sunday. And she did, I have nothing but great things to say about the work of the state party in the in the 2022 midterms. And I’m a little bit closer to the Ryan Senate campaign world. And they did a whole bunch of things really effectively. Right. And there’s a lot of infrastructure supporting I’m I’m struck that. You know, there were national donors and organizations that saw the fight against J.D. Vance as a kind of proxy for the fight against Trumpism and invested a lot and tried a lot of stuff in a way that nobody did in the governor’s race there. And so you part of when you see really big gaps in outcomes in states, usually it’s because one of those races is kind of fully funded and contested and the other one is not. And I think that is kind of a good case in point for Ohio. And part of the story for Florida, where the you know, the, you know, national committees and organizations basically took a pass on the state. And so you had very lopsided outcomes in Wisconsin. Very often both sides bring their A-game [laughs] and fight it out all the way to the finish. And so you wind up getting this one percentage point or less finishes. What is rare is what we just saw on the Supreme Court race for example—
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Ben Wikler: —where there’s enormous spending on both sides and we get a double digit win. Which I’m very pleased about. [laughter] But the, I think so. I think part of it is that as a kind of the hive mind of Democratic and progressive politics across the country decided to throw down in the Ohio Senate race. And Tim Ryan ran a campaign that intentionally enlisted those forces and made it about that. And I think for Nan Whaley there was a much harder it would have been much harder to to make that argument to people across the country that this was a kind of defining, you know, battle that would really be a referendum on the viability of Trumpism in 2024 if she could beat Mike DeWine, who as a Republican cut a very different picture. That said, I do think the right strategy is, you know, for people that are trying to create a paper thin difference between themselves and the worst elements of their party, unless they’re actually running against and trying to tamp down the authoritarian impulses of the right, they do not get a pass just because they didn’t try to overturn the last election results and and making sure that they own, you know, what their what their team has done, I think, is really important as a way of fighting back against authoritarianism nationally. And, you know, just now in our Supreme Court race and also last year, our governor’s race, the Republicans did distance themselves from Trump in the general election. They didn’t seek Trump’s endorsement. Trump was very vocal about how, you know, our Supreme Court race here, Dan Kelly never asked for his endorsement this time. And the only way they used Trump was like on Election Day, some Republican group was mass texting people. The video of Trump endorsing Dan Kelly in 2020, but he never came back in 2022 or 23. Excuse me. So, you know, we’ve seen here in Wisconsin Republicans who kind of try to duck and avoid the Trump taint, you know, in the general election and don’t let them do it. [laughs] They’re like these people are part and parcel of the MAGA machine and they should be accountable for that. And if they actually want to do the hard work of disentangling within the Republican Party, the, you know, the MAGA movement from whatever whatever other part of the Republican Party exist, then they need to actually put in that work. They can’t just, you know, give speeches in, in Republican event in front of three percenter flags and then pretend that they’ve never met Donald Trump or don’t care about Donald Trump’s politics, they are they’re part of the same movement and they should be held accountable for it. So at a broad level, I think in. I think the campaigns that have done well in 2022, the campaigns are doing well right now. Often succeed in making vivid a referendum between MAGA extremism and especially on abortion and reproductive freedom and democracy versus Democrats who actually believe in the basic ideas of the flag and the Constitution and what America is supposed to be about. That’s a winning ground for us.
Brian Beutler: I read somewhere that you spoke to your counterpart in Tennessee after the expulsion votes last week. Can you tell us what tell us what you can about that conversation. How about that?
Ben Wikler: Absolutely. So. You know, the explosion of the Justin’s is is such an infuriating and outrageous breach. And it’s so clearly along racial lines and it’s so clearly an attack on democracy itself. People that were elected to represent their districts being being thrown out by other people because they essentially disagreed about, I mean, either for whatever motive you want to attribute, the people were mad that they were disruptive in a in a protest trying to address gun violence after a mass shooting. Underneath that, though, is a gerrymander that is extreme, that has led to a Republican supermajorities in a state where Republicans don’t get super majorities of the votes. So Hendrell Remus is the state party chair there. He’s great. He shared with me the lawsuit that that folks have brought about the violation of state law represented by the Republican drawn maps. Right now in the Tennessee House, there are 24 Democrats and 75 Republicans. Out of the 99 seats in the Senate, there are six Democrats and 27 Republicans. And in state law, it says you can’t cut through a county more than three times when you’re redistricting. Republicans cut 33 counties more than three times. And like in one case, there’s like 17 different cuts in the same county. They just they drew maps that are blatantly in violation of state law. Setting aside anything about partisan advantage or even racial gerrymandering. They just broke the law to do it. And in in Tennessee, the state Supreme Court can appoint a panel, a chancery court, that then has to examine the map and can recommend new maps. And then the state Supreme Court can overrule them. And they’re in this legal battle right now. That battle could break could very well break their way. The law is on their side. And so what we talked about is basically the path to this moment where Republicans have total unaccountable control because of gerrymandering and then have used that and abused that to strip people of their representatives. Obviously, they’re coming back to the legislature now. But how to turn this moment into a slingshot, into a I guess, a trampoline, where the fury and rightful fury about this breach of democracy can turn into a backlash that can help Democrats to flip a ton of state legislative seats under the new maps. And that, in a way, is the path that we’ve been on in Wisconsin, which is we just you know, it is true the Republicans have smashed up our democracy and stripped people of their voice in state government. And for Democrats, yeah, we can complain about it. But the real question is, what do we do about that? And the answer is we have to turn that into a pressure washer, a hyper concentrated, super high pressure I. Political operation that that then can actually win in the places where you can win, given the rules that you have that you have to work in. So in Wisconsin, we had to hold on for dear life to avoid a supermajority. But the