It should be noted that the Common Ground Committee only rates incumbents. As a result, it is more difficult to ascertain the common ground focus of yet-to-be-elected federal candidates. Furthermore, they do not rate state (other than governor) and local positions (Note: perhaps this would be a worthwhile project for university political science students). 

Another good place to look involves statements from candidates regarding election integrity. Keep in mind, there is a difference between the debate on election rules compared to undocumented claims of election fraud. Over the years, both political parties have researched the voting patterns of their party supporters. The results of this research is part of the ongoing struggle to position voting laws that are favorable to their party. Election debates regarding voting rules are not “common ground” by their very nature…but they are normal. 

This is different from the denial of audited election results. Wisconsin serves as a good example. Many Republican candidates for state offices are expressing concerns regarding voting integrity. Yet privately, they recognize that their concerns are primarily associated with election rules. But they also realize that many Wisconsin citizens believe the results of the 2020 Presidential election should be overturned. A November 2021 national poll conducted by Politico and Morning Consult found that 22 percent of registered voters said the results of the 2020 presidential election should “definitely” be overturned, and 13 percent of those polled said they should  probably” be overturned. So it is not surprising that, in Wisconsin…despite several audits that show the results are valid, a number of candidates are calling for electoral reform. It appears that these candidates may believe a) they have a chance to appeal to a large number of voters who believe the election was fraudulent and b) also have an opportunity to enact election reform that is advantageous to their party. 

It should also be noted that, a few Republicans elected leaders are calling for the decertification of the 2020 presidential election. Candidate for Governor, State Representative Timothy Ramthun, is leading the charge. Ramthun is far behind the other candidates in the polls. Nonetheless, the recent State Supreme Court decision to uphold the ban of unstaffed voting drop boxes is being touted by some as evidence of election fraud in 2020. And the discredited, yet frequently viewed documentary, 2000 Mules, points at drop boxes as a vehicle of voter fraud. Audited voting results did not provide evidence of large scale voting fraud. Voters should also be aware that any effort to decertify the 2020 election results lacks any constitutional backing. Even if Timothy Ramthun is not successful in the primary election, it should not be surprising if the successful primary candidate attempted to court the Ramthun voters. 

The 2022 election season has certainly been active and divisive. We rate the actions by Rep. Ramthun with a red flag for his failure to taken even minimal steps to represent the entire constituency. And it is a sad situation that only two of eleven Wisconsin incumbents received favorable ratings by the Common Ground Committee. Those electors who scored less than 50 on the scorecard have earned a “red flag” . This is an unfortunate situation for the voters in Wisconsin when the majority of elected representatives fail to demonstrate a reasonable level of bipartisanship. Ultimately the voters will determine whether this pattern will continue into 2024 and beyond. The worse thing they can do is to become so turned off by the political ads that they refrain from voting. Then we all lose.

Are You Looking Forward to More Political Ads?

July 2022

For most Americans, this is a rhetorical question (with a touch of sarcasm). Political ads have been running in many states since January of 2022. And the ad buys are projected to kick into high gear around the first of September. Of course, advertising is not inherently a bad thing. Much of our economy is dependent upon getting the message out to consumers who are looking for goods and services. But political ads, most notably attack ads, create a cloud of dust. This makes the voting choices more confusing. In an attempt to find clarity, many voters simply vote for the party rather than the candidate. Unfortunately, in a politically divided time, this results in some poor choice candidates getting elected.

What can the voter look for in the upcoming election? A good place to start is to look for candidates that promote civility. Rep. Liz Cheney said in a statement to the Casper Star Tribune, “The lack of seriousness and civility, and rise in toxicity, from some elected officials and political party leaders is a direct threat to our ability to govern and to our goal of unifying the country around the shared American principles of freedom, liberty, and reverence for the Constitution". But this is not just one person’s opinion. According to the recent PBS/Marist survey. 79 percent of Americans said they are concerned or very concerned that the negative tone of national politics will prompt violence. That concern was prominent across the political spectrum, with 92 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of those who identify as independent all in agreement. Similar results were found in the 2019 Pew Research study.

When looking for leaders who promote civility, the Common Ground Committee is one resource to consider. They publish a score card that includes multiple factors to rate federal and (some) state leaders on their ability to work with the other party to seek common ground solutions to legislative issues. A score above 50 is considered indicative of the individual's willingness to work across the aisle. In the report of the nine Wisconsin incumbents (attached) for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the Governor, only two (Rep. Mike Gallagher and Rep. Ron Kind) received scores above 50.

Two Trains on the Same Track

June 2022

The American democracy is entering a critical period. There are growing dynamic forces moving in opposite directions.

Much has been written about the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, formed on July 1, 2021. Through a very deliberate process, the committee has been operating in parallel with the Justice Department in gathering evidence surrounding the attack. The Justice Department has been actively gathering evidence and tracking down participants that entered the capital building. A significant part of the Select Committee’s work involves identifying January 6th participants, soliciting their testimony, and then using the testimony to gather additional evidence against other individuals. More than 1000 witnesses have been called to testify in the last year. The Select Committee is now entering the next phase of their work…public broadcast hearings. This phase includes public testimony of individuals who were closely involved with the Trump Administration. The live broadcast phase is designed to raise public awareness and ramp up the stakes for those providing testimony. Attorney General, Merrill Garland has stated that the Department of Justice is closely observing the hearings. The stage is set for criminal prosecution for key players (including the former President) in the events leading up to the January 6th assault on the Capitol.

The Republican party has, for the most part, publicly dismissed the integrity of the committee because it is dominated by members of the Democratic party (with two exceptions, Republicans Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney). Nonetheless, the public testimony of Trump Administration representatives as well as elected Republican officials cannot be easily dismissed. Here are just a few of the questions coming forward. Were two groups (the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers) specifically assuming the role of inciting other protestors, thus creating a riotous environment? Did members of the White House (specifically the former President) coordinate the role of these two groups and other events leading up to January 6th? How far were the participants planning to go, if the conditions at the Capitol were unchecked? Were elected members of Congress involved in the plan to overturn the election? Will the Justice Department file criminal charges against Donald Trump? The answers to these questions are expected to be known within the next few months. The full report of the Select Committee’s findings will certainly be released prior to the November 2022 elections. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice may be making their determinations regarding criminal prosecution along the same timeline. With a head of steam, this train is headed down the track in one direction.

At the same time there is another significant effort underway. Immediately following the January 6th events, the former President was publicly disgraced in many circles, including with representatives of both political parties. But the former president still maintained significant public support. Within a few months, many Republican Party leaders went on record as softening their criticism and lending their support for the former President. It became clear that public criticism of Donald Trump could erode support from a sizable portion of the Republican base. One additional key variable in this process involved the amount of funds raised by the Trump Political Action Committee (Trump PAC). As noted by Sarah Isgor of the conservative publication, The Dispatch, by spring of 2022, 22% of all Republican campaign funds raised went through the Trump PAC. Given the high cost of campaigning, these funds are a very influential force. These dynamics are playing out in Wisconsin. The Trump endorsement (now received by Gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels), is viewed as important because it will help to garner votes from supporters of Donald Trump (and an infusion of campaign funds) in a high-cost Republican primary election. All four Republican candidates have publicly criticized the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC),alleging election interference in 2020. Each has a plan for dismantling the WEC, if they are elected Governor. This train is also speeding down the track in the opposing direction.

It is understandable that both political parties view the fall 2022 election as important. At the national level, mid-term elections tend to (but not always) swing away from the incumbent party. And national voting patterns tend to influence voting patterns at the state level. It is also understandable that supporters of both parties wish to keep the focus on policy changes that are determined by the election outcomes. At the same time, there is an underlying, swirling current…the debate on election integrity. The American democracy has served as a model for other nations because of a core concept…the ability to peacefully transfer power after elections. The further apart we are as a nation, the harder it is to stay true to this core concept. The elections in 2022 and 2024 represent a serious test. Will the political parties and candidates be able to “campaign hard” yet accept the outcomes of the elections? Will citizens who are political loyalists embrace the election results, regardless of outcome? What will citizens, candidates and elected leaders do as the two trains head toward each other on the same track? The integrity of the American democracy is at stake as these questions are answered.

The Political Divide and Business

May 2022

“The well-documented increase in toxic polarization among Americans is not only a threat to our social fabric and system of government; it is also a business and economic issue.” –Sarah Bonk and Luke Raskopf

At a recent business summit in Wisconsin, I was presenting information about leading in a divided world. I asked for a show of hands…how many feel their organization is suffering due to the political partisan divide? More than half raised their hands. The program host later remarked that, in her opinion, many of those that didn’t raise their hand were likely experiencing the political divide, yet were reluctant to publicly express their thoughts. This is perhaps a symptom of the political divide itself…a fear of being ostracized by those that don’t agree.

Structural conflicts within organizations are not new. Many organizations face conflicts between departments and sometimes between major divisions. The term silo syndrome, coined by Phil S. Enser in 1988, is used to describe this. Think of a hypothetical company where the manufacturing division is at odds with the marketing division. If the senior leaders of these respective divisions are in conflict (perhaps they are competing for limited resources or a promotion), often the division-to-division conflict will trickle down to mid-managers and even frontline people. In this situation, each division is essentially operating as an independent top-to-bottom silo. In this environment, their priority is divisional success even if it comes at the expense of overall company success. And should the company begin to fail, divisional leaders may then shift the focus to blaming the other for the downfall. Ironically, if unchecked, the silo syndrome in an organization can pass on from one generation of employees to the next. In viewing this dynamic from the outside, these divisional turf wars make no sense. If the major divisions were effective in working together, the company would be far more likely to succeed…thus benefiting everyone. Yet even though this makes no sense, silos and turf wars are common…in businesses, schools, hospitals and many other organizations.

