We the People’s secret weapon

It couldn’t wait, not even until next month.

Maybe you think alarm over climate change demands immediate action by Wisconsin’s legislature. You think putting Wisconsin on the road to becoming the first state in America fully powered by renewable energy can’t wait, not even until next month. Nope, that wasn’t it.

Or perhaps you think Wisconsin losing another family farm every day cries out for an urgent response and there’s no time to waste. Sorry, that wasn’t it either. Crumbling roads and bridges? Think again. Health care for the uninsured? Uh-uh.

What ruling Republicans in the legislature couldn’t wait to do is give themselves more power.

On the face of it, they stripped the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general of some of their powers. But what they really did was extend a big middle finger to the state’s voters, and not just by limiting early voting. They seek to effectively nullify the results of the 2018 election so they can continue running things even when they lose elections.

What they are doing is no surprise. Power tends to corrupt, you know. There has been one-party rule in Wisconsin for the last eight years, and those who control the state’s legislative branch have grown fond of it. Still, what they are doing in response to the voters rejecting one-party rule a few weeks ago is not only an act of hostility towards the will of the people, it is an act of violence against the state constitution’s guarantees of separation of powers and checks and balances between the branches of government.

People should raise their voices in protest. But there is nothing in the track record of these my-way-or-the-highway legislators to indicate they’ll listen to those voices. So the people will have to get creative.

With state legislative and congressional district boundaries gerrymandered to make the outcome of those elections a foregone conclusion, it is an exercise in futility for voters to try to shake up the system by replacing ruling Republicans with Democrats in those offices. In 2018, far more votes in legislative elections across the state were cast for Democrats, yet Republicans still control by far the most seats in the legislature. That’s what gerrymandering does.

This rigging of general elections is why Wisconsin voters need to reacquaint themselves with a tool that’s been in their toolbox for well over 100 years – namely the primary election – and think creatively about how to use it more extensively and more effectively than ever before. If those in charge at the Capitol are deaf to protest and face no risk of being beaten in the next election by the other party thanks to their gerrymandered districts, then they need to face vigorous challenges in their own party primary elections. Independents and old-fashioned Main Street Republicans who hate seeing what their party has become need to be recruited in every part of the state to challenge GOP legislators who are drunk on power.

Many of these challengers will lose. A few will win, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did on the Democratic side when she defeated an entrenched establishment politician in New York City despite being vastly outspent and trailing badly in the polls only weeks before the election. The few who win will send shock waves through the system. But even those whose primary challenges come up short will help drive change. They will change the dynamics of races and reframe debates and force office holders to change their tune and change their ways.

The power of vigorous primary challenges was very recently on display in Wisconsin’s 2018 election for governor. The winner had to survive an intensely competitive primary election with a crowded field of candidates, and he was pushed not only to be a stronger campaigner but also to embrace a far bolder campaign platform. Compare and contrast Governor-elect Tony Evers’ platform and resulting policy agenda with those of the previous two Democratic nominees for governor. They played it safe and stood for very little and lost. Evers moved over the course of the primary to increasingly ambitious positions on living wages and health care access. He embraced the goal of cutting Wisconsin’s prison population in half, legalizing marijuana and closing down the state’s corporate welfare office. And he won.

Before Wisconsin became the first state in America to create primary elections in the early 1900s, party bosses met in smoke-filled rooms to decide who voters would have a chance to elect. Today, political bosses have again gained the upper hand at the expense of the people. Time to get out that old tool and learn how to use it again.

Political insiders hate primary elections. Which is precisely why voters should love them.