Opinion

And they all fall down: It’s time to reimagine America’s political systems

The Daily Cardinal Editorial Board sifts through the legacy of the American political system we live in today to call for structural change.

The Daily Cardinal Editorial Board sifts through the legacy of the American political system we live in today to call for structural change.

Image By: Lyra Evans

Here at The Daily Cardinal, we envision a future that is truly representative of the interests of all people, a future where equity and justice are the building blocks to policy making and a future where human dignity is not only respected and valued, but is foundational to our government. 

As we approach the 2020 election, though, it is becoming painstakingly clear that the systems under which we live are disallowing such a future to be realized. From our systems of policing and criminal justice to the two-party system at large, the structures that govern our lives at the local and national level must be re-evaluated, rebuilt and reorganized. So, let’s dive in. 

Who keeps us safe? 

On June 23 of this year, near the top of State Street in Madison, Yeshua Musa was arrested.

He had entered a restaurant with a baseball bat and a megaphone, confronting patrons and employees and allegedly threatening to break windows unless he was given money. Before police arrived on the scene, Musa had left the restaurant peacefully and empty-handed. Still, moments later, four Madison Police Department (MPD) officers dragged the 28-year-old Black man to the ground, pinning him face-down on the sidewalk in handcuffs as bystanders recorded, pleading with the cops to let him go. In one video, the camera pans to a crowd of white diners, watching with quiet curiosity from their outdoor lunch seating in the shadow of Wisconsin’s State Capitol.

Up until that day, Musa, homeless at times throughout the summer and a father, had been a constant presence at the protests and community events that erupted in Madison following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. At marches, he could be seen in dialogue with police officers, asking that they listen and pass what they heard on to their superiors, and drivers in blocked traffic, asking that they step out of their cars and join the movement to protect Black lives. At a community fundraiser at Brittingham Park, he washed cars and played chess with other activists.

Now, Musa faces two charges of federal extortion for his threatening but peaceful actions: extortion because he asked for money; federal because the businesses involved buy and sell goods that come from out-of-state, placing them in the legal realm of interstate commerce. After being held in the Dane County Jail for 100 days on a parole violation, he is on 24/7 house arrest, awaiting his trial. He faces up to 40 years in prison.

There’s a lot we can learn from Yeshua Musa’s case.

Put aside, for a moment, the absurdity that a 40-year sentence would be considered just recourse for an incident that injured no one and damaged no property. Put aside that our government’s official response to a man who is housing-insecure, in need of money and struggling with his mental health — Musa later told a judge that he had regained the “self control” he lacked at the time of his arrest — is a violent arrest and months of incarceration without a conviction.

Put aside that nearly half the people in the Dane County Jail are Black, compared to just 5.5% of the county. Put aside MPD’s $85 million operating budget and Public Health of Madison & Dane County’s less than a quarter of that. Put aside the mayor’s secret message of encouragement to police, the targeted arrests of activists like Jordan King, the City Council’s refusal to stop MPD from buying military supplies at a bargain price.

Put all that aside, and ask: what would have happened if Musa’s arrest had gone differently? If an officer saw the bat and feared for their safety? We know the answer. The same thing that happened to Tony Robinson. And what would have happened to the officer? The same thing that happened to Matt Kenny. Nothing.

This week, a juror from the Breonna Taylor case in Louisville published a statement confirming that the grand jury was never given the chance to charge the police who killed her in her home with anything more than wanton endangerment — the prosecutors didn’t even try. Qualified immunity ensures none of those officers will ever be held responsible in civil court, either. Even in Madison, with its shiny new civilian oversight measures, only the cops maintain any power to hire, fire or discipline other cops. 

Renowned CBS journalist Wesley Lowery gave a talk to UW-Madison Journalism school recently, in which he said this: “The police officer is the most powerful person most Americans will ever encounter in their life. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden — they can’t pull out a gun and shoot you in the chest. Every single sworn police officer in the country can do that. That’s an extreme amount of power, and that power requires skepticism, and it requires accountability, and the press is supposed to play that role.”

The Daily Cardinal tries every day to play that role. We believe wholeheartedly in the power of journalism. And yet, as we have seen time and time again, no amount of press can stop citizens from being killed in the streets by officers of the law.

There is no true accountability for our police.

