The Simplest Explanation for Whitewater, Wisconsin’s Politics

In my last post, I mentioned Noah Rothman’s perceptive post on the failings – and they are many – of a non-ideological politics, a politics without principle.

Whitewater’s politics, unlike that which Rothman describes, certainly isn’t a politics of radical populism; there’s no radicalism in Whitewater whatever. (Those who see radicalism here likely see unicorns and pink elephants, too.)

Whitewater’s politics is, however, non-ideological (with a few exceptions). So-called stakeholder politics here is primarily an identity politics, of some cohorts over others, where the town is imagined in terms of identity: students, non-student whites, non-student Hispanics, elderly whites, etc. Old Whitewater – a state of mind, not a person or chronological age – very much sees the city this way.

In fact, Old Whitewater mostly sees one group (non-student whites).  Others, by this narrow way of thinking, aren’t really here, or should think about moving away, etc.  Occasionally newcomers who want to advance quickly will parrot the worst of this thinking, to ingratiate themselves as truer than true, so to speak.  Reminding that a majority of the city’s residents are students, and that many others are Hispanic, for example, only rankles those who think the town belongs to one ‘true’ cohort. (There are some who find a Census table too much to bear.)

When Old Whitewater looks for influential stakeholders, it’s really looking for familiar, leading members of particular identity groups.

That’s why Whitewater has had, for well over a generation, a paradoxical big-government conservatism: precisely because ideological and principled views matter less than what particular identity groups insist that they want and need.  Millions for this, millions for that, without an ideological framework to any of it.

The irony is that this spending is not championed by the poorest residents of the city, but by a parochial, mostly-mediocre (but well-fed) clique aching for The Big Thing.  (No matter how few the Next Big Thing helps, any more than the Last Big Thing helped, this small faction must have as an ornament to its pride yet one more project.)

They are sure they are owed these things, as self-appointed guardians of a particular identity group, as the real residents within a city of many kinds of residents.

Arguments for multiculturalism and diversity are arguments, in this context, of a city without a fixed identity politics, where many groups will combine in ideological & principled ways, without barriers to participation based on identity, but instead based on clear views.

Look around, and one sees the rack and ruin from an identity politics, as the city stagnates, and thus declines relatively.  See The Local Economic Context of It All, Offer, Cooperation, Gentrification, and Stability and Stagnation, Differently Experienced.

This sort of politics cannot succeed, and so descriptions of it will, at bottom, be descriptions of error and loss.

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