The political partisan divide today follows a remarkably similar process. It is the silo syndrome in full display. Conflicts between the two major political parties at the national level assuredly become state issues. Increasingly, the political conflicts become local issues as well…even to the point of becoming part of non-partisan elections for county board or school board. Furthermore, the data indicate that the increased partisan divide has also resulted in a reduction of public trust. This is certainly the case with elected officials and supporters of the “other” political party. It has also resulted in an increased breakdown in trust among neighbors, co-workers and family members. In addition to the major political parties, mainstream media and social media have been an accelerant in this process.

Ironically, the reduction in public trust is also extended to many major institutions as well…media, education, healthcare institutions, business to name a few. These institutions are the backbone of local communities, and trust is an essential commodity for their viability. As a result, many organizations face a dual problem: co-workers may become caught up in the political divide, and customers and constituents may have reduced confidence in their service. If unchecked, political turf wars can also be passed on from one generation to the next. As Bonk and Raskopf state in their article Bridging Business Divides, 69% of the businesses in their study report negative effects from political/social divides on their company’s employees and culture. It is a business and economic issue!

Is there anything companies and organizations can do about this dynamic? Let’s be real. The political divide is challenging because it is so pervasive and so extensively promoted. Nonetheless, the answer is yes…and the actions need to start locally. Let’s look at some practices that Bonk and Raskopf observed in companies, starting with those that are not working.

Executive leaders unprepared to message challenging topics. Some leaders believe that they should take a hands off approach to anything political. Yet numerous studies show that in an environment of silo conflict and turf wars, conditions are likely to get worse when ignored by senior leaders.

Managers unable to manage difficult conversations. If the “hands off” approach does not work for senior leaders, it doesn’t work well for managers either. Managers who work on listening, are non-judgmental on personal views and are able to focus on factual information are better able to de-escalate political differences. At the managerial level as well, problems do not solve themselves.

Gaps in employee training involving inclusion. Political conflicts often vilify those with different views. Successful organizations recognize the importance of teamwork and value the input from different perspectives.

Anonymous internal communications platforms. While, an anonymous platform may seem to be a way for people who are reluctant to speak to be heard, it has a real downside. The expanded use of social media has played a part in the increased divisiveness. For many, it has become a way to express our thoughts without concern of the impact on others. This lack of concern (and respect) for others is harmful within our culture and it will be harmful in an organization environment.

They have also identified some leadership practices that are working. To be certain, these are simply brief highlights.

Make inclusion an organization value, and invest in building an inclusive workplace culture. This is hard work, requiring a sustained commitment from leadership. But the effort is worth it. An inclusive workplace culture will pay dividends in any environment.

Communicate with employees regularly, openly. The principles of ethical leadership clearly apply here. Be truthful, transparent, unifying and thoughtful of the needs of the entire organization.

Leaders should prepare to handle difficult conversations. Issues happen in every setting. Yet, political divisiveness can lead to an emotional “stuckedness”. The concepts of crucial conversations, or other s

imilar approaches that promote respectful listening, can lead to better outcomes.

Prepare employees to navigate tense interactions. Many organizations use team building activities to counter the conditions of silos and turf wars. Organizations like Braver Angels actually specialize in promoting a better (and respectful) understanding of different political views in a group setting.

Of course, these observations and suggestions are not all encompassing. But they can offer a thoughtful starting point to move forward. Here are a couple of added thoughts. Many organizations had been working for some time on building a culture of inclusion and developing improved communication practices…then the pandemic hit, resulting in a huge disruption in the workplace. Just as communities must do following a severe natural disaster, organizations must rebuild (and hopefully improve) those practices, in some cases from the ground up.

Finally, the political divide in an organization can be challenging because many of us have been taught to “stay out of politics” in the workplace. However, though unique in some respects, the political divide in an organization is in reality another form of structural conflict. Structural conflict breeds in a silo environment and inaction almost always results in a worsening condition. Practices that improve communication and promote inclusion are universally the better course of action.

Wisconsin Under a Magnifying Glass

April 2022

Elections are the cornerstone of the American democracy. Yet since the early years of our country, politics has played a role in the electoral process. Voting eligibility has a long, meandering history in our country. The opening statement in the Declaration of Independence is clear, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". Yet in practice, when it came to voting, the goals of the founders fell short. It would be many decades before African Americans and women were llowed to vote. In subsequent years, the federal government and the states have debated the issue of authority in determining voting eligibility, with the U.S. Supreme Court initially weighing in the direction of state authority. The effort to establish federal authority over voting culminated in the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting eligibility and the 19th Amendment, which prohibited discrimination in voting eligibility on the basis of gender. Yet Jim Crow laws, passed in many states and protected by the U.S. Supreme Court, established added barriers for people of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds. The Voting Rights Act, approved in 1965 was designed to remove some of these barriers. But U.S. Supreme Court pulled back on some of these actions in the Shelby case. Needless to say, the conflicting views regarding the federal and state role in voting rights continue to this day.

The 2020 Presidential election brought the federal/state election debate into a new dimension. The debate not only centers on state versus federal authority, it includes a debate on election integrity itself. 19 states have enacted laws to clarify election rules and reduce the likelihood of voter fraud. These actions are being driven by the expressed concerns of many Republican voters that the Democratic Party manipulated the 2020 election. The Democratic position on these laws is clear. They believe they are designed to suppress voter turnout in communities that lean Democratic.

Wisconsin is again considered a battleground state in 2022, yet for some, the battle for the 2020 election is not yet over. The gubernatorial election is a clear example. Governor Tony Evers is seeking re-election. On the Republican side, former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefish, Pewaukee management consultant Kevin Nicholson, and state Rep. Tim Ramthun have announced their candidacy. Former Governor, Tommy Thompson, has officially announced that he will not become a candidate for Governor.

Tim Ramthun is running for Governor on the platform of overturning the results of the 2020 election in Wisconsin, despite the overwhelming evidence that the results were valid. There is a large constituency that backs the position of Ramthun. One might wonder, why is this the case? According to Oxford University professor Adam IP Smith, “Donald Trump was the first presidential nominee of a major party to make allegations of systemic fraud central to his campaign.” Smith asserts that the assault by Donald Trump on the electoral system tapped into “the alienation felt by many Americans from their political institutions,” and “creeping sense that someone somewhere is manipulating the system to cheat the ‘real ’ people of their rightful rule.” Tim Ramthun has tapped into this alienation within Wisconsin.

The other two Republican candidates have not endorsed overturning the 2020 election results. However, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they have staked out positions which address allegations of fraud by removing the authority of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Rebecca Kleefisch released a plan to create a new office within the state Department of Justice that would give the Attorney General the jurisdiction to prosecute voting violations, shift election audits to DOJ, and make it easier for the public to obtain copies of the state voter list, among other changes. Meanwhile, Kevin Nicholson proposes to shift the duties of the Wisconsin Elections Commission to the Secretary of State's office. Tim Michels announced his candidacy for Governor on April 25th. As of this writing, he has not publicly announced his position regarding the 2020 election results.

It is not known how many people in Wisconsin believe the 2020 election results should be decertified. But in a low turnout Republican primary, the number of voters could be sufficient to influence the primary election outcome. Another factor in this dynamic is likely to be the high cost of campaign financing. As Sarah Isgur of the Dispatch reported on February 27th on ABC This Week, 22% of all national Republican campaign funds are flowing through the Trump Political Action Committee (PAC). A serious candidate must weigh the options of foregoing access to these funds, or (even more serious) enabling these funds to go to a political opponent. For these reasons, it is understandable that the Republican gubernatorial candidates want to stake out a position to address “election fraud”.

With an eye on the 2024 Presidential election, states like Arizona and Georgia have passed legislation that gives expanded state oversight if the election process. That has not happened in Wisconsin, primarily due to the veto authority of Governor Tony Evers. That’s why the 2022 Wisconsin Governor’s race has taken on so much attention. The 2020 Presidential election was a contest with an historic turnout. President-elect Joe Biden topped President Trump by nearly 7 million popular votes, and 74 votes in the Electoral College. Yet, as reported in a National Public Radio report, "just 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin separated Biden and Trump from a tie in the Electoral College". That why we can expect considerable national attention in the election of Wisconsin’s next Governor. Wisconsin has “red flag” conditions regarding truthfulness in this upcoming election. Regardless of who wins, it remains to be seen how that will translate to governance beginning in 2023.

Two States, Two Surpluses

March 2022

Minnesota and Wisconsin have both projected a significant budget surplus for the current biennium. This is where the two states differ.

Minnesota is wrestling with options for handing a significant budget surplus. What was expected in November 2021 to be a $7.7 billion General Fund surplus is now up to $9.25 billion for the current biennium, according to an updated budget estimate released by Minnesota Management and Budget on February 28th. Incomes, consumer spending and corporate profits are all up while spending is slightly lower in the areas of E-12 education and health and human services. While department officials emphasized that the changes are mostly one-time — they’re strictly for the current biennium — the state remains in the black in planning estimates for the 2024-25 biennium. Commissioner Jim Schowalter recommends caution because of uncertainty due to inflation and geopolitical conflict.

There have been a number of projected proposals for the utilization of the surplus funds. DFL Gov. Tim Walz initially listed a range of possible uses, including paid leave, housing and lowering the costs of energy and health care. Senate Republican Leader Jeremy Miller said tax cuts for individuals and businesses will be his caucus' "top priority." Statewide teachers union Education Minnesota, called on lawmakers to increase school funding. A number of other proposals have surfaced.

The president and CEO of the Minnesota Chamber called backfilling the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund deficit a huge priority to avoid tax increases on business. The Minnesota Senate passed a plan too use $2.7 billion to replenish the unemployment fund. As reported in the Mankato Free Press, Senate Republicans and Gov. Tim Walz have similar proposals to use $2.7 billion of the state’s surplus and federal COVID aid to pay off Minnesota’s debt and replenish the unemployment fund. House DFL members have put forth a proposal to repay the state’s $1.2 billion debt, which will remedy the immediate shortfall, but fail to fully replenish the fund. DFL Representative Gene Pelowski, of Winona, is taking a position that is counter to the House DFL caucus by introducing a bill calling for the full $2.7 billion. He attended a joint press conference with Republicans to express support for full funding, a position that Governor Walz, a Democrat, essentially supports.

