Four Wisconsins
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Ever read something so spot on that you slap your forehead — figuratively — and wonder why you hadn’t thought of it?

That was my reaction to an article in The Atlantic by award-winning journalist and author George Packer headlined: “How America Fractured into Four Parts.” The piece was adapted from his new book: “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.”

I spoke with Packer and told him how his framing of four distinct Americas aptly describes Wisconsin and that two of the four are well-represented in liberal Madison.

Spoiler alert: He agreed with me.

So what are they? Here goes:

“Smart America” is made up of people who have long dominated Madison’s liberal politics. They are the folks who gravitate to the university, the tech sector, state government, and see themselves living in a meritocracy in which they are rewarded for their professional abilities.

[Gov. Tony Evers signs GOP-authored state budget, announces more funding for schools]

Packer defines Smart America in the magazine: “The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers — salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education.

“They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children.”

Are they patriotic? Not especially, Packer writes. “Smart America doesn’t hate America, which has been so good to the meritocrats. Smart Americans believe in institutions, and they support American leadership of military alliances and international organizations.

“But Smart Americans are uneasy with patriotism. It’s an unpleasant relic of a more primitive time, like cigarette smoke or dog racing. It stirs emotions that can have ugly consequences. The winners in Smart America — connected by airplane, internet, and investments to the rest of the globe — have lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others. Their passionate loyalty, the one that gives them a particular identity, goes to their family.”

To me, that describes a critical mass of traditional Madison.

“Just America” is Packer’s second group and is also prominent in our city. It is the emerging swath dominated by impatient younger people who believe the country is really screwed up and all assurances of incremental progress are bunk.

[Proposal to rename Memorial High School generates 88 pages of public comment]

Writes Packer: “Just America has a dissonant sound, for in its narrative, justice and America never rhyme. A more accurate name would be Unjust America, in a spirit of attack rather than aspiration. For Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled. In some versions of the narrative, the country has no positive value at all — it can never be made better.”

I suggested to Packer that Madison’s debate over police officers in security roles at city high schools exemplified the tension between these “smart” and “just” viewpoints. Smart Americans more likely saw the program as a diverse cast of cops dedicated to keeping kids out of the “system,” while Just Americans saw them as agents of the system as well as symbols of systemic issues between police and communities of color.

In this case, I told him, Just America won out and the police were removed. I told Packer that I think much of the palpable tension in Madison politics pits Smart America against Just America.

In response, Packer said about Just America: “I think there’s a mindset that is almost religious in its absolutism, that to question any of the agenda and any of the language and the tactics is to be one of the sinners.”

He continued: “It is not the progressivism of La Follette,” a reference to Wisconsin’s iconic progressive hero, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. “It’s not rooted in working people and in common sense and in practical improvements to people’s lives through institutions, like the university, like the state legislature, like Congress. It may be that a lot of young progressives look at those institutions and just don’t think they can ever work.”

The other two parts of Packer’s America are on the right, and, to me, instantly recognizable across Wisconsin.

[Plain Talk: Wanna see a slick politician? Watch Robin Vos talk voter fraud]

“Free America,” as defined by Packer, are those who want freedom “from government and bureaucrats ... the freedom to run a business without regulation, to pay workers whatever wage the market would bear, to break a union, to pass all your wealth on to your children, to buy out an ailing company with debt and strip it for assets.”

Packer’s description made me think of supply-side politicians like former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan from Janesville and anti-tax special interest groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Packer writes: “Rather than finding new policies to rebuild declining communities, Republicans mobilized anger and despair while offering up scapegoats. The party thought it could control these dark energies on its quest for more power.”

Such cynical demonizing of elites and people of color fostered the fourth group — “Real America” — writes Packer. These are your Donald Trump devotees.

“Real America has always needed to feel that both a shiftless underclass and a parasitic elite depend on its labor,” writes Packer. “The purity and strength of Americanism are always threatened by contamination from outside and betrayal from within. The narrative of Real America is white Christian nationalism.”

In sum, Packer writes: “All four narratives are also driven by a competition for status that generates fierce anxiety and resentment. They all anoint winners and losers.

[John Nichols: Pocan’s patriotic proposal to slash Pentagon spending]

“In Smart America, the winners are the credentialed meritocrats, and the losers are the poorly educated who want to resist inevitable progress.

“In Just America, the winners are the marginalized groups, and the losers are the dominant groups that want to go on dominating.

“In Free America, the winners are the makers, and the losers are the takers who want to drag the rest down in perpetual dependency on a smothering government.

“In Real America, the winners are the hardworking folk of the white Christian heartland, and the losers are treacherous elites and contaminating others who want to destroy the country.”

Packer told me he sees no easy path to reconciliation, but by provocatively illuminating and defining the terrain, he does us a service.

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