Fears Over Fate of Democracy Leave Many Voters Frustrated and Resigned
As democracy frays around them, Republicans and Democrats see different culprits and different risks.
By Jonathan Weisman
LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Allyse Barba, a 34-year-old in the insurance industry, watched excitedly upstairs at Thrunie's Classic Cocktails as Mandela Barnes, the youthful Democrat running for the Senate, tore through his stump speech just 19 days before the election.
Then Ms. Barba reflected on the politics of her state: the divide between the blue dot of downtown La Crosse and the surrounding red reaches of western Wisconsin, where she said she could not have a civil conversation; the Republican favored to win the seat in her congressional district, who was at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021; and a Legislature so gerrymandered that her Democratic Party does not stand a chance.
"It is disheartening to live in a state where nothing happens," she said glumly. "Voting isn't making a difference right now."
Seventy-one percent of all voters believe that democracy is at risk, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, but only 7 percent identified that as the most important problem facing the country. Americans face more immediate concerns: the worst inflation in 40 years, the loss of federal abortion rights after 50 years and a perception that crime is surging, if not in their communities then in cities nearby.
But another factor is dampening people's motivation to save America's representative system of government: Some have already lost faith in its ability to represent them.
Wisconsin would seem like a state where concerns over democracy feel pressing -- especially in this western swath of the state. The House of Representatives committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack uncovered text messages indicating that Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican seeking re-election, wanted to hand-deliver a slate of fake Wisconsin electors to Vice President Mike Pence that day to overturn Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s narrow victory in the state
Derrick Van Orden, the fiercely pro-Trump Republican running to succeed Representative Ron Kind, a moderate Democrat who has represented much of western and central Wisconsin since 1997, was at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
And Wisconsin, perhaps more than any other state, is suffering through the erosion of democratic ideals already. Though virtually every elected statewide officer here is a Democrat, extreme gerrymandering of state legislative maps has given Republicans near supermajorities in the State Senate and House. At best, Democrats enter the state elections in November hoping to perpetuate the stalemate by re-electing their governor, Tony Evers, said Michael Hallquist, a Democratic alderman in Brookfield, outside Milwaukee.
But that democratic erosion may have sent many of Wisconsin's citizens on a downward spiral of feeling powerless, apathetic and disconnected as one-party control becomes entrenched.
"It is daunting to convince fellow Democrats their votes matter," said Tammy Wood, a party organizer who tried to fire up the crowd at Thrunie's with a rousing "Welcome, Democrats, defenders of democracy!"
"That is the purpose of the gerrymander -- to make us fall into that feeling of defeat," she added. "But we can't let that happen."
Of course, just what is threatening democracy depends on who you talk to. Many Republicans are just as frustrated, convinced that the threat stems from liberal teachers, professors or media personalities who they fear are indoctrinating their children; undocumented immigrants given a path to citizenship; or Democrats widening access to voting so much that they are inviting fraud.
Michelle Ekstrom, 48, a moderate in Waukesha, typified Republicans who fear the electoral system has already been compromised.
"I feel that it's definitely crooked," she said. "I always think to myself, What is the purpose if I go vote? Someone crooked somewhere along the way is just going to put more votes in somewhere else than the real people's votes. I think it's definitely tilted heavily on the Democratic side."
Mindy Pedersen, who runs a protective packaging business in Eleva, south of Eau Claire, believes democracy is being threatened by a dwindling self-reliance among Americans, saying they seem instead to be gravitating to their own kind -- women, Black people, L.G.B.T.Q. people -- to press their grievances. She described a meeting of a network of female business owners where she was asked to describe how the group had helped her company thrive. She replied that her gender had nothing to do with her success; she has been ostracized ever since, she said.
"Do we want equality or do we want to crush our opposition, which is men?" Ms. Pedersen asked. "If I put out a sign that said, 'White heterosexual women matter, and by the way, I love Jesus,' oh, could you imagine the reaction?"
Indeed, ask voters exactly what is threatening democracy and the answers are as varied as the individuals who formulate them.
Peter Flucke, 61, a retired police officer from Ashwaubenon, outside Green Bay, sees a failure of governments to protect their citizens and a breakdown of the rule of law as representing the unraveling of democratic control. Where does Mr. Flucke, now a bicycle and pedestrian safety consultant, see that happening? Not in the grainy images of lawlessness seen in countless attack ads against Democrats, but in rising death tolls in Wisconsin's crosswalks and bike lanes.
Mr. Flucke, an independent, said he would probably vote for Mr. Barnes and Mr. Evers, though not because of all this democracy talk. In the end, he said, he is most worried about his two daughters losing their right to choose an abortion.
Caleb Hummel, 25, an engineer in Waukesha, also sees a threat to democracy, though it is by no means top of mind: socialism. His opposition to abortion is driving his vote for Republicans, but "there's something to" this democracy-in-peril talk, he said. "The far left is demonstrating somewhat socialist policies."
