We Wisconsinites have more than a decade of experience with the divisive politics that have recently metastasized, nationwide, into this year’s school board culture wars.

So it was interesting to read New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie arguing in a recent op-ed that Democrats are making a mistake by failing to engage with right-wingers on the hot-button issues of so-called critical race theory and who gets to determine kids’ gender pronouns. “These are not distractions to ignore; they are battles to be won,” he writes, comparing the current moral panic over school curriculum to the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era (another product of Wisconsin). “The culture war is here, whether Democrats like it or not,” states Bouie. “The only alternative to fighting it is losing it.”

But Wisconsin public school advocates actually drew the opposite conclusion from April’s highly politicized school board elections.

“Where people were well organized, didn’t take the bait and stayed above the political fray, they had a big advantage over the right-wingers,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, which supported pro-public school candidates all over the state. “This was true in the blue-leaning districts, but also in places like Tomahawk, Lake Mills, Waterloo,” she adds.

There is more at stake here than an argument about tactics. What’s the best way to defend our public institutions — by staying above the fray? Or by taking the bait and engaging in the right’s increasingly toxic cultural debates?

The problem isn’t just coming from the right. The media is also inclined to glom onto sleazy, click-bait topics that are much more exciting than dull policy issues like groundwater contamination and public school funding. But those boring policy issues are what will determine what kind of future we have. It’s irksome to see bad reviews for Gov. Tony Evers and President Joe Biden, who have fixed the roads, saved our schools, fought back an economic depression during the pandemic, and (in Evers’ case) recently created the state’s first Office of Environmental Justice, because they supposedly are not exciting enough to younger voters. Give me old, boring and competent over crazy and destructive any day.

Plus, the whole tawdry show put on by rightwingers to focus on hot button issues is specifically designed to get people not to pay attention to our urgent common interests.

A prime example is Michael Gableman, the head of the ignominious taxpayer-financed “investigation” of disproven allegations of fraud in the 2020 elections. Deleted documents Gableman was recently forced to release show he’s been spending his time in public office deriding elections workers for their fashion choices.

Gableman wrote a memo that lists Hannah Bubacz, a Milwaukee geographic information system (GIS) analyst, as “liberally deplorable.” Because she has a “weird nose ring,” “loves nature and snakes,” and is unmarried but owns a home with her boyfriend, she’s probably a Democrat, Gableman opines. Likewise, in a recent radio interview, Gableman disparaged Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe, whom he compared to Hillary Clinton, saying, “black dress, white pearls, I’ve seen the act, I’ve seen the show.”

This is Trumpism at its worst — a know-nothing bully pushing misogynist buttons, sneering at female public servants to make disaffected white voters feel like they are fighting the power. The message that our public institutions, from schools to elections, are run by arrogant bureaucrats with fancy educations and a superior attitude, resonates deeply with pissed-off lower-middle-class white voters.

Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s great contribution to American politics was his insight that he could stir up the resentment of insecure, nonunion white working-class voters against teachers and other government workers whose public employee unions had helped win pensions, health care and paid vacation time. A little dose of woman-bashing goes a long way, too, as Trump demonstrated.

Bouie observes, aptly, that the right-wing witch hunts in the McCarthy era and today, “are as much about undermining key public goods (and stigmatizing the people who support them) as they are about generating enthusiasm for the upcoming midterm elections.”

The long-term project is, as Grover Norquist declared in 2001, shrinking government down to the size where he could “drown it in the bathtub.”

Destroying the last vestiges of the New Deal, privatizing and extracting the money from public institutions, and creating a Hobbesian pay-as-you-go society with immense wealth at the top and no labor rights, no reliable public institutions, and no safety net for a disempowered workforce has been a right-wing goal for decades.

In this environment, we citizens have to pull together. As temptingly large and squishy a target as Gableman presents, getting sucked into the outrage machine actually keeps citizens from defending our common interests. And that’s the whole point.

If we’re too busy fighting about “critical race theory” and turning the pain of families in which parents are rejecting their LGBTQ kids into political issues, public attention is conveniently distracted from the way money is being siphoned out of our public schools and into a whole second, parallel system of taxpayer-financed private schools that is on track to bankrupt Wisconsin school districts, leaving a whole lot of kids to fall through the cracks.

While we talk about what elections officials are wearing, the GOP is getting ready to install partisan oversight of elections and shutting down ballot access, setting up high hurdles that will make it impossibly difficult for a lot of people to vote and undermining our electoral process so they can steal the next election for Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, a Waukesha Circuit Court judge recently ruled that the DNR cannot regulate PFAS contamination that is poisoning the drinking water in both rural and urban areas of Wisconsin.

There are plenty of issues that the vast majority of Wisconsinites can get together on, setting aside divisive culture war topics.

Let’s do it before it’s too late. 

Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner.

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