PRAIRIE DU SAC, Wis. — Mock legislature is a rite of passage for Ryan Mussack’s Advanced Placement (AP) Government and Politics students at Sauk Prairie High School. His class writes bills, prepares speeches and debates their ideas during committee hearings — just like a real legislature.
“We all have different groups that we work with,” said Sauk Prairie junior Taylor Brown. “This is the biggest project we’ve done so far.”
Sauk Prairie High School hosts students from the twin villages of Sauk City and Prairie Du Sac, located 30 minutes northwest of Madison in Sauk County.
The county has more to brag about than the first-ever Culver’s restaurant. Its unique combination of liberal Madison commuters and small-town farmers voted for the winning candidate in 10 of the last 11 presidential elections, according to POLITICO.
“We're a unique microcosm of people here in this area,” Mussack said. “It's pretty down the middle.”
Even Mussack’s AP Government class, which he co-teaches with colleague Adam Brager, has a track record of voting for winning candidates. The class voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and flipped to President Joe Biden in 2020, just like Sauk County.
“Every year, it has lined up almost exactly right,” Mussack said. “It's within the margin of error, in most cases.”
Journalists from across the nation place Sauk County under a microscope each election cycle in a bid to discover why the county votes the way it does, especially in a polarized state like Wisconsin.
News outlets often focus on that polarization. NBC News called Wisconsin “ground zero” for polarization, and POLITICO said the state was “where median voter theory goes to die.”
Candidates have also prioritized base turnout more than crossing party lines to win recent elections. Democrats and Republicans called on political heavyweights like former President Barack Obama and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to energize their voters with just days to go before the Nov. 8 elections.
However, Mussack believes much of his class — and Sauk County — doesn’t live on the political fringes.
“Our loudest voices are typically a lot more polarized toward the edges of the political spectrum, but a lot of our people are more towards that middle,” Mussack said.
Mussack attributed rising polarization to social media, which he said plays into extremism and prevents respectful debate.
“We're not necessarily getting all the sides of our story anymore,” Mussack said. “We're less willing to listen to other sides than we would have been before.”
To counter that, Mussack begins each year with a unit on civil discourse, where he teaches students how to navigate touchy topics while empathizing with diverse perspectives.
He also teaches students how to sort through misinformation and fact-check news coming from social media, the primary news source for nearly seven-in-ten young Americans, according to the Pew Research Center.
“We stay on topic and also make sure things aren't personal,” Mussack said. “When we debate, we try not to call each other by name.”
And he’s not afraid to moderate the discussion.
“If somebody’s getting off topic, he’ll hit the gavel for decorum and get everybody back in order before they continue,” said junior Nick Stakahovskyy.
Stakahovskyy hopes to follow Mussack’s lead during the upcoming mock legislative session, where he’ll be moderating debates as the speaker of the house.
“You’re just trying to solve the problem together by looking at both sides, not trying to throw the other side under the bus and make them look bad,” Stakahovskyy said.
Politicians, including Gov. Tony Evers and Sen. Ron Johnson, commented on the students’ respectful conversations in past visits to Sauk Prairie, according to Mussack.
Mussack’s students think politicians could learn something from their class. Junior Vivian Rosch watched the 2020 presidential debates and thought the candidates’ manners were “terrible” compared to her classroom discussions.
“Seeing that 16 and 17-year-olds have better decorum than them could be a good wake-up call that [politicians] really need to listen to each other more,” Rosch said.
She understands real politicians deal with serious issues but thinks their heated discussions prevent creative solutions.
“Everyone’s opinion matters,” Rosch said. “Everyone’s voice is important, and their opinion can actually really help with certain stuff. It gives you different perspectives.”
Mussack believes his students’ commitment to respectful deliberation — even in one of the most evenly-divided counties in one of the most divided states — proves common ground and civility are still possible in politics.
“I think having good examples and politicians trying to show better discourse [would] be a huge way of helping us not have those issues going forward,” Mussack said.
Tyler Katzenberger is the managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. As a former state news editor, he covered numerous protests and wrote state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerKatzen.