Young voters illustration

Those of us in school before the Vietnam War were told that America never lost wars, and that was just one part of our nation’s perfection. We lived in the land of freedom and opportunity. We made no mistakes, or at least none worth studying in class.

That whitewashing of American history, I think, explains some of the magnetic hold the “Make America Great Again” movement has on older people. MAGA would have fit nicely in the 1960s and 1970 alongside “My Country Right or Wrong” and “America, Love It or Leave It.”

Which brings me to Wisconsin’s statewide elections for governor and the U.S. Senate. Both races are close and historically consequential.

The evil brilliance of Wisconsin Republicans in gerrymandering has made the Legislature a rubber stamp for right-wing extremism. As a result, retaining a smart, decent and centrist governor in Democrat Tony Evers is all that stands between the Wisconsin we’ve always known and one that disenfranchises broad and especially urban swaths of the electorate.

With a governor as shallow and extreme as Republican Tim Michels, Wisconsin politics would politically resemble Mississippi and Kentucky far more than Minnesota and Michigan.

In the Senate race, incumbent Ron Johnson has morphed from country club Republican to serial liar, someone who denies election results, conspires to advance “fake electors” and happily spreads pandemic disinformation.

Much as he tries to change the subject near the election, Johnson would rank atop any list of Republican senators who transitioned over time to become full-on Donald Trump sycophants.

Mandela Barnes, in contrast, is a middle-class native of Milwaukee, a next-generation lieutenant governor with an admirable record on issues like climate change who ran such a strong primary campaign that his many opponents essentially conceded to him before the vote.

Which brings me to my biggest hope for this election — young people.

Both races can still be won or lost. Polls have fluctuated, and the sliver of voters who are genuinely undecided appears small.

So the best hope is a massive turnout of young voters, one that confounds predictions and has been undercounted in polls.

Sadly, the appeal of MAGA messaging — central to the appeal of Trump, Johnson and Michels — may be so deeply ingrained in many born before the baby boom ended in 1964 that it may only dissipate when more of that generation, um, depart the political scene.

We then need to bank on the young.

At a downtown breakfast this week, historian Jeremi Suri talked at a small gathering that included many of his former colleagues and students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He now teaches at the University of Texas. My column last week was about Suri’s new book on the lingering effects of the American Civil War on today’s politics.

During a question-answer period, I asked Suri what he thought might decrease the hold that the MAGA movement has on so many Americans.

His answer: generational change.

Afterward, another professor, a fellow boomer, told me he is heartened by seeing that history taught in K-12 schools and beyond is not nearly as whitewashed as it was when we were young.

A day earlier, a prominent Democratic leader told me his side hopes for massive turnout by pissed-off young people who realize it’s not the system or politics that is the problem, but only selfish and mainly older white Republicans who apparently resent being asked to consider future generations or to sacrifice in any way.

Take climate change. Last year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson told a Republican group, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think climate change is … bullshit.” In fact, the Journal Sentinel said, more than 99.9 percent of peer-reviewed papers agree that climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels.

But hey, young people, Johnson knows better than the scientists because he listens to the fossil fuel industry, which generously funds his campaigns.

In the governor’s race, Evers has been an outspoken proponent of state action on climate change. Michels said at a recent debate that he doubted human activity was a major cause.

Climate change concerns alone should justify huge turnout by young people, but so should imperiled reproductive rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Do young people realize that the only branch of state government that will work to restore abortion rights is led by their mild-mannered incumbent Democratic governor? Michels and Johnson have recently tried to downplay their radical abortion views, but their past statements make their actual sentiments clear.

Johnson has said if you don’t like a state’s abortion restrictions “you can move.” Given that the high court’s decision immediately put Wisconsin’s 19th-century ban on abortion back in play, the time has come to give in or push back.

There are many other reasons for young people to vote as if their long-term future depends on it.

Care about investments in educational quality? Republicans have been demonizing and defunding public education in Wisconsin for more than a decade. They interfere with curriculum and governance. How did college tuition get so expensive? Blame Republicans for reduced state support.

Care about economic justice? Johnson warns of higher taxes if Barnes is elected, but Johnson’s main legislative achievement was to force changes to a 2017 Republican tax overhaul to benefit his ultra-wealthy donors even more than they already were helped.

Care about racial and social justice? Johnson’s and Michels’ campaigns are transparently racist. Johnson has said he was not worried about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, apparently because the rioters were mostly white. Johnson claimed the insurrectionists “love this country” and “respect law enforcement.” If they had been Black Lives Matter protesters, he said, “I might have been a little concerned.”

There you have it, young people. Two despicable, radical older white men who would change your lives for the worse. This is the most consequential Wisconsin election in decades. That should mean the most to those of you who will be around the longest.

So, young people, please confound the predictions. Show up in record numbers and vote like your future depends on it.

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