pressure valve was actually our state Supreme Court race, which we just won. And in Tennessee, it could be the fight for flipping legislative districts after them after the maps are struck down if they if they win that case. And that is that is the huge opportunity that they are potentially going to have soon. It’s so striking like in 2022, they have the lowest voter turnout in the entire country in Tennessee. It was less than the turnout in the state Supreme Court race that we just had in Wisconsin in April. But it was in a midterm election. And in a if they have special elections for state legislature, which is conceivable, or if they or if we get to 2022, if they spike up turnout, then, you know, even when you’re like if one side wants it a lot more, you can potentially win in a whole bunch of places that didn’t seem winnable before. And we saw that in tons of counties that our state Supreme Court candidate just won, places where Republicans are used to just dominating. But Democrats were so furious, rightfully furious, and so well organized that they turned out in massive numbers. And I think that the you know, I always kind of approach things with an an organizer point of view. So it’s not just about getting mad. It’s about how do we how do we take the anger that people rightfully feel and give people a way to do something about it that can actually move the needle? They they can absolutely break the supermajorities in Tennessee. And they you know, once they, once they do that, you know, there’s a maybe a longer path to figuring out how the how to actually turn a non-voting state that is a red state into a purple state. But that’s the long term path that they have to be on. And the municipal areas, the the cities that are quite blue are growing. You know, there are long term trends that can actually work. You just need to sustain a level of of energy and organization around that and make sure it’s channeled electorally in a way that can actually move power.
Brian Beutler: So there’s a there’s a legal fight over the gerrymander. And then there’s, I think, the sort of awakening that the expulsion or attempted expulsion votes had on a segment of the of the voting age population there. And, you know, there there’s interplay between the two. But the hope is to harness the latter and hope it doesn’t die out as as memory of what just happened fades. I’m wondering if if you’ve seen any spillover outside of Tennessee, like in Wisconsin. I know I know that the the Tennessee mess happened kind of almost coincidental to your to the election you guys had in Wisconsin. But but since then, like, have you seen any indication that what Republicans pulled in Tennessee has had a galvanizing effect on Wisconsin Democrats or made, you know, suburban Republicans say think like what organization am I actually a part of?
Ben Wikler: I think. Right when the expulsions happened, there were articles about how expulsions could become more common all across the country. And it’s a frightening prospect that in lots of places the rules give Republicans that are in super majority status like North Carolina now, they give them the power to remove the elected representatives of the public. And then the backlash, I think, from everything I’ve seen has put Republicans back on their heels. Like, one thing that’s happened in Wisconsin is that Republicans have a supermajority now in our state Senate, which is entirely the process, the product of gerrymandering. They sealed that on the same day as we won statewide in a landslide Supreme Court race, they got their 22nd seat in the state Senate in a very red gerrymandered district that we actually came within less than two points of winning, which is, you know, I’m thrilled that we did as well as we did. And it kills me that we didn’t get a tiny bit more. But they now have technically the votes to impeach in the state Assembly because they have a majority there and to convict in the state Senate because they have a supermajority there. And they were openly flirting with that idea, talking about their impeachment powers, talking about even impeaching Janet Protasiewicz, who is the new state Supreme Court justice elect. And over the last few days, they backed away dramatically from that. And that started some of that started the day after the election. And it definitely [laughs] it didn’t it didn’t swing back in the other direction after the expulsion and the backlash to the expulsion. And I think the GOP is is reading the room a little bit on the fact that really naked abuses of power can explode and become national moments of outrage and fury that can lead to, you know, resources flowing in like that two rep— You know, the Justin’s and the Tennessee Democrats have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that supercharge their own campaign efforts and could help them to flip rural districts a little bit down the road. People signed up to volunteer. They want to help. They get connected to national donor networks and, you know, national media. It’s, you know, something that Republicans have done a whole lot, which is when they get punched and they try to turn themselves into martyrs and they go on a grievance tour and, you know, make hay out of the idea that they’re somehow being oppressed by the woke left. And when the right the right, in fact, does stomp on democracy and expel elected officials and shred people’s rights, there’s now more of an infrastructure that makes it possible to to turn that into political power and resources now on the Democratic side. And that, I think, is actually a change from 2010. You know, going back to the original question, there’s a much bigger infrastructure Crooked Media exist now. It didn’t exist before. MSNBC was not always a progressive network, as you well remember. There are a bunch of and yeah, a whole bunch of different ways that things work online have created ways that the national progressive movement can coalesce attention and energy around a particular fights, particular people and particular moments in a way that can create consequences and repercussions for the right when they when they attack our rights. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: I’m glad that you are saying that you think that the backlash to what happened in Tennessee might be contributing to Republicans being chastened in Wisconsin about, you know, let’s just deal that Supreme Court seat back, let’s, you know, do what we can to keep keep our maps and preserve the option to throw out the 2024 election results, whatever. What’s the game plan if that’s. Just taking a pause to regroup and because I mean. There’s this pathology in Republican politics. I think it’s date, dates back to the Gingrich era to just like never acknowledge failure, never attribute it to internal mistakes like always, no matter what. Be all in against Democrats and what they want. And if that’s true, then you can’t rule out. Tennessee Republicans finding new pretexts to expel the Justin’s again or steal back the Supreme Court in Wisconsin when they think people’s attention has drifted. Right. And so A, what’s the game plan in Wisconsin if they just revert back to how they were talking two weeks ago? And B, and I think this is the question I, I don’t know what the answer might be is like, is there anything Democrats can do to dislodge that culture on the right? Apart from just having to win every election forever.
