Sunday, December 4th, 2016

A political tale of two counties

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Like Dickens’ London and Paris, Waukesha and Dane Counties are not that far apart geographically but are worlds apart culturally and politically. In the latest issue of the Wisconsin Interest, Torben Lütjen looks at the two counties and has some interesting observations:

We may even leave aside the many stereotypes that nowadays are connected to the debate about the two Americas, although I do indeed suppose that the proportion of latte-drinking, New-York-Times-reading soccer-fans in Madison is higher than in Waukesha, which might in fact have a larger share of beer-drinking, country-music-listening NASCAR-enthusiasts.

More essential is the fact that life in these two places simply follows a different rhythm because of the way that public and private spaces are structured and interwoven with each other. In Madison, bikers and bike paths are everywhere, and if it were the only American city you ever visited, you would think that at least a fifth of all Americans drive hybrid cars.

In Waukesha County, SUVs and trucks are king, and seeing a cyclist must be a rare event, since I didn’t see one over a four-week period. Madison is densely populated, and many of its neighborhoods have their own centers with local stores, bars and restaurants. In the midsize cities of Waukesha County, such as Brookfield and New Berlin, a city center is absent, and I suspect not missed by its residents.

The only town with an urban setting is the City of Waukesha, the county seat and the only spot in Waukesha County where Democrats are close to competitive. James Wigderson, a conservative blogger who lives in the seemingly placid City of Waukesha, told me how other county residents don’t like coming downtown because they find the street system confusing and are afraid of getting lost. For those residents, the city is not a draw for shopping or entertainment.

When I told the legendary chairman of the Republican Party of Waukesha County, Don Taylor, a banking executive whose Waukesha State Bank is located in the middle of the city, that downtown Waukesha, with its cafés, art galleries and even one tattoo parlor, was similar to Madison, he replied: “Is that really true? Then it’s good I never go there, I guess!”

The truth is that the spatial structuring of a place is never an apolitical issue. It is the reason why land use is one the most debated issues in local politics and definitely the one that seems most illuminating to me in understanding the worldview of the cultural-political majority in each county.

Madison’s liberal political leaders love density. Much of their anti-sprawl attitude stems from serious and honest concerns about the environment. But it also follows an aesthetic ideal of a lively, vibrant city in which working and living are not so strictly separated, where people meet in public spaces and use public transportation and where real diversity can be found (although Madison, like every other hipster’s paradise, is in many ways one of the most homogeneous places imaginable).

No wonder that the creation of a light-rail system is a continuing dream of liberals in Madison, albeit one that seems not very realistic. In conversations I had with Madison liberals, Waukesha often served as the prime example of the negative consequences of unrestricted growth. It was hard to sort out in their criticism the line between policy disagreement and their subjective rejection of the suburban way of life.

“You can build whatever you want there,” a liberal member of the Dane County Board groused. “In suburbia, everybody is the same and nothing ever happens.”

Of course, residents of Waukesha County interpret their lifestyle as the exact opposite of uniformity: a celebration of American individualism. The many freeways and highways cutting through the county and the still remarkably dynamic development of subdivisions and yet another shopping mall are not only taken as proof of economic success but also as an affirmation of an individualistic lifestyle that offers both a maximum of freedom and a minimum of stress and inconvenience.

In other words, we like it here.

I had a nice conversation with Lütjen at the Cafe De Arts in Waukesha on one of his visits. He was surprised when I picked the place. I told him, “Coffee’s coffee.” (I may have also mentioned I don’t like having meetings on Main Street.)

I look forward to reading the rest of his work on the two counties. Should be fascinating stuff.

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