Wisconsin also projects a significant budget surplus. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that the two-year budget's general fund was now projected to end with a balance of more than $3.8 billion. While not as large as the surplus in Minnesota, it is still a hefty sum. As reported by Wisconsin Public Radio, that amounts to nearly $2.9 billion more than the original estimate from last year. Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang told lawmakers $2.5 billion of that increase was due to higher-than-expected revenue from Wisconsin's income, sales and corporate taxes.

Governor Tony Evers called a special session, asking the state legislature to approve his plan to use some of the surplus funds to send taxpayers $150 refunds. On March 8th, Senate President Chris Kapenga banged the gavel to start the special session and then immediately banged it again to end it. The Republican-led Senate and Assembly technically held the special session, but no action was taken. There is no further legislative action expected on the budget surplus for the remainder of 2022.

So if you look at the two states, you can see a dramatic difference in approach. Minnesota is wrestling with the options on the table, ranging from tax cuts to increased funding for public services. Not surprisingly, the process will not be without challenges. The special interests are lining up with requests. For example, the Minneapolis teachers went on strike fully recognizing some of the surplus dollars can be directed to education. At the same time, It is encouraging to the seeds of bipartisanship in addressing the shortage in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. Representative Gene Pelowski has earned a green light for his willingness to part with his caucus in order to work with the democratic Governor and republican State Senate.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the dynamics are less complicated legislatively. The Governor’s proposed “across the board” appears to be aimed at gaining favor from voters in advance of the November 2022 election. Of course, a similar action was taken by then Governor Walker in 2018 as reported by Wisconsin Public Radio. The 2018 action, approved by the Republican legislature and signed by the Governor, provided a $100 child tax credit plus a sales tax holiday...enacted in late summer of an election year.

This time, the 2022 legislature adjourned for the year in March without considering action on any unmet needs in Wisconsin. On one hand, it may be prudent to wait until 2023 for considering action, given the infusion of federal “COVID-19 relief dollars”. On the other hand, given the impact of inflation and rising gas prices, a bipartisan effort to provide tax relief now would have been a meaningful way to serve constituents throughout the state. Absent hyper-partisanship, this would have been the right thing to do. We believe, the Wisconsin Governor and legislature have earned a red flag for failing to consider a joint action. Neither party took serious steps to identify pressing needs within the state where the surplus could have helped. By appearances, spending the surplus funds in an election year could have benefited and/or disadvantaged one or the other the parties. Given that, it seems that the highest priority for the leaders in both parties was not responding to the needs of Wisconsin. Rather it was positioning for the upcoming election in November.

The Cost of Incivility

February 2022

On March 4, 1801, John Adams, the second president of the United States, quietly left Washington, D.C. He did not attend the inauguration ceremony to be held later that day for his successor as President, Thomas Jefferson. Despite the circumstance of his departure, Adams was setting an important precedent. His departure from office marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political opponents in the United States, now viewed as a hallmark of the nation’s democracy.

The political parties often wrap their actions within the cloak of the U.S. Constitution. Yet, political parties were not established in the Constitution. Indeed, George Washington lamented their development. He stated in his farewell address, "However political parties may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion". Given these concerns, the action of Adams takes on significant importance.

Cheney and Kinzinger issued strong statements rebuking the intent and integrity of the RNC position. Kinzinger stated, “I am now even more committed to fighting conspiracies and lies”. Later that week, the former Vice President, Mike Pence, stated in his speech to the Federalist Society that the former President is “wrong” to claim that he could have overturned the results of the 2020 presidential election. “President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election.” He added, "There are those in our party who believe that, as the presiding officer over the joint session of Congress, that I possessed unilateral authority to reject Electoral College votes.” He went on, “The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone”. He further stated, “And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.” Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger and Mike Pence have earned a green light for upholding truthfulness regarding the events of January 6th. The Republican National Committee has earned a red flag for their clear mischaracterization of the January 6th events.

During the same week. Canadian truckers staged a large protest at the Ambassador Bridge…a major point of entrance to the United States. Labeled as the Freedom Convoy, they were protesting COVID vaccine mandates. Similar protests were reported in France, New Zealand and other countries. There was evidence as reported in the Guardian that the protest contained the same undercurrent of populism that powered the January 6 Capitol insurrection and the yellow vests movement: a powerful current fed by disinformation, conspiratorial thinking and deepening social divides. Meanwhile, several prominent elected officials in the U.S. praised the protest. In a statement by Senator Ted Cruz, "God bless these Canadian truck drivers. They're defending Canada, America, and they're standing up for freedom! The government doesn't have the right to force you to comply to their arbitrary mandates". It was reported in CNN that Senator Rand Paul referred to rumors that the protests would come to the U.S. by stating, "Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in our country, from slavery to civil rights, to you name it. Peaceful protest, clog things up, make people think about the mandates.” He added "I hope the truckers do come to America, and I hope they clog up cities." Needless to say, it was quite a week in U.S. politics.

Of course, Rand Paul is right. Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in America. Often, the protests involve the demand for policy change, such as was the case in the protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Sometimes the protests appears to be more about politics than policy. Given the run up to the 2022 mid-term elections, that appears to be the case, at least in part, for the expressed support for the January 6th protestors and the Freedom Convoy. To be certain, left wing protests have focused on politics as well. The Women’s March in 2017, held the day after President Trump’s inauguration, drew over 470,000 people in Washington D.C. Estimates range between 3,267,134 and 5,246,670 people participated in the marches nationwide. Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to a large Boston gathering and stated, “We can whimper. We can whine. Or we can fight back!”

What is particularly concerning is the widening division between the two parties and their supporters. Political protests are one visible sign. The election developments in U.S. House of Representatives provide another glimpse of this dynamic. A number of Republican representatives in the House, facing primary challenges from Trump-supported candidates or reviewing the prospects given redistricting maps, have opted not to run in the 2022 midterms. Across the aisle, a similar scene is unfolding as Democrats take a look at President Joe Biden’s lagging approval numbers and signs of a significant midterm election swing. There are more Democrats not seeking reelection (29) than Republicans (14), but in both parties, it’s the centrists who are stepping down. The polarized elements remain. Indeed, the polarized leaders draw energy from the vilification of the opposition.

Trust is a valuable commodity

As the political divide has grown, the impact is being felt in many so-called non-political environments such as schools, hospitals and businesses. They are experiencing increased incivility and reduced trust which is evidenced on social media, at school board meetings, and in employee/customer interactions. The 2021 Gallup survey on trust shows that many major institutions have positive trust levels less than 40%. And in many cases, the trust levels are very divided based upon political party loyalty. Essentially, this is a very concerning negative on both counts.

Lost in this dynamic is the recognition of the importance of trust. When incivility increases, trust is reduced. And reduced trust can have significant negative consequences. Consider this, if a manufacturing company found itself unable to obtain sufficient raw material to produce their product, they would certainly be concerned. Yet for banks, businesses, schools, healthcare organizations (and other similar institutions) public trust is a vital commodity. When trust is in short supply, the impact is felt and it is costly. To be certain, the Freedom Convoy protest is fueled by the mistrust of government. As reported in Fortune, it has been estimated that the auto industry alone is facing losses as high as $988 million. For schools and healthcare organizations who are facing staff shortages in a stressful pandemic environment, the cost may show up in reduced quality, reduced access to service or higher costs associated personnel turnover.

In terms of elected officials, these dynamics raise several key questions. When elected leaders speak out in support of protestors, are they responding to the needs of a constituency? Or are they simply seizing an opportunity for more votes? Are they concerned about the costs and secondary consequences in promoting a divided country? Can an elected leader stand firmly in support of a cause, yet encourage responsible behavior that minimizes incivility and the costs associated with it? The answers to these questions may be difficult to fully assess. Yet, as citizens, these are questions we should be considering when elected leaders are seeking our support and our vote.

Transfer of Power

January 2022

The United States of America has a lengthy history of political discord. Perhaps this is inherent, given the expressed statement from the Declaration of Independence that Americans possess the unalienable right for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the development of the U.S. Constitution and state and local laws, the meaning of these terms have been wildly debated. Our nation has been though periods of incivility and violent conflict (as evidenced by the Civil War) and periods of relative peace and civility. The evidence supports that we are moving into a period of increased incivility.

The February 4, 2022 action by the Republican National Committee (RNC) to censure Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger was a statement of support for the position of former President Donald Trump. It included a statement that the January 6th incident at the U.S. Capitol was “legitimate political discourse”.

In practice for 220 years, the precedence of transfer of power has become an expectation, and has applied to state and local offices as well. Without the peaceful transfer of power, the American democracy would not exist as we know it. To be certain, there have been instances when the post-election transfer did not go smoothly, notably the Presidential certification process on January 6, 2021. Another example is now unfolding in Wisconsin. As reported in the January 2022 Wisconsin State Journal, most of the appointments by Governor Tony Evers to the Wisconsin Technical College System State Board and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents have not been confirmed by the State Senate. Five of Evers’ picks for the state technical college system board are unconfirmed, with three of them unable to serve because appointees of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker refuse to vacate their seats even though their terms expired last spring. And while Evers’ seven unconfirmed appointees to the UW Board of Regents have been serving without the Senate’s stamp of approval, the Republican lawmaker chairing the committee charged with confirming them recently warned that some may not be approved by the Senate, if and when they are brought forward for a confirmation vote. State Senator Roger Roth, R-Appleton, who chairs the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, said he plans to “start moving on some” of the appointees after wrapping up hearings on some bills this month. But he also entertained the possibility of continuing to deny some appointees a vote over the next year or even booting some from their posts. Senate leadership ultimately makes those decisions, he said. Meanwhile, Governor Evers, stated the individuals he appointed are doing everything that’s asked of them. He added, “The transfer of power is a part of our democracy, and it’s breathtaking, frankly, that Republicans have decided it’s more important to play politics than confirm appointments they know are qualified, dedicated people who want to serve our state”. The verbiage on this issue has gone back and forth between the two parties. It should be noted that this is not the first time there have been extended delays in making appointments for the two Wisconsin higher education boards. When the Democrats controlled the Senate in the early 2000s, it declined to act on Republican Governor Tommy Thompson’s nominations to the UW Board of Regents (which were carried over to the term of his successor, Scott McCallum) for more than two years. When Democratic Governor Jim Doyle was elected, he withdrew the Republican appointees and replaced them with his own.