Ben Wikler: [laughs] So I think the first step to answering that is to distinguish between performative authoritarianism in which the cruelty is the point. Versus actual authoritarianism. Because in Tennessee, when they expelled the lawmakers, they knew full well that those lawmakers could be reinstated by their local, you know, governing bodies immediately. And in fact, they have they have been they’re back in the state legislature now. This was about them stomping on them. But it wasn’t it wasn’t actually ever going to remove their, you know, ability to to represent their constituents in a long term way. In Wisconsin similarly, if there’s a vacancy, caused, for example, by impeachment, the governor fills the vacancy. So and our governor is named Tony Evers, and he’s not [laughs] not a Republican. If you look at the chain of succession in our state constitution, you know, if there’s a vacancy in the governor’s office, it’s the lieutenant governor, if there’s a lieutenant governor vacancy it’s the Secretary of State, Sarah Godlewski, who ran for Senate in 22, is our former state treasurer. Republicans don’t have a get out of jail free card in either of those instances. They like to throw their power around and look scary and look to their primary voters as though they’re doing everything possible to own the [?]. But those those things are much less menacing than the deeper evils of Republican hyper gerrymandering and know distortion of rule making processes. For example, I’m really well versed in this in Wisconsin because I live in Wisconsin and I love Wisconsin. In Wisconsin. Republicans passed a law in a lame duck special session, after Governor Evers was elected governor, that stripped him and the attorney general and broadly speaking, the executive branch in the state of enormous authority that Scott Walker had wielded and every previous Wisconsin governor had wielded and handed it to the state legislature, which they had rate for permanent Republican control. And so at this point, every rulemaking that comes out of a state agency about, you know, averting environment, environmental catastrophes or supporting, you know, seniors in nursing homes, whatever. Republicans in the state legislature have a kind of a veto and sometimes a pocket veto that they can exercise over this rule makings in a way that has made governing much, much harder and much slower than just because Republicans want to be able to rule by fiat. And there’s so many of those kinds of things. And often I feel like there was a moment after Trump was elected where Democrats started getting really focused on the weeds of how Republicans were smashing norms and subverting democracy. And I think that’s so good because that stuff is so pernicious and so long lasting. Often, but often, I think as Democrats, we you know, we can we can lose track of that stuff where power is actually exercised. And that’s the stuff that pushes dominoes, that pushes other dominoes and, you know, extend that has consequences that extended for years and and instead, we get distracted by, you know, Ron DeSantis’ stunts, which are just attention seeking stunts. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t put push back on those. I think we should make those things backfire. I think that is an essential piece of our strategy. But I also think, you know, when we think about this stuff in terms of strategy in Wisconsin, like for us, I there’s such a narrow path to averting a total authoritarian collapse here that we have to put all our chips on the handful of things that we absolutely must do. And for us, like most recently, that was reelecting Governor Evers, preventing Republican supermajorities in the state legislature, which we did by 1/10 of one percentage point of the votes in the state legislature, 2,499 votes, they would have had veto overriding supermajorities in both chambers. And then the third part of that was the Supreme Court race, which now creates a path to make dramatic forward progress. There’s you know, in some states, the path will take much longer and is much more tenuous. But finding, you know, what is the elevator shaft to the Republican Death Star in each state [laughs] can actually help blow up their systems of control and then making absolutely sure we do everything we can to seize that opportunity. That, to me, is the core political work the Democrats need to do, and it varies from state to state.
Brian Beutler: So is that law that the Republicans passed to disempower Governor Evers before he took office, that lame duck law, is that now vulnerable to being overturned by the state Supreme Court? I mean, I don’t know what the law or the Constitution of Wisconsin say about it, but I know the federal Constitution says that everyone is entitled to a Republican form of government in their state. And this law seems like it is an affront to that.
Ben Wikler: There’s several constitutional grounds and more narrow grounds that it could be challenged on, including the fact that it was a special session called In violation of Wisconsin statute. So, you know, conceivably that could that could wind up in our state Supreme Court or it could be overturned by a legislature that’s elected.
Brian Beutler: How far along are you in writing the brief that you’re going to submit to the. [laughs] No, you don’t have to say.
Ben Wikler: I honor the spirit of your question. But I will say, just as Karofsky pledged on the campaign trail to recuse herself if the Democratic Party of Wisconsin was a litigate before the state Supreme Court. And we will honor that. And I don’t anticipate the Democratic Party would bring any such case.
