The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

What will the “uninstructed” vote say about Wisconsin?

The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, cannot support or oppose specific political parties or candidates.

A photo shows Joe Biden speaking at a public event. Biden is shot from below, so that he looms over the camera at an angle, with bright stage lights behind him. The photo has been altered such that Biden is overlaid with a field of distorted static.
Illustration by Tone Madison. Source photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.
A disconnect written in blood.

I don’t know what will come of the effort to encourage Wisconsin voters to vote “uninstructed”in our April 2 Democratic presidential primary, after more than 100,000 Michigan voterschose the equivalent “uncommitted” option in that state’s primary. Call it just a protest vote campaign, but I’m curious to see what it says about the conscience of voters here, and about their willingness to demand something better. Like Michigan, Wisconsin has open primaries, so you don’t have to be a registered Democrat or Republican to vote, though you can only vote in one. Thank god for small mercies.

Numerically, the “uncommitted”/”uninstructed” campaign isn’t threatening Joe Biden’s coast to the nomination as an incumbent. The greater threat may be that these disaffected voters will also abandon Biden in the general election, especially given that Wisconsin specializes in razor-thin electoral margins. What matters is that it is wrong for the United States to enable Israel’s slaughter of 31,000 people and counting in Gaza, and that a decent-sized chunk of the Democratic electorate—including those who are engaged enough to vote in primaries—is willing to take a stand. Whether or not they come around and hold their noses to vote Biden in November, it’s worth putting real pressure on Biden to support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and do more to reign in Israel’s belligerent regime.

It would be hard to get any momentum behind a movement like this if Democrats understood or respected what drives a lot of us, let’s say… “ugh yeah fine I’ll vote Dem by default again” voters. For a long time, I’ve felt ambivalent about leftists who sit out elections. I’m starting to understand them a lot better. No, I don’t want Donald Trump back in office. If I had my way, the Republican Party would be outlawed and busted up, along with a host of right-wing civil-society organizations that have tried to help it seize power through violence and legal trickery. It’s also disturbingly clear how much certain Dems relish the threat of Trump as a bargaining chip, and how much they still share Republicans’ commitments to capital and empire.


Trump would likely help Israel do even more gruesome things in Gaza, Biden’s defenders often remind the pro-Palestinian crowd, as if we should be grateful for the restraint Biden is showing. I’m reminded of conservatives who respond to our critique of the American justice system by going off about how “well, in such-and-such country, they’d just chop off your hands or throw you off a building!” This is a very messed-up way to talk about the world’s problems. If you want to draw a real contrast with Trump’s GOP or such-and-such country’s hand-chopping practices, you should aim to do way better, not just a little better. Take some responsibility for what you can do. Or if you’re the Democratic Party, reflect on all the choices over time that leave you depending on a blood-soaked creep like Biden.

    This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

Of course, if you’re deploying the argument that Biden’s leftist critics are just helping the Republicans… you’re doing that in defense of a guy who knows a lot about helping Republicans: supporting the Iraq War, supporting mass incarceration, stopping short of voting for Clarence Thomas’ confirmation but still doing a real bad job with all that.

How willing are we to at least send a message to President Joe Biden, and to Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation, including Senator Tammy Baldwin, that enabling Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza is unacceptable? How many voters will Democrats accuse of “just helping Trump,” as the Democratic leaders of Wisconsin’s biggest, most diverse city roll out the red carpet for Trump’s white-supremacist party?

Given that Republicans tried to stage a coup and have become even more explicit in their embrace of vigilante violence (for instance, making a folk hero out of a guy who went around shooting people in Kenosha), we’ll just be lucky if the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee doesn’t turn out to be a nightmare for a city full of people Republicans hate. (Anyways it’s actually really great and smart because conventioners will stay in hotels, and stuff.) This is not simply an opposition party that plays by the rules and can be reasoned with. These are people who, if you keep enabling them, will keep working very hard to erode your rights and quite possibly just kill you.

So, as Democrats continue to tell us how urgent it is to beat the Republicans in elections and save democracy, they’re maybe not really that icked out. They’ve perhaps not outgrown the blithe arrogance and calculated tepidness that cost them Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016.