Some voters are following with alarm the threats to democracy that spun out of Donald J. Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Katheryn Dose, 74, a retired nurse in La Crosse, cited at length reports of Senator Johnson's offer to deliver the slate of fake electors for Mr. Trump. She said it was "frightening" that her congressman next year could be Mr. Van Orden. And she looked beyond her own state to candidates like Kari Lake, a Republican running for governor in Arizona, who claim falsely that the 2020 election was stolen.
"For me, I really worry about people like that being elected and running this country," Ms. Dose said. "Election deniers with the power to deny the next election? That is a huge concern."
But voters like Ms. Dose appear vastly outnumbered by those who express concern for the fate of democracy, yet say they are willing to vote for candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Ms. Pedersen's husband, David, a conservative who runs the packaging company with her, scoffed at all the fuss over Jan. 6.
"In reality, do you think those people were really going to overthrow the government? Really?" he asked, taking offense at even being asked whether Jan. 6 was a threat to democracy. "Was Trump ever really going to not leave office? You know he would."
Mr. Barnes, Wisconsin's lieutenant governor, clearly senses that the issue is not his ticket to the Senate. As he spoke to supporters, he did make the case that Mr. Johnson was a threat -- "He personally attacked our democracy" -- but only after criticizing Mr. Johnson's support for a tax break for the wealthy, his efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, his opposition to Medicare negotiating prescription drug prices, his embrace of Wisconsin's newly relevant 1849 abortion ban and much more.
If Mr. Barnes had to choose the top two issues driving voters to the polls, he said later, he would pick inflation and abortion.
Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said some of the apathy toward democracy's fate stemmed from the structure of the American political system. Other countries have multiparty democracies where citizens have political options more narrowly tied to their interests -- like "green" parties for environmentalists, religious parties or socialists. Ruling coalitions of multiple parties offer more citizens a stake in the government and something to root for.
"Our two-party system is all or nothing," Mr. Burden said. "Either your party wins the White House or loses it, wins Congress or loses it. It makes feelings more intense, positively or negatively."
And in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, where gerrymandering has ensured that the electorate's partisan composition need bear little resemblance to that of its Legislature or congressional delegation, those feelings are entrenched. Only 2 percent of bills sponsored by Democrats in the Wisconsin State Legislature last session got a hearing, much less a vote.
"In many ways, it does feel like there is not a lot of hope," Mr. Hallquist, the alderman, said.
Brad Pfaff, the candidate trying to keep western Wisconsin in the Democratic column, knows he has "more work to do" to convince voters that his opponent, Mr. Van Orden, a telegenic, retired Navy SEAL, disqualified himself from serving in Congress on Jan. 6.
Mr. Van Orden's campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Mr. Van Orden wrote in an op-ed in The La Crosse Tribune that he had traveled to Washington "to stand for the integrity of our electoral system."
When it became clear that a protest had become a mob, I left the area, as to remain there could be construed as tacitly approving this unlawful conduct," Mr. Van Orden said.
His base is not asking for an apology. "Why wasn't the same shadow cast on the people burning down buildings and attacking the police the summer before?" Ms. Pedersen asked. "Why were those thugs not painted the same way as the Trump thugs?"
Democrats are not giving Mr. Van Orden a pass.
"The idea that Wisconsin would allow someone who was part of the Jan. 6 insurrection to go to Congress, the idea that we could even contemplate that, is deeply troubling," Tammy Baldwin, the state's Democratic senator, told party volunteers in Eau Claire before sending them off to canvass.
But Mr. Pfaff sees it as a distinct possibility, if not a probability.
Nationally, the Times/Siena poll found, 71 percent of Republicans said they would be comfortable voting for a candidate who thought the 2020 election had been stolen, as did 37 percent of independent voters and a notable 12 percent of Democrats.
Mr. Pfaff, whose family has farmed in La Crosse County for seven generations and who served in the state and federal departments of agriculture, said he did not so much argue that Mr. Van Orden's presence at the Capitol disqualified him. Instead, Mr. Pfaff said, it was "a window into his soul," revealing "who he is as an individual" -- too partisan for a district that, in the last 42 years, has been represented by a moderate and openly gay Republican, Steve Gunderson, and then by a centrist Democrat, Mr. Kind.
But the district has changed. The consolidation of family farms into corporate operations has dislocated families from land they had worked for generations, turning them into employees of big agribusiness. Local manufacturing has been buffeted by globalization.
"That has had a real impact on the people of this district," Mr. Pfaff said. "They do feel that we’ve been left behind."
In the long rural stretches, hills and coulees between the hipster hangouts and union halls of La Crosse and Eau Claire, Van Orden and Johnson campaign signs jostle with faded Trump-Pence placards. Mr. Pfaff, who noted that Democratic super PACs were not coming to his aid, said it would be pointless in any case for outsiders to ask local voters to reject Mr. Van Orden as a threat to the political order.
"We're patriotic Americans, we know the difference between right and wrong, and what happened in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 was wrong," he said. "But the thing is, if somebody from the outside, you know, somebody from the East Coast or West Coast, starts talking about something like that, that's not how people want it. They're not going to hear that."
Dan Simmons contributed reporting.
Authorized and Paid for by the Democratic Party of Sauk County Tammy Wood, chair Dan Holzman, treasurer © 2022