Brian Beutler: I was trying to break news. The other question I have is you said at the outset, and I’m really like actually heartened to hear that a lot of you interpret a lot of the like, we’re just going to impeach our way back into control over the Supreme Court was bluster and also that, you know, obviously like protecting reproductive freedom and and fair maps are like quite a big load on their own. But the more anti-democratic facets of Wisconsin law might be like on the table now. But you also said that Republicans have responded to the results. They’re in civil war. And I’m not on the ground in Wisconsin right or in Tennessee. And I do think that winning a race like that by 11 points kind of tells its own story, just like the, you know, the way conservative media has been so defensive about what happened in Tennessee tells its own story. But but what does a civil war among Wisconsin Republicans look like from within state politics?
Ben Wikler: So right now, it involves a lot of extremely public bloodletting and second guessing on right wing talk radio shows, on right wing blogs coming out of right wing policy think tanks in our state, Wisconsin. I mean, if you pull back the lens beyond just the last couple of weeks after the Supreme Court race, there was a period last year where I was told a third of the county parties within the Wisconsin Republican Party were in open, revolting, would refuse to participate in any coordinated campaign with the state party where a significant fraction of the Republican state legislative caucus called for the resignation of the Republican speaker because he was refusing to retroactively decertify the 2020 election. There’s a primary challenge that the Republican speaker survived by, I think, 260 votes against a really fringe guy endorsed by Trump who wanted to outlaw all forms of contraception, but who also wanted to overturn the 2020 election so that made it hunky dory for Trump world, the GOP has gone through three different state party chairs in the last two years in Wisconsin. They’re in the primary for Supreme Court justice now the winner, Dan Kelly, publicly said that he wouldn’t endorse Jennifer Dorow, his opponent, if she won the primary. And the Republicans within the state Supreme Court were endorsing different candidates. And the major talk radio hosts in the state were backing different candidates. And, you know, Jennifer Dorow did, as far as we can tell, no meaningful anything to support Dan Kelly in the general election. On the Republican side, I think the college Republicans in Wisconsin refused to support Tim Michels last year in the governor’s race because you know, for for a long time after the primary. I think they eventually came around. But, you know, we essentially pulled into a lead pretty quickly after the Republican primary happened and Republican disunity, you know, made it a lot harder for them to come together around their people. And so that’s, you know, another thing that I think is the most stunning thing about Republican disunity right now, which I still can’t figure out exactly what’s really causing it. So under Wisconsin law, thanks to changes that Scott Walker created, the state parties are allowed to receive unlimited donations from individuals and they’re allowed to make unlimited transfers to candidates. That was we call, well, we call it the Scott Walker loophole. It meant that people like Dick Uihlein and Hendricks, who’s a Republican megadonor here, wrote million dollar checks to the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Republican Party of Wisconsin funded Scott Walker’s campaigns to the tune of millions of dollars. But the key to all this is that when candidates buy TV ads, they’re charged the lowest rate by federal law, the lowest unit rate on TV ads. And for super PACs, there is no such provision. So they are routinely price gouged. And often like in our Supreme Court race just now, the difference between the price that candidates pay for a TV ad versus what a super PAC pays for the same TV ad is three x or four x or five x. It is a vast difference in cost. And so in this election for Supreme Court, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, we ran a very aggressive fundraising operation. We were able to raise millions of dollars and we transferred $8.3 million to Janet Protasiewicz’s campaign. And her total TV ad budget was $10.3 million. So, you know, about 4/5 of the the TV budget you could say was accounted for by transfers in the Democratic Party. And she bought ads all over the state in great quantity at a very low price. And Republicans actually outspent us on TV in three of the six weeks of the general election, but were wildly, wildly drowned out in terms of the number of ads people saw because they were paying all these high, high rates. And the Republican super donors, they funded everything through independent expenditure organizations, through some of them, through anonymous dark money groups like the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and also through Fair Courts America, which is it isn’t anonymous, you know, dark money group. But we all know that Dick Uihlein is the is a giant funder of it. Dick and Lis Uihlein, the biggest Republican donors in the country. So they bought ads at way, way, way higher prices. And if you’re a voter and you know, anywhere in Wisconsin, you saw Janet Protasiewicz’s ads many more times now, it is a mystery why Republicans decided to light their money on fire. Often I think we credit them with being political masterminds. But in this case, there was some kind of internal impediment to doing what was obviously the more efficient thing to do that cost them enormously in this election, I you know, would we have won if they had gotten their act together? I think we would have, but I don’t think it would have been an 11 point margin if they had had, you know, the same amount of money spent three times as effectively. But I think the fact that that kind of dysfunction happened is evidence of a republic of a conservative movement and a Republican Party apparatus that is is fractured or has been captured by consultants to the super PACs or I don’t know what it is.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Ben Wikler: That that gets in the way of them actually doing the thing that would be most devilishly effective.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s probably some loose analogy between people in the in the tech world who want to do a start up or have somebody they they go to some rich VC guy and they use jargon, they’re like platform, spaces, synergies, blah, blah, blah. And it’s like, oh, that sounds like magic and here’s a bunch of money. And I think that Republican ad buyers have kind of mastered the art of that when it comes to talking people like Dick Uihlein into cutting big checks to super PACs instead of to parties, and then they get to buy themselves a sweet house, but their party loses. [laughs]
Ben Wikler: A reference that I think works for both of us generationally. Do you remember the movie Spaceballs. Where—
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Ben Wikler: Yeah. Darth Helmet or whatever his name is, says that is why evil will always triumph over good, because good is stupid.
