Why Whitewater Isn’t a Progressive City; Why Whitewater’s ‘Conservatives’ Hold the City Tenuously

Yesterday, I posted on the election in Wisconsin’s 43rd Assembly district, of which [the City of] Whitewater is only a part. The race wasn’t decided in Whitewater; the winning margin came from other parts of the district. My remarks below are not about that race, but are general, apart from those candidates.

Whitewater’s politics are an odd and ineffective stalemate because the composition of her electorate shifts significantly depending on the type of election. This happens far less in other places. The consistently and frequently shifting electorate is bad for the city, as I’ll explain below.

First, though, the cause of those shifts: in times when national or state elections are compelling to voters from the local university, progressive issues and candidates do very well. In presidential election years, or in years with a controversial ballot measure, the left does well, and carries the city. Gore (and Nader), Kerry, and Obama all did very well in the city. In off years, or years without an issue that grips progressives, the right does far better.

Yet, these big elections are all fall contests, with state or national candidates on the ballot. Those are the races, in November, where the left in Whitewater has a good chance to carry the city.

That’s not the time when local elections for Common Council are held — they take place in the winter and spring. That’s great for conservatives, and not-so-great for progressives. (I’m teasing; it’s bad for progressives.) Enough of the city that does vote votes toward the right in the spring to assure, for example, that both at-large council seats are held by conservatives. Facing a friendlier, smaller electorate in the spring, the right does better.

If the at-large seats were traditionally up in the fall, or if the races became higher profile as a mayoral race would be, I doubt either conservative would win. They batten on a smaller electorate, one that discourages more energetic, progressive candidates. It also discourages more energetic, ‘opportunity’ conservatives. (These are the kind of conservatives who would do well even in a larger fall electorate.)


The left has trouble telling one kind of conservative, one kind of Republican, from another. I’m not a member of either major party, and maybe that distance makes classifying strains within a party easier.

In a place like Whitewater, there are few ‘opportunity’ conservatives, like the late Jack Kemp. Here, there’s much more of a traditional, status-quo kind of right, one that’s often willing to commit to a kind of big-government conservatism. It’s project loving — heavy on building new things with public money in the name of greatness, etc. Still, it tends toward traditionalism rather than dynamism, and favors specific businesses (especially ones of friends) over markets. It’s heavy on order, with a lot of rationalizations along the way. Sadly, it also has a Panglossian quality, insisting that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds,’ and that there are no problems.

Thought like this damages politicians, even idealistic ones who start out with high hopes for reform. It’s more Nixon, and less Goldwater or Reagan, so to speak.

These status-quo conservatives get elected, but in a city that’s not what they pretend it is, and that they’re ill-suited (sometimes astonishingly so) to oversee. They win, but they’re an awkward fit. That’s why, when they make pronouncements, they seem out-of-touch, sometimes infuriatingly and sometimes comically so.

When they seek municipal officials for appointed jobs in city all, they favor those who espouse an all-is-well approach. Even if those officials lean to the left, they wind up serving a stodgy, status-quo agenda. The last thing that status-quo conservatives want is an admission of problems in town.


The progressives that manage to win locally, then, do so in a community whose local institutions and elections favor a status-quo posture. They’re probably closer to the views of all possible voters, but they’re less secure with the electorate that shows up in the spring. They may win, but never with the mandate that they’d need, or that they’d get, in the fall.

Progressives in Whitewater haven’t found a way to expand the spring electorate to look more like the Whitewater electorate in presidential or controversial-issues elections. If they did, they’d run the city. They haven’t, so the status-quo defenders who’d lose in most big elections win in the spring, and coexist with progressives who manage to get by with that smaller electorate.

Bad for the City.

It’s bad for the city because the quality of status-quo conservatives is so much less than opportunity-conservatives, that they’re different political species. It’s bad for the city because the progressives who win do so out of a spring electorate that leans farther-right than the total electorate of the city. It keeps them cautious.

Spring elections produce a less dynamic variety of conservative, and a more electorally-constrained progressive.

I’m of neither group, but I’d welcome the most capable, or least constrained, of either. We don’t have that, and in its absence, there’s considerable drift.

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