Both the current delays in appointments and the delays twenty years past are concerning. Higher education is a cornerstone element in a strong state economy. And legislators should have (and do have) the authority to provide legislative oversight on the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Technical College System. Indeed, the legislature imposed an eight year freeze on tuition increases for the University of Wisconsin System as a means of channeling resources in reserves and making tuition affordability a priority. But the delay in board appointments sends another message. It suggests that the legislature can do an “end around” the elected Governor. This can tend to politicize the two higher education systems which can harm the integrity of the State’s higher education delivery. State Senator Roger Roth and the Republican legislative leadership has earned a red flag for the failure to hold timely appointment hearings. Likewise, the Democratic leadership under the Governor McCallum administration has earned red flags as well. George Washington was remarkably accurate in his prognostication. The political parties have sought to “subvert the power of the people to usurp for themselves the reins of government."

What About 51,000 Votes?

December 2021

Of course, we are all familiar with the post-election fallout with the November 2020 Presidential election. President Trump contested the legitimacy of the election results in several key states including Wisconsin. According to USA Today, there were 62 law suits in the contested states All were denied except one, which received minor technical support.

In Wisconsin, Joe Biden received 20,682 more votes than Donald Trump. The crux of the Wisconsin challenge involved what the Trump team concluded was an unusual voting pattern for president. 1,661,339 individuals in Wisconsin voted for a Republican candidate for US Congress. Meanwhile, 1,610,065 voted for Donald Trump. This represents a difference of more than 51,000 votes. The contention was that the difference could only be explained by voter fraud.

Several investigations and audits in Wisconsin followed the November 2020 election, including an analysis by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau. The most notable challenge is a Republican-led audit being conducted by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. This audit has been controversial because of the partisan make up of the investigative group and the lack of transparency, despite the $675,000 cost in public funds. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defended the private nature of the investigation, comparing it to the confidentiality used in a criminal investigation. This position is a stretch given that it has included withholding the names of the investigative staff team for several months. The names of the staff have been recently released. The staff includes a former Trump administration official and the head of the Wisconsin Voter Alliance, which unsuccessfully asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to throw out the results of Wisconsin's presidential election and force the Legislature to certify the state's presidential electors instead).The Gableman group is expected to present their final report in early 2022.

The Wisconsin investigation has drawn national attention. As reported in the New York Times, Senator Ron Johnson (R), said that G.O.P. state lawmakers should unilaterally assert control of federal elections. In his position, state Republicans had the authority to do so even if opposed by the Governor, an argument that runs counter to rulings by the U.S. and Wisconsin Supreme Courts. Republican control of Wisconsin elections is necessary, Senator Johnson explained, because he believes Democrats cheat. “Do I expect Democrats to follow the rules?” said the senator, “Unfortunately, I probably don’t expect them to follow the rules. And other people don’t either, and that’s the problem.”

It should be noted that no legal challenge or investigation in Wisconsin has determined that the presidential outcome should be reversed. The most recent analysis was the investigation by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), an organization committed to supporting conservative causes. The investigation, released on December 7, 2021, examined nearly 20,000 ballots and 29,000 absentee ballot envelopes. They found “limited” evidence of individuals casting ballots when ineligible to do so, such as 130 reported instances of registered felons voting and 42 reported ballots from deceased voters. WILL concluded, “There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. In all likelihood, more eligible voters cast ballots for Joe Biden than Donald Trump,” They added, “We found little direct evidence of fraud, and for the most part, an analysis of the results and voting patterns does not give rise to an inference of fraud.”, as reported in Forbes

In response to the release of the WILL report, State Senator Kathy Bernier (R), who leads the Senate Elections Committee, said the review by former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman is firing up people who don’t understand elections. "Mr. Gableman is coming to my county and I will attend that meeting along with my concealed carry permit, to be perfectly honest, because (the election review) keeps jazzing up the people who think they know what they're talking about, and they don't," Bernier said. “And so I think my advice would be to have Mr. Gableman wrap up sooner rather than later, because the longer we keep this up, the more harm ... we're going to do for Republicans." In response, Robin Vos stated that the review is taking longer because Democrats have not responded to requests for information.

So what caused the 51,000 difference in votes? The evidence clearly points in one direction. In Wisconsin, more than 51,000 people, who voted for a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, voted for someone other than Donald Trump for president…or they simply did not cast a vote for president. What started as an investigation alleging that Democrats stole the election from Donald Trump has evolved into a debate on election rules. And because many Wisconsin citizens still believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump, Republican leaders have an opportunity to press for other revisions to election rules.

Representative Robin Vos has earned a red flag for the lack of transparency in the investigation and for the partisan, divisive position maintained as the basis for the election review. Senator Ron Johnson has also earned a red flag for his call for “one party rule” in the elections process…a statement that does not help to unify Wisconsin or the nation. Meanwhile, State Senator Kathy Bernier has earned a green light for her candid honesty in her statement to call the election investigation to an end. It is clear that she knows where the 51,000 votes are located.

Other Ways to Get Your Information (& Misinformation)

November 2021

Misinformation is a topic that is on the minds of a growing number of people. Much of the discussion is directed at social media and its failure to curb the evolving, rampant distribution of misinformation. In 2016, foreign governments interference was a major issue. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a new wave of misinformation, primarily from within the United States, thereby contributing to a partisan divide on a public health issue. The recent Facebook whistle blower story has exposed another facet to the misinformation issue…the use of algorithms which apply a multiplier for anger and hate-based social media posts. Essentially, this is misinformation through amplification and message distortion using the raw emotions of social media users. Of course, traditional media sources on television and radio have found ways to cash in by feeding partisan information to their conservative or liberal target audience. In this case, the misinformation is distributed by promoting “half for the story” or by amplifying selected news items (I refer to this as highlighting) as if they universally applied to a much larger population. The story may be true. But the message is false or misleading.

As you can see, there are many forms of misinformation. Their are also other media formats that are seeing increased misinformation. Though not as large as the social and traditional media networks, they reach a surprising number of Americans in their message. Along with the positive elements in the distribution of information, they also promote increased amounts of misinformation. Podcasts are one such media format.

The term “podcasts” was first coined in 2004 to describe an emerging trend in audio that allowed consumers to subscribed to and play serial content at any time through an MP3-style device like an iPod. In this media, “anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a broadcaster” as one of its pioneers put it. According to a report by the Brookings Institution Tech Stream, in 2010, only 11% of Americans had reported to have ever listened to a podcast.Today, that number has grown to 57%. Unfortunately, the spread of misinformation in podcasts appears to also be growing. In a preliminary analysis of more than 8,000 episodes of popular political podcasts, approximately one-tenth included potentially false information. Like social media, anyone can publish content. However, unlike social media (where people can directly respond to that content, often in real time), the audience cannot respond directly to it. This reduces the ability of the crowd to fact check misinformation like they might on Twitter. This means that as with social media, the gatekeepers determining who gets to share content are all but eliminated in the podcasting ecosystem, but unlike social media platforms, there is no immediate potential for public debate.

The rise of the internet also led to the explosion of alternative media, as it allows them to reach and expand an audience much more cheaply than mainstream media can. In an analysis in Small Business CHRON, alternative media audiences are typically small, segmented according to their views and perspectives, and mostly reside on the internet. They may be polarized according to their political or social views, but they could also be segmented according to industry, such as engineering or medicine. Alternative news sources promote their content to their specific target audience. This content may or may not be factual, though there are certainly alternative media sources that are generally considered reputable. The misinformation problem here most likely involves “highlighting”. If the alternative media consumer fails to seek other sources of information, they may view the world through a very narrow scope, with a distorted perspective of the larger picture.

Another alternative information source is Quora. With more than 300 million monthly users, Quora offers a cornucopia of “information that you didn’t know you wanted”. Founded in 2009 by former executives from Facebook, Quora was seen as one of the hottest companies in the post-Facebook wave of social media. Its use has leveled off in recent years, primarily because the company has not found the effective profit-generating formula. It’s not really a destination platform, but thanks to its popularity on search engines, it became the sort of place where people ended up accidentally to try and satisfy a curiosity. The content is regulated by the input of its large number of monthly users. As such, it is less likely to be influenced by misinformation. Indeed, it can serve a fact checking purpose of sorts. Users should recognize that its topics are less timely and often obscure.

Another interesting (and I believe encouraging) variation of the alternative media is the growing number of newsletters. In a recent report in Poynter, many local newspapers are branching out by promoting a daily newsletter, featuring timely news and top reporters. The growth is being driven by an opening left by shrinking legacy daily newspaper reports. Those cost increasingly more as print subscriptions now run to mid-hundreds of dollars annually and digital content is moving behind hard paywalls.The local newsletters, by contrast, are free. They appear to be a good fit for younger mobile audiences. They arrive first thing in the morning and provide a quick read about news and local attractions. Because these newsletters are a branch of their traditional parent media organization, they tend to hold the same credibility of the parent organization. Time will tell how this trend will evolve in the future. For the time being, it appears to be fulfilling an important niche.