[clip from Spaceballs]: Now you see, that evil will always triumph because good is dumb.
Ben Wikler: [laughter] Often, I think in Democratic politics it can feel like, oh, he was right. But in fact, you know, sometimes we we have our act together a little bit more. And I think it is more often that someone’s making money from things being inefficient than it is that the people involved are actually dumb. But I think that, you know, we should use our advantages where we can. And if you know, the right is going to be overrun with grifters who siphon money off and do terrible things that have no chance of success, all the better. Let them, let them—
Brian Beutler: Enjoy their enjoy their sweet lake house or whatever. Okay. So you’re on the ground doing politics in Wisconsin. You spoke to your counterpart in Tennessee. You both watched what happened and you see opportunity, right? You see like it’s like shameful what the Republicans did, but let’s make them pay for it. And there’s even, like ideas floating around. It sounds like that between the litigation over the gerrymander there and possible special elections that might arise because of that litigation because of the Justin’s that that this could be the beginnings of rebuilding a strong Republican Party there. Here in DC. There’s there’s a view that’s I think very commonly held among national Democratic consultants that the key to party building and winning elections is is for people in your position and the position of the candidates you support to talk about things that poll well with median voters in that electorate and thus that under the circumstances that prevail in Tennessee today that actually emphasizing gun control is a mistake or it’s not going to be the key to unlocking democratic power there. What do you think about that general approach to politics?
Ben Wikler: So I think a good message is one that unites the voters that you need to be with you and divides your opposition, which is different from a message that everyone agrees with. Because sometimes you can have a message that everyone agrees with that has absolutely no actual mobilizing force or, you know, I. You know election winning potency and I and the you know, I’m I’m not in Tennessee and I trust the expertise of folks that are there. I will also say there was a mass shooting in which six people died in a school. Three kids and three teachers. And the fury over that gun violence and the heartbreak and the and the rage is is real and felt all over the state. And Trump won Tennessee 60/40. So I don’t know if there’s a message that, you know, wins a big statewide majority at this moment, but a message about actually doing something about gun violence probably unites more than 40% of the state or like that might be exactly the right thing for this moment in a way that can help to move people forward. And I’ll say that like in Wisconsin over the last two elections, if you look at abortion, it is not the top of people’s issue list, but it is the top issue that moves people from the couch to the ballot box or from the Republican column or independent column into the Democratic column, because it has this power of actually uniting. It’s something that feels deeply, profoundly, intensely felt by a majority of people in the state and also completely splits the GOP. Whereas, like you know, there’s a lot of you know most of the work that government does, most of the important critical work the government does is totally uncontroversial and is stuff that people have enormous respect and support for and is is critical. And we talk a lot about building roads. That is something [laughs] that is, like, you know, built the, fix the damn roads, rural broadband, getting in, getting involved in health care at this moment is very, very popular. It is not actually it doesn’t actually have the kind of charge of of. In the same way of getting of of of rousing people to action in the way that it did even when Republicans were attacking the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid and trying to rip away protections for people with preexisting conditions. Whereas the you know, issues. As Kellyanne Conway says, like it’s people vote on issues that affect them, not issues that offend them. And I think Republicans have kind of drifted off into the offend category of issues as their as a national strategy. But issues around gun violence actually do affect families very deeply. I mean, my own kids this week have had lockdown drills at their schools. And kids in Tennessee not only will have lockdown drills, they’ll have lockdown drills that remind them of a mass shooting that just took place in schools. And every parent has to like have these conversations with their kids and every teacher has to think about whether they take bullets for the kids in their classroom. And these things are not academic to younger voters. And whether they are academic to many older voters, because this is not the lived experience for the pre Columbine generations, but that this stuff is is vivid and real now. There are ways to talk about it that make a big difference. And, you know, there are many, many, many gun owners in Wisconsin and Democrats in Wisconsin honor the Second Amendment. Every member of the Constitution, they’re not trying to take away people’s guns. Maybe maybe there’s some individuals that are as a whole, like hunting and fishing is a huge part of Wisconsin’s culture. And there’s lots of gun sports enthusiasts. And yet almost everyone here supports background checks and red flag laws and the ability, if someone poses a, you know, a clear danger to the community for law enforcement to remove their firearms. That’s something that unites most people and profoundly splits the far right, because there are some people in the far right who their view really is that you need to have an armed militia to keep a predatory government in check. And they that’s the hill that they loudly proclaim that they want to die on. And so if you draw the, if you can draw the circle there in a way that really aligns with the deep belief in safety, that that, you know as Democrats we believe everyone is entitled to. That’s a message that is about gun violence, that is very effective in Wisconsin. And I don’t know if that’s the one that’s most effective in Tennessee, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. So. I think there’s there’s like issue selection and then there’s where the battle line is within that issue. And the valence of of those things can change enormously, as we’ve seen with abortion and the way that Republicans used to weaponize, you know, their propaganda around abortion, to split the, to polarize the electorate in a way that worked for them. And now they you know, they’re reaping the whirlwind [laughs] because of the way that everything that they’ve done on that front. And I think gun violence is actually similar in that way. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: I think just at a logical level, like issues that are politically salient become topical and then non topical all the time as mass shootings happen or as Supreme Court decisions roll in and it. It’s very hard, I would imagine, to do a politics where you just try to ignore all of that all the time and only talk about the roads and the bridges and the health care and never respond to things that are traumatic to a community. I mean, I was mostly trolling by asking the question. I do want to be mindful of the possibility that people who who don’t aren’t progressive or aren’t like partisan Democrats might not reflect reflexively revolt against what Republicans in Tennessee did. And, you know, my my heuristics for this are like watching Republicans on Fox News scramble to come up with some fake story about what actually went on there. But like. I guess the way I see it is that. Okay, I’d like to since 2022, I’ve seen it this way that the public seems to be resolved on two things for sure. They don’t like MAGA election lies stealing elections or trying to steal elections, and they want the right to abortion back. And I think the prevailing view in Washington, the one that’s like skeptical that Democrats should make a big stand on gun control in Tennessee is that the public is similarly resolved against Republican plans to gut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid probably still got the Affordable Care Act if they had a chance. And so Democrats can safely milk those issues as well as they can milk abortion or democracy protection. And, you know, I thought I think that when Joe Biden attacks Republicans for their Social Security plans, it’s great. I’m not discouraging it. But a couple of things. I think the threat to Social Security and Medicare might remain very hypothetical, just as the threat to abortion and the ACA were hypothetical until they became very real. Right. And then two I, I wonder if the public in a Trump era where everything is emergency all the time and like basically the underpinnings of the republic are at stake. If that’s what like the background noise of politics is now that the public might not be quite as primed to reject Republicans on the basis of like fiscal policy, since at least that stuff feels like part of the normal ebb and flow of sort of small d democratic politics before the Trump era. Like you win elections, you make policy. By contrast. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, at least in my head, if the issue is abortion or gun control or trans rights or any quote unquote “culture war issue,” if it exposes the GOP’s rejection of democracy and equal rights, then people will side with the good guys over the bad guys in in ways that are kind of easier to whip up than if you say, hey, those guys want to raise the retirement age two years.
Ben Wikler: The key thing that for the extremely online and for political junkies is often the hardest kind of I keep in the forefront of one’s mind is that there are so many different sources of information and so many things happening. And even just within politics, there’s a constant flood. And politics is maybe like 1% of what everyone is exposed to at any given moment, you know, and especially the voters who might go one way or the other often are people who would rather never think about politics and would like to, like, find it stressful or get angry at both sides, or they feel really cross pressured. And so they want to think about other things. And so most things are just not very present for most people most of the time that feel extremely personal and present for political junkies. And that when Republicans are actually trying to drive away Social Security, that becomes. Explosive and—
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Ben Wikler: —giant. And I remember very vividly the 2006 election after Republicans tried to privatize [laughs] Social Security. And then, you know, as Democrats, we fought incredibly hard against that and brought a wave to a majority in the House and gained Senate seats in 2006. I also think some Republicans have made that their life’s mission, and it is absolutely worth making sure voters know about that in a in a huge way. And that can be a very powerful message. But when something is not in the news organically, you have to do you have to spend a huge amount of money and do a ton of work to make it even begin to pierce the consciousness of people who, you know, make it their business to think as little as possible about politics, like, you know, to to move that in the people’s lens. Given the like the thick sea of fog that envelops all things in this hyper saturated news media information world anything that cuts through that fog because something in that happened in the world or in politics, it’s so significant that it actually touches something inside of people where they respond with with emotion, with actual passion and concern. Those conversations are going to happen about that topic. And I think for Democrats, you actually have to think through what is the conversation you’d like to have about it and. You know, sometimes the answer is we would like to change the conversation conversation as quickly as possible. [laughter] And that’s what Republicans are doing with abortion right now. They don’t have any answer that is ever going to be politically okay given their coalition right now where a big part of their their their kind of infrastructure is wedded to maximalist abortion bans that that, you know, criminalize anything other than forced birth in all circumstances. But, you know, for most things, there’s there’s a better way and a worse way to actually communicate about it and contextualize it. And you should think about what opportunities to communicate with people you use to communicate about what topic. But I think often, you know, and one big lever that campaigns have is what do you spend millions of dollars running ads about? And that is a, you know, decision that a campaign should spend think very, very hard about. But that’s actually like when when candidates are speaking at events or talking on the news on let’s say MSNBC, which reaches MSNBC viewers as opposed to the non MSNBC viewing vast majority of the public [laughter] decisions about what to communicate in that arena. I don’t think I, I think it is very easy to be like, oh, why are they on MSNBC talking about, you know, Trump’s arrest or what Republicans just did in Tennessee instead of talking about Social Security? And the answer is they would not be booked if they weren’t ready to talk about what [laughs] about Trump’s arrest at this moment and the fact that they’re there and becoming present to a national audience that might be their donors and volunteers is actually probably a pretty smart strategy for them at that moment. As long as they are then using resources to communicate to voters who, you know, their very passing interest in politics is really confined to the question of whether someone’s trying to privatize Social Security. They should talk to that voter about Social Security, and like. I can. I think there’s a lot of people who are probably smarter than they’re often given credit for in politics. They lost a lot of herd mentality in terrible decisions that lots of people make. So I don’t want to gloss over anything. But often, you know, in Twitter conversations when people are like, why are we talking about this? We should be talking about something else. The answer is we’re talking about this because we’re on Twitter where what we do is we argue with people about the things that are most salient at that moment. And then we, you know, go back to our lives for the 30 seconds between moments we pick up the phone. I think that there’s a lot of what about ism that is driven by the experience of being a political junkie that is that is actually less relevant to the the core strategies that campaigns use to communicate with voters?
