As we walk from class to class listening to podcasts — worrying about Trump, the insurmountable damage he has inflicted on our state, and his next irreversible stunt — Ben Wikler resides on the other side of Capitol strategizing with his staff ways that this nation can defeat the most erratic, unprecedented president in history.
Wikler, Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, grew up right here in Madison. In elementary and middle school, while most of us were learning our times tables, Wikler was fighting global poverty and corporate control of the media.
Several years after graduating from Harvard, Wikler chose to come back home and continue what he started. I recently sat down with Wikler to learn what he and his team are doing and how liberal UW-Madison students can help during this election cycle.
“I love being in the biggest fights that I can find. Being involved in trying to unleash the blue heart of Wisconsin is a fight where I never have the existential angst of wondering what the point of it all is,” Wikler said.
We students hear constant chatter of how important Wisconsin is in the election and how important young people are. Our parents and teachers are telling us how critical our votes are going to be this year and the next. But, why are we so important? Why should we register to vote in Wisconsin if we are from Indiana? A vote is a vote, right? Wrong.
“This cycle every inch of Wisconsin is a battleground. Trump’s victory in 2016 would have been prevented if we had won two additional voters in each precinct so we have to fight in every precinct this time,” Wikler said.
Two votes in every precinct cost Democrats the presidency in 2016. That’s you and your roommate. Two peers you know who didn’t register on time, or chose not to register at all, or perhaps didn’t vote because they were busy.
If you thought your vote didn’t matter in 2016, think again. And, it will matter even more in 2020. Our votes are some of the hottest commodities there will be next year. Don’t believe me? Just look at the inescapable political ads on your social media feeds. It’s no mistake that we in Wisconsin are being bombarded with them constantly.
Wikler says Wisconsin matters so much because of its size in the Electoral College, as well as its unpredictability in the voting process.
“Statistically, all the states where Trump is more popular than he is in Wisconsin aren’t enough to win the electoral college, so Trump needs to win Wisconsin in order to return to the White House,” Wikler said.
Young voters are perhaps the source of the most untapped liberal energy in the state.
“Young Democrats and college Democrats have a superpower this election cycle,” Wikler said. “They will have a bigger role in shaping the future of humanity than almost any group of people in any time in history.”
While going to the polls on a school day may just seem like another errand on your checklist, it could be the straw that breaks Trump administration’s back. It could be a moment you proudly regale your kids with decades from now.
And voting is not the only way we can incite a blue wave this election cycle. UW students can make big changes by urging the school administration to adopt new policies.
“The first thing I’d urge any student to do is organize to push their university administrators to adopt pro civic engagement policies. There are schools like Northwestern that have 95 percent voter registration because the school has decided that everybody voting is part of their mission,” Wikler said.
As progressive as UW is, the state has toggled between the parties for so long that it has been difficult for the university to implement strong civic engagement policies under the watchful eye of Scott Walker, who spent his term dividing up the state and trying to prevent young people from voting. Now that he is gone, Democrats finally have an opening to enact policy changes on UW campuses — but only if we students advocate for it.
“If young people voted in the same numbers as older folks, we would win every election. Younger Wisconsinites believe intensely in fighting for change on issues like climate change, gun violence and college affordability, and the key thing is to translate that into organizing and voting. If we do that we’re going to win,” Wikler said.
But why should we bother with all this organizing? Have the past three years really been so catastrophic for Wisconsin?
According to Wikler, “The Trump presidency, generally speaking, has been a disaster for Wisconsinites.”
“We’re in a manufacturing recession now, we have two dairy farms closing every day, we have communities that are terrified by a federal government that seems intent on dividing people. We have a total lack of action on gun violence prevention,” said Wikler. “We have undermining of environmental protections that will not only accelerate climate change but also put toxins into our air and water immediately. It is a bleak picture.”
The effects of the Trump presidency are not as abstract as they seem. This administration is contaminating the water we drink and the air we breathe and, perhaps worst of all, it is affecting the production of the cheese we gluttonously devour. And if we don’t change the course of the country soon, Wisconsin will harshly suffer the consequences.
“What happens in this election determines what course the state is going to be on for decades. Both because the Electoral College is so pivotal, and because Republicans are trying to get super majorities in the state legislature, which is their one chance to hold onto gerrymandered maps after the census,” said Wikler. “If we can stop them from doing that, then we’ll have new maps after 2020 and the next decade will have a fighting shot at actual democracy in the state, which should be the birthright of every Wisconsinite.”
Democrats certainly have their work cut out for them this and next year, but the challenge won’t be as simple as registering our neighbors and encouraging people to get to the polls. The Trump administration appears to have thrown the rulebook down the toilet and flushed it into another dimension. Democrats have no way of knowing what the Republicans’ next move will be, how far they will go and who they will smear next.
Wikler said, “The toughest thing about 2020 is operating in a moment where the other side doesn’t appear to believe in the rule of law. Trump’s active solicitation of foreign governments to interfere in elections could have consequences that are impossible to anticipate.”
Wikler and his team have been working on navigating this issue and have luckily found that knocking on doors and making connections in high numbers still matters, perhaps now more than ever. The team is tapping into the power of cutting through right wing scare tactics with face-to-face interactions and forging communities throughout the state.
“There’s been a massive right wing project to convince people that Democrats hate them and the more isolated you are, the more likely predatory right wing propaganda can destroy your presumption of a state,” said Wikler. “The right benefits from division and polarization. The more connected people are, the more likely they are to be progressive. We win by building strong communities.”
The team recently hit a landmark goal of knocking on 50,000 doors in one weekend — more doors than they knocked in the entire year of 2015 or 2017. Wikler said that after the tough loss the state party suffered in 2016, the team reexamined their techniques. They started working with neighborhood teams and county parties all over the state.
“We’ve just been pushing the pedal through the floor ever since . And now we have a huge head start in terms of energy on the ground,” Wikler said.
This election doesn’t just matter now. It will matter for all of posterity and help shape our futures. We can play a major role if we choose to. So let’s all play our part to pull ourselves out of the catastrophe that is the Trump presidency and propel America into the future we deserve.
Dana is a senior studying journalism and theatre. How do you think we can mobilize the youth to go vote? Send all comments to email@example.com.