Information (and misinformation) comes in many formats. Regardless of the source, the media consumer bears responsibility for the distribution of disinformation and misinformation if they share it. It is unrealistic (though a wonderful goal) to expect all Americans to be knowledgeable consumers of media information. We can help educate the public regarding the importance of refraining from sharing information if the source is questionable or unknown. However, the purveyors of disinformation know that a significant number of people will be drawn into the misinformation vortex. Nonetheless, it is reasonable and should be expected that elected officials (as leaders and role models) refrain from sharing misinformation. But that in itself is not enough. When faced with known false information, elected leaders that choose to remain silent (or feign ignorance) actually contribute to the misinformation problem. In hyper-partisan times, the latter problem is quite prevalent. When it comes to misinformation, sharing is bad...silence is equally bad.

Is It Wrong to Believe Fake News?

October 2021

The distribution of false information has likely been around for as long as mankind. Commonly referred to as propaganda, there are numerous examples cited throughout history. A few examples are included in the 2021 BBC Bitesize report. As highlighted, the advent of the printing press aided in the distribution of all information including false information. The advancement of electronic media rapidly accelerated the distribution of all information and the process moved into a higher gear with the advent of social media. The latest Statista report shows that in 2021, more than 4.2 billion people use social media. It is clear that propaganda has been around for many centuries. But the rapid widespread distribution of information has dramatically accelerated its distribution.

During a 2019 press conference alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, President Donald Trump took credit for inventing the term “fake news”. In his words, “I don’t even use fake anymore. I call the fake news now corrupt news because fake isn’t tough enough. And I’m the one that came up with the term—I’m very proud of it, but I think I’m gonna switch it to corrupt news.” It is worth noting that BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman was the person who is credited with popularizing the term “fake news”. Silverman first started using it in 2014 while he was running a research project at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He later made it a prominent part of his messaging when he moved to BuzzFeed in 2015. It is an interesting story because even the topic of fake news can become the subject of fake news. This leads to the question, “Is it wrong to believe fake news”? In looking at this question, we should first recognize that there is a hierarchy of “less than accurate” information swirling today. At the top is Disinformation (also referred to as propaganda), which is defined as false information that is distributed with the explicit intent of leading people’s beliefs in the wrong direction. According to the History of Information, the widespread use of the term disinformation is credited to Joseph Stalin, who crafted the name desinformatsiya, for the name of the propaganda department in the KGB…reportedly because of the term’s appearance of a western origin. The next level is misinformation. Like disinformation, misinformation involves the distribution of false information which may lead people’s beliefs in the wrong direction. However, misinformation may, or may not, be distributed with the intent of causing people to embrace wrong beliefs. In fact, much of the misinformation shared is done with the intent of helping others, even if the information is wrong…and the outcome is harmful. The third level is media bias. Media analysis organizations, such as Media Bias/Fact Check rate over 3000 sources of media world-wide by their content along a spectrum of very liberal to very conservative. However, they also identify sites that tend toward pseudo-science, conspiracy, satire and scientific in their content. they readily recognize that all media has bias. Their stated purpose is to better educate the consumer of media. Given today’s rapid dissemination of information, the average citizen is exposed to a toxic mix of disinformation, misinformation and media bias. Given this, it is not surprising that the overall trust in media has significantly dropped in the last six years (according to Pew Research, August 30 2021). But it is notable that, in the last 6 years, the reduction in trust by Republicans is much greater than Democrats, as described in the graph.

It is not clear what may be driving the widening of the partisan gap in trust since 2016. In simple terms, one could say that these are the “Trump years”. The former President was a frequent critic of the efficacy of the media and, arguably, he had the largest megaphone. But given the rapid evolution of information dissemination, and the active presence of disinformation and misinformation players, it is likely that there are multiple reasons for the growing gap. It simply may not be possible to isolate the source. That brings us back to the question, “Is it wrong to believe fake news?”. In many ways, this can be viewed as increased skepticism...something that could be considered as positive. Skepticism is in itself a guard against disinformation/misinformation/media bias. The Pew Research data indicate that adults, in general, have declining trust in the various media sources. But if adults (and certainly, Republicans) have less trust in media, what is driving the movement to embrace false information regarding COVID-19 vaccinations and the 2020 election outcome? The answer to this question may need more study. It could be that, due to the extreme political divide, members of both parties are more likely to believe a position that is contrary to the beliefs of the other party. Essentially, that is the power of propaganda…to take advantage of the strong feelings of the intended recipient. The further apart we are in a politically polarized society, the more likely we are susceptible to the influence of “fake news”. Of course, the dynamic is undoubtedly more complex when factoring the intent of disinformation, which may come from internal or external sources that are not associated with partisan politics. The intent may be profit, demoralizing beliefs in democratic institutions, or some other motive. Nonetheless, when large groups of people hold strongly held political beliefs, we become a large target for disinformation and misinformation regardless of the intent. Given this, it is not inherently wrong to believe fake news. Rather, it is unfortunate. Ironically, the strength of the American democracy may also be its greatest weakness. These dynamics add to the important role elected leaders play. They can work to build trust or they can stand on the sidelines. It is particularly concerning when elected leaders use disinformation and misinformation for personal or political gain. Working to build trust in a very divided political climate is heavy lifting…with no assurance one can pull a divided population together. But the alternative is so much worse. Ethical elected leaders bear the responsibility to be truthful, whether intended or part of a cavalier statement. As such, former President Donald Trump has earned a red flag for his statements regarding fake news. We should look to support elected leaders who take on the heavy lifting of trust building rather than chose the other pathway. In this regard, perhaps a better question we should be asking is, "As citizens, can we raise the expectation for truthfulness and transparency among elected leaders?".

Does Social Media Contribute to Increased Polarization?

September 2021

Without question, our nation has become much more divided politically in the last 20 years. Many people wonder whether social media has contributed to this increased polarization. A recently released report by the Sterns Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, referred to as the Sterns Report, provides a very comprehensive analysis of this question. The report analyzes the evidence bearing on social media’s role in polarization, assesses the effects of severe divisiveness, and recommends steps the government and the social media industry can take to ameliorate the problem. They determined that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not the original or main cause of rising U.S. political polarization, but the use of these platforms intensifies divisiveness and contributes to its corrosive consequences. They describe “affective polarization”, a form of partisan hostility characterized by seeing one’s opponents as not only wrong on important issues, but also abhorrent, unpatriotic, and a danger to the country’s future. They concluded that this kind of hatred now infects American politics, and social media has been a significant contributing factor.

The study clearly states that the reasons behind the divisive role of social media are complex, with shared responsibility by government and the social media industry. It is recommended that the reader review the entire report. But here are some of the highlights. The major social media companies (notably Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and the major political parties (Republicans and Democrats) bear some shared responsibility in the evolving promotion of “affective polarization”. The social media companies found it in their business interest to encourage polarization because it increased the engagement of users. In a specific example, Facebook’s recommendation algorithm had been steering some people toward pockets of hyper-partisan antagonism, including groups promoting QAnon and other similar extremist organizations. Meanwhile, the major political parties viewed the social media framework as an opportunity to “fire up their base” even though the process used fabrications that promoted the vilification of the opposition party.

The efforts by social media companies to monitor themselves has been inadequate. In a Wall Street Journal report they determined that Facebook knew their systems were driving people apart. The Journal reported about internal 2018 Facebook meeting where company officials clearly stated that “their algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Officials added, “Without changes, the company’s automated systems would steer users to ‘more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform’.” Despite this warning, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other senior executives “largely shelved the basic research,” the Journal reported. The basis for inaction was the concern that conservatives would feel unfairly singled out in the effort.

Efforts by the major social media companies to address hyper-polarization have lacked transparency. in 2018, YouTube began reducing recommendations of borderline content that could misinform users in harmful ways. In the year following this change, YouTube reported that “watch time of borderline content from non-subscribed recommendations dropped by over 70% in the U.S, and they saw a similar drop in other markets as well.” YouTube hasn’t released the underlying data necessary to verify the claimed 70% drop, but independent research appears to support the companies claim. Improved transparency could lead to the development of meaningful industry guidelines.

Independent studies have determined that the extreme divisiveness on social media is asymmetrical. The use of extreme divisiveness is more pronounced among the conservative users when compared to liberal users. The complete reasons are not certain for this asymmetrical pattern. The report acknowledges that the Trump presidency could be a factor. More than any other President in the last 75 years, Donald Trump has consistently (and almost exclusively) focused his message to his base of support, rather than the general population of the United States as a whole. And frequently, his message was confrontive, vilifying the political opposition. Of course, there may be other factors at play. Nonetheless, the asymmetrical pattern could mean that any efforts to dial down divisiveness could be interpreted as censorship and an example of anti-conservative bias. Despite the claims by some that unregulated social media is protected by free speech, there are meaningful and appropriate regulatory steps the government should take to reduce the effects of “affective polarization”. The Sterns Report concludes that the Federal Trade Commission, with the backing of the U.S. Congress, should collaborate with social media companies and other stakeholders to create standards for industry conduct that would then be enforceable by the government. The standards would define the duties of social media companies when addressing hateful, extremist, or threatening content. In addition to data transparency, the standards could set benchmarks for the amount of various categories of harmful content that remains on platforms even after automated and human moderation. If the benchmarks are exceeded, fines could be imposed. The standards could also require minimum protections of user privacy.

We again remind the reader to review the entire Sterns Report. The issues surrounding the role of social media are complex and evolving. Nonetheless, the Sterns Report is perhaps the most thorough analysis to date regarding the potential impact of social media on political divisiveness. The report stresses the importance of taking action to address the concerns raised, despite the complexities. While some may propose a “status quo” approach to social media, the data provided here reinforces that the status quo is in reality a slippery slope.