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean, I, I confess I like I don’t I don’t keep track of every instance of it. And I’m sure some Democrats are better about it than others. But like when there’s a question because because it’s topical, because something just happened, because Donald Trump just got indicted for something and. People get fired up about it one way or another. And Democrats are asked to respond. And they, instead of commenting on the Republican Party, just lined up behind a total criminal. And they define themselves by that. And that’s something that voters should know. The itch or the the the voice in the back of their head pulling them to say you know, Republicans are all about chaos and blah, blah, blah. And we’re just here to help America’s working families. Like, why are you walking away from this horrible thing that just happened to your opposition?
Ben Wikler: Fact is, all the accomplices for Trump are in positions of power or are seeking them. Like, it’s not like he’s doing these crimes alone. This whole this this there’s this whole architecture of people who have been enabling these crimes and attacks on democracy. So I totally agree with you about that. And and the question is, I mean, I think sometimes Democrats do like, you know, the like when your enemy is, what is, what’s the phrase?
Brian Beutler: Don’t interrupt your enemy when he’s hurting himself? Basically.
Ben Wikler: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sometimes they do that thing instead of thinking about, like how they can actually move the ball forward. And then sometimes Democrats do the thing of just like reacting like a pundit about the particular, you know, topic as opposed to thinking strategically. I think the whole thing is like you should actually have a strategy that’s not just based on that moment, but really in the long term project of trying to save our democracy and build a multiracial democracy that works for everybody and has shared prosperity and opportunity and like, you know, everything should be drawn in a line to that big vision. And right now that means defeating an authoritarian movement that is trying to destroy the bedrock of of American democracy. And. That does seem like a project that [laughs] people could use a little more focus on. It’s—
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Ben Wikler: —it’s a kind of macro version of what I was talking about for states, right? Which is you want to actually think about what are the things we actually absolutely have to do and pull everything back from that to do the long term goal. And we got we’ve we’ve been very, very close to the to the to the brink of the abyss for a bunch of years now. And we can’t forget that it’s right there. We could fall in very easily. And we cannot allow that to happen. I mean, like we should really be weighing our actions as as people in politics or people who listen to podcasts and talk to their friends about politics against the question of like, are we actually contributing to that, that enormous project that has profound ramifications for the future of the world and every person who will ever live?
Brian Beutler: Yeah, the you know, the don’t interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake is is how I feel like you end up with a bunch of national Democratic Party leaders who just don’t want to say anything about Donald Trump getting indicted. And are they believe that the key to like keeping Democrats and the country alive through this period of authoritarian threat is about allocating 100,000 jobs in your part of the country in the Midwest, I like perfectly so that voter behavior changes. And I feel like when when when those same people go watch a horror movie, like if the Michael Meyers fell off a roof and everyone was like, don’t stop your don’t interrupt your enemy when he’s making mistake, instead of just shooting him in the head over and over and over again to make sure this time he’s actually dead like they would get. Why that kind of thinking doesn’t make any sense, right? Like, if the enemy that you need to defeat is staggering, give them a push. Just keep going. Right. And I don’t know at this point, I’m just venting and don’t even have like a question to follow up with because I think you agree with me. But if if if I did have a question, it would be something like what would it take, do you think, for the insights that people like you glean trying to save a state like Wisconsin to be ported into the National Democratic Party so that they’re more comfortable fighting these Republican depredations head on and sort of less inclined to the idea of like, okay, we’ll just we’ll present ourselves as relatively inoffensive compared to Republicans and that do all the work for us.
Ben Wikler: I am actually going to suggest that the places where elections are won or lost are overwhelmingly in states, and that what I would love to see is a lot more investment and always on infrastructure, in a lot more states, so that these moments turn into actual accountability for Republicans and opportunities to, you know, to lift up Democratic values and visions and communications in the places where the elections are going to be held. There is something about the national media environment that, you know, affects every state. But it’s also the case that every Republican in the House, what Republicans in the House are doing. And the place where it matters is in their districts and having, you know, people who go to their events and ask them questions and tell the media that they’re going to do that. Like do you remember the moment after Republicans started trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and then they went home for town halls in February of 2017 and all across the country. And I was involved in supporting this work. People who were directly affected by the Affordable Care Act stood up and asked questions of their Republican representatives about what happened to their cancer care If Republicans got their way and suddenly they had a lifetime cap on what their insurance would cover? What would this Republican do? What did they want to happen? And then news media all over the country were alerted. And in places where there were no cameras, people brought the camera phones and then sent the videos to the media and it sent Republicans into a tailspin because it was actual accountability in front of their constituents that they needed. And that kind of accountability has to be distributed for the effect of what being a Trump accomplice means for that to have an effect on people’s actual electoral outcomes. That work needs to happen in their states. And that, I think, is often the place where, as Democrats we have fallen short, is investing in building up communication hubs and research hubs and state party infrastructure. I mean, at our state party, we pay very close attention to what Republicans do and say, and we’re able to hold them accountable for it. But most of the parties in the country right now have five or fewer staff. Only 12 states pay their Democratic state party chairs. And, you know, in Wisconsin, we’re blessed with a whole array of different progressive kind of and democratic institutions that are complementary. Lots of states do not have that kind of infrastructure. And I think there’s as a long term project, we need to recognize that it’s it’s not just what happens in the national committees, but it’s actually about building stuff up in places where you can turn it into accountability for all these backbench Republican senators and House members and aspiring Republican House members who are in state legislatures right now who are plotting about who they can expel next, like those folks need to be held to account. And that’s doing that year over year over year creates the possibility of big wins. And moments like we had in Wisconsin last week.