And now, add it all back. Take the men with badges and no repercussions and add Madison officials’ refusal to limit their access to the tools of war. Add back the $85 million that could go to social workers, mental health professionals, housing subsidies or after-school programs instead. Add back the mayor’s political cowardice, the 40 years in prison for a local activist, the cash bail system that hands a get-out-of-jail-free card to every wealthy person in a county where half of the Black residents live in poverty.

Now you have what Yeshua Musa and thousands of others protest against: a system too large and self-interested to be meaningfully reformed — with too much power to concern itself with democratic ideals. In Wisconsin, incarcerated felons can’t vote. If convicted and sentenced to the fullest extent of his charges, Musa won’t cast a ballot for four decades.

Calls to defund and abolish are the only rational response — and they are just the start. Madison, and every other city in the country, needs a more democratic form of law enforcement, whose ultimate goal is to do no harm and whose authority comes from their relationship with the community, not from guns and tear gas. If the justice system as we know it can’t give us that, it’s time to start from scratch.

We don’t elect politicians — they elect us

With the 2020 census having just come to an end, the politicians elected here in Wisconsin will be responsible for drawing the upcoming congressional map, adding one more critical outcome that will be determined by this election. 

However, it has long been established that the politicians who draw maps intentionally curate districts in a way that will secure elections for their party — in other words, gerrymandering. This pitfall largely contributes to much of the anti-democratic behavior exhibited by the American Government. 

Partisan gerrymandering has been a legal practice in the United States as decided in Rucho v. Common Cause, which ruled that the Supreme Court has no power to limit gerrymandering. This decision directly contradicts decisions made during the 1990s about majority-minority districts.

The NAACP has advocated for majority-minority districts — districts where marginalized groups represent a majority of the population — in order to make a way for greater representation in congress. Despite partisan gerrymandering not being shut down by the Supreme Court, a series of decisions were made that outlawed majority-minority districts because of their irregular shapes which the Supreme Court argued were only drawn for “racial reasons.”

These districts were meant to stifle racial oppression — not encourage it, but the partisan gerrymandering that continues to take place hinders efforts towards equal representation and racial equality in congress.

This issue stems from the structure of how congressional districts are drawn. Following the census, State legislators draw maps identifying what the districts will be for the upcoming decade. Of the various methods used across the country to redraw legislative maps, though, only four states have districts drawn by an independent commission — fueling the ability for partisan politics to take hold. 

In Wisconsin, the state legislature is responsible for drawing both congressional districts and legislative districts, meaning the. This means that leaders elected this November will be responsible for creating the districts in which they serve.

When state legislatures are drawing maps, this flips what it means to hold political office. Instead of voters electing their representatives, representatives are essentially choosing their voters. 

Wisconsin has directly seen impacts of gerrymandering as evidenced by the 2018 midterm elections. In analyzing the contested elections in 2018 — where many candidates ran unopposed — a telling sign emerges as vote counts are analyzed. 

Throughout the state elections which took place for the State Senate, State Assembly and U.S. Congress, there was a clear disparity between candidates elected and vote totals. The following statistics show results for contested elections during the 2018 midterm elections in Wisconsin.

  • In the State Senate race, votes for Democratic candidates totaled 48% and Republican candidates totaled 51% of all ballots cast. Despite this, democrats gained 4 out of 13 seats whereas proportionally they should have earned 6 of those seats.
  • For the State Assembly, Democratic candidates accounted for 42% and Republican candidates accounted for 56% of ballots cast. The State Assembly represents one of the largest disparities in total support compared to allocated seats, as Democrats won 9 out of 66 available seats. If representation were equal, Democrats would hold 28 of those seats, or over three times as many seats that were awarded.
  • For the US Congressional elections, Democrats received 47% of votes compared to Republicans 52% of votes. Of the seven contested seats — Rep. Mark Pocan ran unopposed — Democrats only earned two. Democrats should have earned one additional U.S. Congressional seat.

This systematic pattern of partisan gerrymandering rigs elections in favor of the parties that control the map’s creation, rendering it nearly impossible for other parties to be successful in elections. In some cases, there aren’t enough party contenders running for a seat. 

One model used in other countries is a proportional representation system. Though this specific model can take many forms, it essentially entails that candidates would earn congressional seats proportionate to what the popular vote dictates. 

Using such a model for the 2018 midterm elections, and extrapolating the data onto all seats — not just the contested ones — we can see how the composition of Wisconsin legislative bodies would be different. 