The following recommendations were included in the Sterns Report:

Recommendations to the Federal Government:
  1. President Biden needs to prioritize a broad government response to the heightening of partisan hatred by social media. By means of one or more speeches, a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission, or via some other high-visibility vehicle, Biden should seek to persuade both lawmakers and the public that to avoid future versions of the Capitol insurrection, we must confront online polarization and its malign consequences.
  2. The House Select Committee investigating the Capitol insurrection should devote ample resources to determining how technology was used to incite the violence on January 6. Panel members must make this a central line of inquiry and use their subpoena power to pursue it.
  3. Lawmakers ought to pass legislation mandating more disclosure about the inner workings of social media platforms. This transparency will allow outside researchers to study how algorithms decide who sees what content so that policy makers, in turn, can craft more informed legislation addressing the pathologies associated with social media use.
  4. Congress should empower the Federal Trade Commission to draft and enforce new standards for industry conduct. Greater transparency is necessary but not sufficient. We advocate legislation authorizing the FTC to collaborate with social media companies and other stakeholders to create industry standards that would be enforceable by the government.
  5. While they grapple with social media as it now exists, legislators need to encourage exploration of alternatives to current business models. Some technologists and entrepreneurs are imagining a radically different, pro-democratic digital future; they deserve public support.

Recommendations to the Social Media Platforms:

  1. Social media companies should adjust algorithms to depolarize platforms more systematically. The platforms should create metrics to measure polarization and improve the “dial-turning” measures they now apply on an ad hoc basis to reduce antagonism during emergencies.
  2. But depolarization must take place transparently. Disclosing what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and what content might potentially get blocked in the process is the only way the platforms can counter suspicions that such measures are designed to manipulate politics or otherwise exert illegitimate influence.
  3. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should each double the size of their human content-moderation corps and make moderators full-fledged employees. This expansion would be expensive, but it would afford front-line reviewers more time to consider difficult content decisions. Bringing them in-house would lead to better supervision of reviewers and more careful analysis.
  4. The industry needs to strengthen engagement with civil society groups that can help identify sources of dis- and misinformation related to elections, public health, and patterns of discrimination. Social media companies should do much more to aid the growing number of nonprofits, including introducing new ways for them to share information with the platforms and one another.
  5. he platforms should reduce rewards for virality, which can contribute to polarization. Obscuring “like” and share counts, for example, might encourage consideration of content on its merits, rather than on whether it provokes outrage, hatred, or fear.

The Importance of Seeking Common Ground

August 2021

Ethical leaders are unifiers who seek to represent the interests of their entire constituency. This often requires the willingness to seek bipartisan solutions, rather than “winner takes all” outcomes. In today’s hyper-partisan world, this is no small task. Yet there are elected officials who are able to demonstrate this ability. In an effort to determine the bipartisan efforts of legislators, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin has developed a scorecard. Essentially, it provides an analysis of voting records...a view offered through the lens of the various special interest groups that rate elected leaders. There are more than 400 special interest groups that provide ratings for federal positions.

These special interest groups cover the full political spectrum (e.g. National Rifle Association, Sierra Club, National Education Association and Club for Growth). provides a fairly complete list of the special interest ratings, updated on an annual basis. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin has used a combined view of the special interest group ratings of an elected leader provide an indicator of that individual’s willingness to understand and represent the diverse interests of their constituency. If the combined ratings tend to fall exclusively into the “low” and “high” ratings, it may be an indicator that the elected leader does not seek middle ground positions. At the same time, ratings that tend to be relatively even across the board (low, moderate, high) may indicate a willingness to seek compromise and find middle ground solutions. The attached image shows the results from the 2020 analysis of Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin. In this example, both senators have not demonstrated practices in the middle ground, as assessed by various special interest groups.

Meanwhile, there is a new analysis that is now available, released in 2021 by the Common Ground Committee. The Committee has developed a scorecard that portrays and compares bipartisan efforts by elected officials. The Common Ground Scorecard measures the degree to which elected officials and candidates for office embody the spirit and practice of a Common Grounder — someone who seeks points of agreement and solutions on social and political issues through listening and productive conversation. It does not assess issue positions, ideology, or any other qualifications. The Common Ground Scorecard awards points on a 100-point scale with an opportunity for 10 additional points. Negative scores can result from the 20 point penalty in the Communication category for any instance of insulting a political opponent in the past three years. Meanwhile, a higher Common Ground Score indicates that the elected official or challenger better embodies the spirit and practice of a Common Grounder, as defined by Common Ground Committee.

As reported by the Common Ground Committee, the scorecard may be used, alongside other factors, to evaluate candidates for public office. They also encourage citizens to celebrate and thank current elected officials who demonstrate strong Common Grounder behaviors, and encourage other elected officials and challengers to elevate their Common Ground behavior by taking specific actions to improve their score. The Common Ground Scorecard analyzes information in ten categories from a number of data sources, including the Lugar Center, FiveThirtyEight, VoteSmart, and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The ratings cover members of congress, the President, Vice President and governors.

What does the scorecard say about Wisconsin legislators?

The scorecard provides an analysis by state. This is a useful analysis for voters and constituents of statewide initiatives. Here is the 2021 scorecard for Wisconsin:

  • Tammy Baldwin (D) - 40
  • Tony Evers (D) - 32
  • Scott Fitzgerald (R) - 29
  • Mike Gallagher (R) - 65
  • Glenn Grothman (R) - 12
  • Ron Johnson (R) - 25
  • Ron Kind (D) - 50
  • Gwen Moore (D) - 26
  • Mark Pocan (D) - 35
  • Bryan Steil (R) - 45
  • Tom Tiffany (R) - 4
  • The numbers show Mike Gallagher (65) and Ron Kind (50) with the highest ratings. Meanwhile, Glenn Grothman (12) and Tom Tiffany (4) have the lowest ratings. While no comparative analysis is fool-proof, the Common Ground Scorecard can be a helpful tool. Numerous studies have verified that political partisanship has increased dramatically in the last 15 years. Our nation has moved farther to the leftand the right, resulting in name-calling, blaming and gridlock. The challenging issues we face are complex and they require our best collective input. It’s as if we are expecting good results using a playbook with half the pages missing, followed by blaming and name-calling rather than real work and follow through. The Common Ground scorecard can help inform citizens to provide or withhold support based upon the elected leader's track record for bipartisan collaboration. Based upon this information, we provide a green light for Rep. Mike Gallagher and Rep. Ron Kind. And we award a red flag to Rep. Glenn Grothman and Rep. Tom Tiffany. And we encourage citizens to factor this information when considering their vote.

    Does National and State Hyper-Partisanship Affect Local Communities?

    July 2021

    The growing split between the two major political parties is well documented. The political conflict at the national level is also focused at a new battleground…the state capitols around this country as legislatures wrestle with issues such as redistricting and voter access. A question remains…does national and state partisanship affect local communities. The answer? It depends.

    In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the evidence appears to support that the divisive politics on this issue has led to local issue conflict as well. For example, there are numerous stories of protests over mask mandates in schools and local communities. Beyond anecdotal information, studies seem to reinforce this situation. In a study by PLOS One, they found that partisanship—measured as party identification, support for President Trump, or left-right ideological positioning—explained the differences in the views of Americans across a wide range of health behaviors and policy preferences. They found that these views were persistent, even when controlling for individual news consumption, the local policy environment, and local pandemic-related deaths.

    The Brookings Institution had similar findings. They found that the pandemic, which could conceivably have brought the country together, has instead contributed to our growing political divides. They concluded that partisan affiliation is often the strongest single predictor of behavior and attitudes about COVID-19, even more powerful than local infection rates or demographic characteristics, such as age and health status. They add that a state’s partisan orientation also explains its public health policies, including the timing and duration of stay-at-home orders, bans on social gathering, and mask mandates.

    In a study by Bloomberg CityLab, they found differently. Americans tend to sort based on where they live, and the study covers more conservative and more liberal regions…expecting a significant partisan divide by region. “We know that voters in our MSA [metropolitan statistical area] data are divided on national policy issues and that this divide is partly explained by party affiliation,” the study authors write. “However, is that necessarily the case for local policy?” They concluded, not so much. They determined that while there are huge differences between Democrats and Republicans on a national scale—especially those who identify as“strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans”—the study found very little difference at all between Democrats and Republicans on a number of local development issues. The chart below summarizes the main findings across these key local issues.

    They concluded that local needs and priorities are a large determinant of their views. Meanwhile, a recent New York Times article shows that, despite firm political views, people can change their course of action. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation tried to determine whether individuals who resisted the COVID-19 vaccination would later change their views. And if so, what were the primary factors. They conducted a national poll in January 2021 and found that 23 percent of the respondents said they were not going to take the vaccine. In a follow up survey, they found that nearly a quarter of those who responded “no” later became vaccinated.

    They concluded that there are three reasons why this group changed their minds. Seeing that millions of other Americans have been safely vaccinated was important. They may have been initially mistrustful of the vaccine. But the sheer numbers of people (including those locally) who were safely vaccinated made a difference. Hearing pro-vaccine messages from doctors, friends and relatives. The people who responded “no” appear to mistrust the media of messages from government leaders. However, they did take to heart messages from friends and relatives and their doctor,people they trust.

    Learning that not being vaccinated will prevent people from doing some things. In some cases, access to travel or attend an event was limited to those who are vaccinated. In these situations, many simply decided to get the vaccine. These “information snapshots” perhaps provide some insight to the question regarding whether national and state hyper-partisanship affects local communities. The first two studies affirm that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a partisan political issue and the dynamics are playing out in local communities where debates on required vaccinations and mask mandates are common. This has significantly complicated something (COVID-19) that would normally be a local community health issue. At the same time, the Bloomberg study shows that most people are actually less divided on local issues. Local needs and priorities tend to be the primary determinant for their position on most issues, rather than political party loyalty. Finally, the Kaiser Foundation study reminds us that some opinions, if not all, can change if local leaders strategically approach the issue. This is an important finding for elected leaders. Some strategies can be more effective than others in shaping public opinion on important, complex issues. And the most effective strategies may, or may not, be the preferred strategies endorsed by the two major political parties. This is where the importance of ethical leadership enters the picture.