Brian Beutler: This is such a great set up for my last question, because I hear the suggestion. To me it sounds like this go to the states that are ticked to the right of Wisconsin or a couple of ticks to the right in Wisconsin. Find Ben Winkler’s. Bring them in. Have them do good work. And I support that. But as you say, like it’s a long term thing. It’s, you know, assuming everything you and Governor Evers, Evers has done pays off. It’ll probably be a ten or 15 year thing from the moment you got your toe in the door to when you can say we’ve reset things to how they were before the 2010 wave. It’s just a long process. And so in the immediate term, what does that mean for people like the Justin’s like a friend of mine was was pretty excited the other day about how Democrats have been able to find inspiring figures in red states like the Justin’s. And my knee jerk response was like, well, a lot of those people run into the problem that they don’t have a lot of room to maneuver in the states where they’re from. So in a place like Tennessee. We all rally around the Justin’s. But I think you could watch what what happened there and think, the kind of politics that are dominating Tennessee right now are are the ones that might drive many other talented young people out of the state or discourage them from participating in politics. And that that creates a sort of. Feedback that that leaves the young, talented Democrats who have chosen to stay and fight stuck in this autocratic pit where Republicans just keep driving out [laughs] anyone who might otherwise stick around to try to make positive change. So what can national the National Democratic Party do to support and nurture young leaders who aren’t from competitive states like Wisconsin so that people like the Justin’s and Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams and Jason Kander remain in the game, and people like Pete Buttigieg are more the rule than the exception.
Ben Wikler: It’s that’s a beautiful question, and I love every example that you just gave because there are these extraordinary leaders all over the place and that, you know, often they are running for mayor. You know, often they are they’re looking for ways that they can serve the public that are far from running for Senate or even Congress and gerrymandered states. But they could be extraordinary leaders down the road. One thing, one here’s a really simple thing [laughs] that folks can do. National organizations can allow distributed and remote work. They can have, you know, consultants and opportunities for people to do stuff on top of other jobs. And they can pay well for people that aren’t in the major cities. And. Wisconsin is one of many states where state legislators are paid not very well. If you’re a state assembly representative, you’re make like $50,000 a year in Wisconsin. And so people who can do it either find a way to live and maybe have family on that salary, which that is close to the Wisconsin median salary. So many people do it, but often people who have lots of other opportunities. You have people who own a business or are retired, you know, from some other career or what have you. But, you know, in principle, those, you could you could make it possible for folks to be able to have other sources of income while they do that kind of work. You can have national groups that welcome people doing remote work. When I was at MoveOn, we had staff in Maine who went on to seek elected office and do all kinds of amazing things in Maine politics. But we made it possible for people to not be physically located in a in a major urban center. And I think especially in this moment, the more we can do to support people, having families and having careers and, you know, being able to travel over to meet people in these more densely networked regresses places like the DC and New York and Bay areas, but also be able to build things where they are in a way that feels like success in life to them. I think that actually that creates a really good set of incentives. And there is there really is a thing where young progressive people tend to go where other young progressive people are, and so they drain to the drain from from the majority of states to a handful of cities and a handful of states. And the net effect is that the, you know, the other side stays where it is, and then they then they take over and run the table. And I think the more we make it possible for people everywhere to contribute to this grand project of building up our democracy and make that their life’s work wherever they are and and, and plug into these national networks and feel like they’re in community with people that inspire them and that they can learn from both in their own communities and nationally, the better off we are in a in a system that, per our constitution is structures of the power is local as opposed to like national powers added up through Electoral college votes and through Senate seats and through these House districts, not just through, you know, through having a national party that wins a certain share of the national popular vote. It requires us to think in that aggregation of local politics kind of way. And the more we do that, I think the more we’re going to have the power to push back on a sprawling national far right wing project of dismantling democracy state by state, piece by piece.
Brian Beutler: I hope everyone listens to that, because Ben is absolutely right. Williamsburg is full. And even if it weren’t, we can’t split it into five states and give each of those states two senators. Ben Wikler, thank you for spending so much of your time with us today.
Ben Wikler: Thanks so much, Brian. It’s a pleasure. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: I honestly don’t have much to add here. We wanted to know how some Democrats at the state level have outperformed national Democrats, how to spread what’s worked in places like Wisconsin and Michigan to other states and even to the national Party. How to husband talent in red states so the good guys in regressive parts of the country don’t just give up. And Ben had some really good answers. There should seriously be booming demand for insights about how to most expeditiously un-rig American democracy. And I hope Democrats in Washington, D.C. will listen. [music plays] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our producer is Olivia Martinez. And our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.