Let’s look at just a few recent things elected Democrats have done with the power they have, and whether they are the actions of people serious about stopping fascism. People serious about stopping fascism would not humiliate themselves to try passing immigration legislation that panders to the right. They would not throw around terms like “illegals” in the same speech where they congratulate themselves for supposedly not demonizing immigrants. They would not send National Guard troops to harass people in the New York City subways. They would not openly enable the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, a man every bit as corrupt and authoritarian as Trump. They would maybe stop short of smooching the far-right prime minister of Italy. (I’m sorry, truly… it’s so embarrassing that we have to think about this kind of shit. Our precious Dark Brandon is just so tactile!) They would not cross the aisle in Congress to pass a pointless, racist resolution attacking a Palestinian member of their own caucus. Granted, that last one was a minority of House Democrats, but even so, it’s never any of these folks with actual power who get perversely blamed for helping Trump, the march of fascism, or whatever.

The Teamsters, supposedly a cornerstone of the Democratic coalition, made a hefty donation to the Republican National Committee in February. Liberal commentators in recent years have routinely argued that it’s practical to downplay “culture war” issues like trans rights, notwithstanding the self-evident practicality of making sure people whose vote you seek aren’t killed or persecuted. Democratic elected officials and liberal politicos who should be encouraging a more open debate about Israel are instead aiding ridiculous smear campaigns, like the effort to convince people that the phrase “from the river to the sea” is an anti-Semitic call for genocide. Dress these examples up in all the campaign consultant-speak you want—they’re major capitulations.

When all this is going on, it’s selective and disingenuous to dismiss the pro-Palestine movement as petulant and unrealistic saboteurs. “Uncommitted” or “uninstructed” voters are people the Democratic Party has taken for granted and failed to properly engage. If you’re asking voters to line up behind Biden without question and lay aside any political leverage they might have, you’re asking them for a level of discipline the Dems can’t even get from their own elected members.

Some of us formed our politics in the wake of 9/11, watching our country treat the threat of terrorism as a blank check for bloodshed abroad and surveillance at home. Speaking for myself, I’m a “yeah just not a Republican” voter because I think American belligerence sucks, blind belief sucks, patriotic gibberish sucks, the reflexive demonization of all things Arab or Muslim sucks, and contempt for mass movements sucks. I think moderates give the whole game away by failing to fight for something better. I think this country is basically a huge wealth-management office draped with human entrails, and I’ll believe differently when we achieve something different.

All these years later, we still find ourselves asked to be part of an uneasy coalition with a lot of people who refuse to understand the glaring lessons of the post-9/11 era, and who will respond to concerns about actual war-crimes with an insufferable horse-race mentality. (If you’re in my agéd-millennial age bracket and you still dance to the “because terrorism” tune in any variety… what the hell is wrong with you?) A lot of the people we’re arguing with these days don’t seem to understand that debate within a political party/faction/movement is a good thing, and so is demanding accountability from the very people you’ve voted for. Defending the people you vote for with simplistic excuses and wishful thinking is… not behavior worthy of free people. This is getting so old.

Let’s keep in mind that voters delivered major upsets for Democrats in 2020. Six states that went to Trump in 2016 flipped to Biden in 2020. Voters delivered Georgia’s electoral votes—and both its Senate seats, which required them to come out twice in tough runoff elections. All of this during an absolutely horrible, exhausting year, and in spite of the fact that no one in their right mind was thrilled about Biden, exactly. If you are a reasonable person and convinced yourself that you were thrilled about Biden, well… we all have our moments.

Between 2021 and 2023, what we needed was for Democrats to deliver, as swiftly as possible, to treat their two years in control of both the White House and both houses of Congress like they treat every election—as an emergency. Sure, they got some meaningful things done. Still, priorities like codifying abortion rights and filibuster reform fell prey to the same “well you see it’s the art of the possible” fiddle-dickery Democrats have been stuck on for ages. (Yes yes, I’m sure we’ll keep hearing the pleas that Democrats were helpless to discipline Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, two politicians who have turned out to be not long for public office. Isn’t the whole point of electing Biden that he’s a creature of the Senate and can maybe work out these sorts of things?)

In 2022, Democrats lost the House but kept the Senate, avoiding the bloodbath that often awaits the party holding the Presidency during midterm elections. That’s in part because voters came through for candidates like Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman. After years of progressive posturing, Fetterman turned around and declared he wasn’t so progressive after all. Fetterman has taught the nation a lesson that we in Wisconsin, especially Madison, know all too well: “Progressive” has become a weasel word, divorced from specific historical moments and movements. Everyone can hide behind it, and no one can be held to it. The bait-and-switch will continue until faith in the process improves.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

Help us create fiercely independent politics coverage that tracks power and policy across Wisconsin and the Madison area.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *