This past week, Republican congressman Rep. Sean Duffy of Wausau got into a rangle-tangle with Madison’s Mayor Paul Soglin over the presidential recount. The skirmish escalated into Duffy’s blasting Madison itself. Soglin, flanked by Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, hurled zingers back up north.
The exchange was a prime example of elected officials behaving badly. It’s also instructive as to why we Americans are so split.
Duffy threw the first punch. Interviewed by Fox News, Duffy asserted Dane County’s “progressive, liberal, communist community” attempted to slow the presidential recount by hand-tallying ballots and thus keep Wisconsin’s representatives from casting Trump votes at the Electoral College. The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel’s Politi-Fact gave Duffy a “pants on fire” liar rating for this baseless charge. Most counties statewide recounted ballots by hand.
Mayor Soglin was not amused. “For years I’ve been listening to morons like Rep. Duffy, who are resentful of the fact that Madison is Wisconsin’s economic engine,” he countered. Soglin later recanted, saying he merely meant to badmouth the congressman as a “liar” and a “charlatan.”
Duffy ridiculed the mayor. “The PC crowd is humorless,” he retorted. “For those offended by my ‘communist’ comment, I’ll send a therapy dog to your ‘safe place’ of choice in Madison.”
Days later, Duffy amped up the snark. “I don’t know why the mayor of Madison has been so outraged by my comment when he was the one who gave the keys to Madison to one of the world’s most ruthless dictators communist Fidel Castro.”
That comment sent Pocan into the stratosphere. Duffy had no right to criticize Madison’s citizens as un-American, said the congressman. “Madison, the heart of Dane County, is one of the leading economic drivers in our state and the county is responsible for 73% of the new jobs created in Wisconsin in the last decade,” he crowed.
Obviously, these men don’t get along, and if that were the only problem, we all could let this dust-up pass. But there’s something much deeper here. Their disagreement represents much of why many Americans don’t get along with each other, either.
We have a basic disagreement about the economy. There are people who stand with the old manufacturing economy. Duffy supports not just the old factory and Main Street system, but the morals and values that supported this way of life. He wears a lumberjack’s red-checkered wool jacket as a badge of old-economy honor.
Soglins champions the new economy, one that’s about global trade, internet communications, high-technology and research. This philosophy is winning the economic game, but Duffy, a rumored candidate for U.S. Senate, enjoys a rising political star.
Dane County has been doing well. According to the state Department of Revenue, this single county in 2015 generated significantly more state income tax revenue ($873 million) than all 23 counties that comprise Duffy’s Seventh District ($670 million).
On the flip side, Duffy’s district is on course for an economic train wreck. Fifteen counties of the Seventh District will lose up to 43% of their population by 2040, according to the state projections.
This economic reality drives us apart. Hillary Clinton won a mere 487 out of 3,141 counties in the United States, but those counties produce 64% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, according to the Brookings Institution, which called this Trump-Clinton divide “High-output America vs. low-output America.”
Urban education centers like Madison are economic bright spots, but it’s tough to replicate their success in rural small towns. Rural areas hope for a return to the old factory system that supported them in the past, but manufacturing continues to shrink as a percentage of the economy.
It’s difficult to come unstuck when the people who represent us resort to such taunts and name-calling.
Peter Weinschenk is editor of the Record Review newspaper, serving Marathon, Athens, Edgar and Stratford, where this column also appears.