  • Seeing that millions of other Americans have been safely vaccinated was important. They may have been initially mistrustful of the vaccine. But the sheer numbers of people (including those locally) who were safely vaccinated made a difference.
  • Hearing pro-vaccine messages from doctors, friends and relatives. The people who responded “no” appear to mistrust the media of messages from government leaders. However, they did take to heart messages from friends and relatives and their doctor…people they trust.
  • Learning that not being vaccinated will prevent people from doing some things. In some cases, access to travel or attend an event was limited to those who are vaccinated. In these situations, many simply decided to get the vaccine.
  • These “information snapshots” perhaps provide some insight to the question regarding whether national and state hyper-partisanship affects local communities. The first two studies affirm that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a partisan political issue and the dynamics are playing out in local communities where debates on required vaccinations and mask mandates are common. This has significantly complicated something (COVID-19) that would normally be a local community health issue. At the same time, the Bloomberg study shows that most people are actually less divided on local issues. Local needs and priorities tend to be the primary determinant for their position on most issues, rather than political party loyalty. Finally, the Kaiser Foundation study reminds us that some opinions, if not all, can change if local leaders strategically approach the issue. This is an important finding for elected leaders. Some strategies can be more effective than others in shaping public opinion on important, complex issues. And the most effective strategies may, or may not, be the preferred strategies endorsed by the two major political parties. This is where the importance of ethical leadership enters the picture.

    Ranked Choice Voting Gets a Big Test in New York City

    June 2021

    New York City will be in the nation’s spotlight as it launches Ranked Choice Voting in the June 21st Mayoral Primary. States and cities across the nation are exploring the use of Ranked Choice Voting and Instant Runoff Voting as better alternatives to the traditional plurality voting system. Advocates believe that democracy works better if people are not forced into an “all or nothing” voting decision.

    Here’s how the New York City program works. If one candidate gets more than 50% of the initial first-choice vote, that person wins the race outright. In this case, it is just like a traditional election. If nobody hits that threshold, the ranked choice analysis is then used. Vote tabulation is done in rounds. In each round, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Votes cast ranking that candidate first are then redistributed to those voters' second choices. That process repeats until there are only two candidates left. The one with the most votes wins.

    The ranked choice system is automated and the results at each step are quickly known. However, the entire voting process in New York City could take longer. Here are the steps to be followed:

  • Mail ballots were able to be cast through Tuesday, June 22nd, though it could take several additional days to arrive. A complete ranked choice analysis can't be done until those ballots are included.
  • After polls close at 9 p.m. Tuesday, New York City's Board of Elections plans to release data on where the vote count stands based only on people's first choices, and only for votes cast in person. A week later, on June 29th, it will run its first ranked choice analysis, using only votes cast in person. Results will be posted on the board's website. They will show who the winner and runner-up would be if no votes had been cast by mail.
  • A week after that, on July 6th, the board will do another round of ranked choice analysis that includes all of the absentee ballots processed as of that date. If there are still uncounted or disputed ballots, the process will be run yet again on July 13th, and every subsequent Tuesday until a winner can be declared.
  • Rank Choice Voting is not the same as Final-Five Voting.

    In Wisconsin, bipartisan legislation has been introduced to provide Final-Five Voting for federal Congressional elections. The Wisconsin-Based nonpartisan organization, Democracy Found, has been the champion for this legislation. They point out that Final-Five Voting consists of two parts. The first is the Top-Five Primary: a single-ballot primary where the top-five candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

    The second is the Instant-Runoff General Election: a grid-style, ranked-choice ballot, where voters pick their favorite candidate. They point out that voters can also pick their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and last place candidates.

    The first-choice votes are tallied and if one candidate gets over 50% (a majority), the election is over, and that candidate wins. If no one has a majority, an instant runoff is triggered. The last-place candidate is eliminated and voters who had chosen that candidate (who is now out of the race) have their single vote transferred to their next-choice. The votes are tallied again; the process continues until one candidate gets a majority.

    Democracy Found adds that Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is often used as a synonym for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) because an Instant Runoff election is enabled by a ranked-choice ballot. However, Ranked-Choice Voting is an umbrella term whereas Instant Runoff Voting is more precise. The proposed Wisconsin legislation contains Instant Runoff Voting.

    Concern About Democracy?

    A driving force in the efforts to implement both Ranked Choice Voting and in Wisconsin, Final-Five Voting, is the growing concern that hyper partisanship is eroding the integrity of the American democracy. We are not seeing bipartisan solutions to some of the major problems faced. The current plurality voting model for primary and general elections is built upon disincentives for bipartisan collaboration. Katherine Gehl, co-author of The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy,describes this well.In her words, “FInal-Five Voting (FFV) is not designed primarily or necessarily to change who gets elected. It’s designed to change what the winners are incented to accomplish and have the freedom to accomplish in Congress. This change in incentives is created, in part, by the power of shifting electoral competition from the primary to the general election. (i.e., Currently approximately 86% of House elections are decided in party primaries because they are in districts “safe” for one party or the other. Therefore in 86% of races, the low-turnout primary, dominated by more ideological voters is the only race that matters. FFV flips this unhelpful dynamic: With FFV, the winner will come from the general election, not the primary. And FFV opens the general election to more competitors leading to healthy competition to serve the public interest.)”

    It is encouraging that this conversation is occurring in Wisconsin, and similar efforts are underway in many corners throughout the nation. We believe the approach taken in Final-Five Voting aligns well with the four principles of encourage elected leaders who are truthful, transparent, unifiers who work to represent the interests of their entire constituency. We also recognize that the implementation of Final-Five Voting may take several legislative cycles to accomplish. It is a journey. But it is an important effort and a journey worth taking. The following is a list of the 22 cosponsors for SB 250/AB 244. We award a green light to them for taking their leadership position with this important legislation. If you support ethical leadership among elected officials, we encourage you to reach out to these legislators to thank them for their support for Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin.


    1. Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield)
    2. Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire)
    3. Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc)
    4. Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee)


    1. Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg)
    2. Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay)
    3. Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo)
    4. Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake)
    5. Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska)
    6. Rep. Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee)
    7. Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire)
    8. Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie)
    9. Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay)
    10. Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha)
    11. Rep. Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield)
    12. Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonie)
    13. Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville)
    14. Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point)
    15. Rep. Ken Skowronski (R-Franklin)
    16. Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison)
    17. Rep. Ron Tusler (R - Harrison)
    18. Rep. Don Vruwink (D-Milton)

    What Does Ethical Leadership Look Like?

    May 2021

    At a time when the political parties are deeply divided, one might ask”what does ethical leadership look like.” To be certain, an elected leader should show their willingness to seek middle ground positions with political opponents. But it really goes beyond that. Their actions should also show sincerity in their willingness to listen (to the best of their ability) to their entire constituency. Finally, they should seek out ways to develop a coalition of support which may include members with opposing views including those from another political party. In recognition of this, it is worth noting the developments in federal police reform legislation that are under development in the U.S. Senate.

    South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott introduced a police reform bill last year which failed to get traction. He has reintroduced a modified bill this year and he reports that his discussions with Democrats on the issue have been fruitful. “This time, my friends on the left aren’t looking for the issue,” Scott said on CBS’s Face The Nation on May 2, 2021. “They’re looking for a solution. And the things that I offered last year are more popular this year. That gives me reasons to be hopeful.”

    He added, “We’ve made progress. We still have to make progress, but we have come a long way since last summer. The important principles that are still outstanding, I think we’ve made progress on all of them.”

    Scott is in talks with Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, alongside members of the House, led by California Democratic Representative Karen Bass. Included in the informal discussions with Scott and Booker are members of a bipartisan group of House lawmakers known as the Problem Solvers Caucus.

    In 2020, Republicans in the Senate had been reluctant to compromise with Democrats on the issue of police reform. Under current Senate rules, a compromise bill approved in the House would require support from all Democrats and at least 10 Republicans to make it to President Joe Biden’s desk. It has been reported that committee hearings on police reform have been held and continuing talks are underway.

    As reported in The Guardian, it appears that Congress is in a position to pass bipartisan legislation on police reform. Of course, there is always the possibility that could stall under external political pressure. However, the process underway is worth a look. Cory Booker has been an effective advocate. In our opinion, Tim Scott has done a noteworthy job in strategically reaching out to members of the other political party. He has thoughtfully listened to constituents. And he has developed a solid reputation for fairness among his Republican colleagues. These are key ingredients in crafting bipartisan legislation in 2021. We are hopeful that meaningful legislation on police reform will come forward this session. However, in any case, the actions taken by Tim Scott, as well as Cory Booker, are noteworthy and indicative of ethical leadership. They are indicative of unification and a commitment to represent their entire constituency. We feel a green light for both is clearly deserved.

    Gravitational Pull: Politicizing Nonpartisan Elections

    April 2021

    April 6, 2020 was slated for nonpartisan elections in Wisconsin. The only statewide election was for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction position. The two candidates for this nonpartisan election were Jill Underly and Deb Kerr. Jill Underly was elected by a 58% to 42% margin.Though the position of State Superintendent is nonpartisan, the two major political parties were actively invested in the race, most notably the Democratic Party of Wisconsin which has donated $775,000 to Jill Underly's campaign for state superintendent. As of March 31, 2021, Underly outspent her opponent by a 7 to 1 margin.

    It is also interesting to note that both candidates running for state superintendent are facing allegations from opposing political parties that they violated ethics rules for public officials. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin, has filed an ethics complaint regarding emails sent by Underly's opponent, Deb Kerr. Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed its own ethics complaint regarding emails sent by Underly. The filings came in the final days of the campaign.

    The complaint about Underly, as filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, accuses her of violating statutes by using her district email address during work time to solicit information for political purposes. Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica School District, sent emails from her district email address to other superintendents' district email addresses, asking them for their personal email addresses. She sent emails with this request at 11:44 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. on Monday, April 20, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

    Meanwhile, the complaint from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin states that Kerr used her district email, in the last few months before her retirement, to talk about business for her new company, Lead Greatly LLC — including correspondence during at least one school day. Specifically, she used school district resources — both her email address and school district time— and her position as Superintendent, to “solicit work for her consulting firm, to set up graphic design assets for her consulting firm, and to generate contacts for her consulting firm”.