Assuming the total percentage of votes would hold the same proportions across all elections, Democrats would earn 48% of the State Senate seats and 42% of State Assembly seats. In other words, the 17 Republicans and 16 Democrats would represent the State Senate. For the State Assembly, 57 Republicans would take office alongside 42 Democrats.

Currently, the Wisconsin State Senate has 18 Republicans and 13 Democrats, with two seats vacant. The Wisconsin State Assembly houses 63 Republicans and 34 Democrats, again with two seats vacant.

States need to work to not only mitigate — but remove the influence of gerrymandered districts in order to ensure that the voices of Americans are heard — not just those of parties that unfairly represent us.

Gerrymandering is antithetical to American ideals of equal opportunity and representation for all. It’s time we eliminate it. 

A Divided State

The two-party system is no longer representative of the American people and instead  representative of the extremist versions of our political society. Today, a sharpened sword of anger towards each party has destroyed our ability to find and implement solutions to our world’s greatest challenges or to simply converse with others across the aisle.

As George Washington wrote: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” Washington saw what the future of a divided American political realm would look like and he sought to warn his people against it. Yet, we now live in a world where those very fears have taken hold around American politics.

No longer are politicians concerned about best representing their constituents on the policies they will vote on, but instead worry for their respective party and their own position of power. 

For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2016 stated that a Supreme Court Justice morally could not be chosen in the final year of a President’s term because, "the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice." He emphasized how the Presidential election would allow for the American people to speak about who they wanted to sit on the bench.

Yet four years later, he is chomping at the bit to elect Judge Amy Coney Barrett, stating only hours after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death that, “President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.” Although McConnell makes the argument that there was a Republican controlled Congress to keep the balance against a Democratic President, this blatant hypocrisy is clear when his party's at the edge of possibly losing the power they have consolidated over these past four years.

But, the hypocrisy does not only stem from one side of the aisle. 

During the 2016 election, then Vice President Joe Biden stated that he wanted to make it “absolutely clear” that he would “go forward with a confirmation process as chairman, even a few months before a presidential election.” Biden thought this was a just move at the time because “the American people deserve a fully staffed Supreme Court of nine, not one disabled and divided, one that is able to rule on the great issues of the day.” 

Yet, in the 2020 election year, upon vying for the Presidency, Biden said on Twitter, “Let me be clear. The voters should pick a president, and that president should select a successor to Justice Ginsburg.” In both cases, he is making his stance on the issue “clear,” but what is his true position? Does he stand with letting a President fill the Supreme Court when they might be leaving office that year, or should that President wait until the election cycle has ended and the American people have spoken?

How can we trust politicians to represent their people when they flip oh-so easily on their morals during an election year, when their position of power is threatened? 

We now live in a system where politicians are bought out by associations like the Tavern League of Wisconsin or the various powerful top donors of Biden’s Presidential campaign. The two-party system has become so corrupt and dependent on outside donors that smaller but equally qualified candidates cannot get the same amount of media attention as the Biden and Trump campaigns.

It has become increasingly clear that the politicians sitting on Capitol Hill only care about their party’s political agenda and what their sponsors are paying them to do. This idea of being able to “buy out” a politician has been around since Andrew Jackson’s presidency, continued through the Civil War and is still seen today with super Political Action Campaigns (PACs) influencing the way politicians act and vote. Just last night in the second Presidential debate, Trump said to Biden, “Everytime you raise money, you make deals,” further proving how disgustingly corrupt our politicians are, and how they know that fact and keep rolling with it.

Our two party system has also become so polarized that we can barely recognize it as something that is supposed to represent the American people’s wants and desires — let alone the wants and needs of young people like us. The two party system has decayed into ruin. Moderate voters are forced to choose between a party of Socialists and a party of racists, or at least that is how it has been portrayed to the common American. It has caused progressive voters, like the youth, to choose between two parties that do not have the political will to create wide scale, systemic change for a more sustainable, equitable future. 

The evolution of our two-party system has effectively allowed for politics, both nationally and locally, to be centered around factional power grabs rather than notions of democracy. Unfortunately, we have dug ourselves into a hole of partisan politics that does not represent a majority of the American people. 

Rebuilding our democracy, to be rooted in equity, inclusion, and justice, must be our fundamental priority. In order to seriously address the issues that impact our daily lives, we must dismantle our unrepresentative, oppressive systems as we know them — from the drawing of congressional districts to policing and criminal justice. Without reforms to our country’s most influential structures, we will continue to live in a world that moves farther and farther away from the future we hope to see. 

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