    Complaints of ethics violations in a nonpartisan election are not necessarily unusual. And it will ultimately be up to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission to determine the relative weight of the complaints being filed. However, it is particularly noteworthy that the complaints were not filed by the respective campaign organizations...rather they were filed by the two major political parties. Furthermore, both political parties contributed financially to back their preferred candidate. More than $1 million was contributed to both candidates by party-affiliated outside groups and, in the case of Jill Underly, more than half of all campaign funds raised came from the Democratic Party.

    In describing the State Superintendent campaign, perhaps the most telling point is the general acceptance of political party engagement in a nonpartisan election. In the April 7, 2021 edition, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes this election as evidence that the “Democrats are on a roll” in statewide elections. We are at a point where there is a general public acceptance of political party engagement, including money from outside interests, in nonpartisan elections. Unfortunately, this also leads to the blending of partisan and nonpartisan issues.

    Political Convergence?

    Convergence is the tendency for technologies that were originally unrelated to become more closely integrated and even unified as they develop and advance. This has had a profound impact on media and is a direct consequence of the digitization of media content and the popularization of the Internet. Media convergence transforms established industries, services, and work practices and enables entirely new forms of content to emerge. Convergence blurs and blends the barriers between global, national and local information. A local story can rapidly become national news. And a national story can become part of the complex fabric in addressing a local issue.

    This raises a question whether we are experiencing a form of political convergence, where the political parties and party-aligned media are injecting partisan dynamics into nonpartisan elections and the way the issues surrounding them are framed. This can tend to reinforce the polarization of seemingly nonpartisan issues into “Democratic” or “Republican” issues. This adds weight to the process of reaching consensus at all levels of government. It can shift the emphasis (and allegiance) away from “what is good for constituents” toward “what is good for the political party”. Both the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and the Republican Party of Wisconsin have earned red flags for their extensive involvement in a nonpartisan election.

    Jill Underly and Deb Kerr were able to convey their respective positions on the issues leading up to the election. But neither candidate attempted to separate their campaign from the two major political parties. Consequently, it was not possible to determine the degree either candidate would become beholding to the political party after the election. This is not a healthy situation for the voters in a nonpartisan election. It certainly does not focus on meeting the needs of the entire constituency....those not affiliated with either political party. We issue a red flag for both Jill Underly and Deb Kerr.

    Recognition for Ethical Leadership: The LeaderEthics Award

    March 2021

    At the March 23, 2021 annual meeting, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin recognized Representative Steve Doyle (D) and former Representative Lee Nerison (R) with the 2021 LeaderEthics Award. Both have served as distinguished representatives in their respective western Wisconsin districts and they have been champions for collaborative efforts to address issues facing our state. Board president, Brandon Harris reports, "The board was very impressed with the calibre of nominees submitted. We were faced with a very difficult decision." Executive Director, Lee Rasch adds, "This is the first time we are offering this award. We find it very encouraging to have true role models for ethical leadership among elected officials". Rasch adds, "One of the symptoms of the partisan divide is a breakdown of trust in government. Along with that, there may be a failure to recognize ethical leadership in practice. The fact is...we do have elected officials who work to support the principles of ethical leadership, and as a result, are good role models".

    Steve Doyle currently serves as the Wisconsin Assembly Representative for the 94th district. He has served in that role since 2011. In April of 2020, he was named the most bipartisan Assembly representative by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau. The LRB performed a review and found that the Democratic 94th District Representative co-authored the highest number of bills initiated by both Republicans and Democrats during his time in office.

    Representative Doyle said a divided government better serves the people because it helps to maintain balance. In response to receiving this recognition, Steve Doyle said. "I like the fact, surprising as it may seem, that I'm a Democrat in a Republican controlled legislature because I can help bring people to the middle."

    Lee Nerison served as the Assembly Representative for the 96th district in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2018. Throughout his career, he had established a reputation for his independence and for his ability to solve problems through bipartisanship. As a demonstration of his independence, in 2011, Lee was one of only 5 Republicans who did not vote to support Act 10, despite considerable party pressure to support this prominent, high-profile legislation. He simply stated that he listened to his constituents and voted accordingly. During his seven terms in office, Lee was respected for his trustworthiness by his constituents. For example, in one election, despite being outspent in campaign spending by his opponent by an amount several times over, he was re-elected. The voters knew and trusted Lee Nerison.

    Steve Doyle and Lee Nerison worked collaboratively on a number of pieces of legislation over the years. In 2019, they were co-presenters at the first Candidate Development Workshop for LeaderEthics-Wisconsin. The participants gave very high ratings for their message.

    As elected officials, both Steve Doyle and Lee Nerison have earned their recognition with the LeaderEthics Award as role models for the four principles of ethical leadership. And it goes without saying, they have earned a big “green light” from LeaderEthics-Wisconsin.

    Can We Keep Our Republic?

    February 2021

    Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. – Voltaire

    As someone considered an Enemy of the American People, I continue to think that facts are powerful. Call me old-fashioned, but truth matters. As we’ve watched the great hall of democracy denigrated, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin continues to stand for leaders who are honest and truthful, transparent with public information, a unifier rather than a divider, and committed to represent the entire constituency. Is that really asking too much? Not when you consider what’s at stake.

    We’re still dealing with the pandemic and worried about limited supplies of vaccine. Do leadership and government response matter? We’re dealing with disastrous weather in parts of our nation not used to cold, snow and ice. Do leadership and government response matter? Every day, we expect our government to protect us, to keep us safe, to show leadership and respond to our needs.That expectation must remain high. If you find the shameful scenes of Jan. 6 revolting, good. If you’re ready to throw up your hands and throw in the towel, don’t. This is exactly when high expectations of strong ethical behavior must be upheld.

    Yes, we all need to turn down the volume and watch our rhetoric. But it is not the time to ignore our principles, to relax our expectations. The old management maxim says you can expect what you inspect. That’s what LeaderEthics-Wisconsin is all about – setting ethical expectations and holding leaders accountable.

    In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography,“Washington: A Life,” Ron Chernow writes that George Washington believed that the Constitution “can only lay the foundation – the community at large must raise the edifice.” And Chernow writes about the legend of Benjamin Franklin leaving the constitutional deliberations and bumping into a woman he knew, who asked about the form of government that the framers were working to develop. “A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.

    We’ve kept it through a Civil War and through so many scandals. And we’ll keep it as long as we continue to be vigilant, to question, to expect ethical leadership from the people elected and sworn to represent us. This is not the time to fall for absurdities. The atrocities of Jan. 6 remind us that what we expect, and what we inspect, will frame whether we can keep our republic.

    Rusty Cunningham retired from the position of Executive Editor at the La Crosse Tribune in 2020. He is doing freelance work in news media, while enjoying new found flexibility for hobbies and personal interests.

    Instant Runoff Voting: The Time Has Come

    January 2021

    History can be insightful, in the case of the the American democracy, this statement clearly resonates. Entering 2021, we face the challenges of extreme partisanship and the growing political divide in our country. In the minds of many, political party loyalty supersedes all else. It is small wonder that many people are discouraged. It is important to remember that in our nation’s history, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, we were here before. For example, candidates for elected office were appointed by the political parties, often connected to some form of payment. The post-Civil War period was a challenging time for the American democracy. The frustration of citizens at that time led to dramatic efforts to restore integrity to the American democracy and to open new avenues for citizen involvement...the Progressive Era. Primarily on a state by state basis, a number of laws were enacted during this period, many of which remain in place today.

    At this time, the levels of frustration are once again very high. And similar to the pre-Progressive Era, state by state efforts are surfacing. There is a growing effort in many states to take actions to restore balance and integrity in the voting process. One such effort is referred to as Ranked Choice Voting (the effort is called Final Four Voting in the State of Alaska and Instant Runoff Voting in Wisconsin). There are unique approaches in differing states, but the core concept is the same (In order to avoid confusion, we will refer to the Wisconsin version in this article, Instant Runoff Voting-IRV). IRV differs from traditional voting in two critical ways. First, instead of a Republican primary and a Democrat primary, voters will cast their ballots in one, nonpartisan primary election. From the primary, up to five candidates can proceed to the general election. Then, in the general election, voters will be able to rank these “final five” in order of preference. For a single office, like for a mayor or governor, IRV helps to elect a candidate who reflects a majority of voters in a single election even when several viable candidates are in the race. Instant runoff voting is a way to ensure elections are fair for all voters by allowing voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference using the Instant Runoff Voting process.

    Here's How It Works:

    In races where voters select one winner, if a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an "instant runoff." The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote. For further explanation, watch this IRV Video.

    Proponents of IRV tout the advantages. The process gives more options to voters across the political spectrum, thus serving as a counter-weight to the domination in the candidate selection process by extremists in both parties. This opens the door to increased bipartisan voting to address challenging policy issues. Proponents also claim that IRV provides a disincentive to negative advertising, since candidates are more likely to recognize the importance of a higher ranking, even if another candidate may get the top vote. The case for Instant Runoff Voting is well stated in the book The Politics Industry, by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter. Gehl is the former owner of Gehl Foods. She has been active publicly as.... Michael Porter is a noted author and professor in the Harvard Business School. As Gehl and Porter state, the politics industry is a duopoly whose primary interest is to protect the status quo. If an elected official strays from the party line, they are subject to being “primaried” in the next election. Partisan primary elections tend to have low turnout, led by voters with the most extreme positions. For those whose main interest is political survival, the answer is to avoid bipartisan compromise and follow the party line.

    A variation of Instant Runoff Voting is used for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections in Alaska and Maine and for local elections in more than 20 US cities including: Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; Oakland, California; Berkeley, California; San Leandro, California; Takoma Park, Maryland; St. Paul, Minnesota; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Portland, Maine; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and St. Louis Park, Minnesota. New York City is by far the largest voting population in the US that has opted for IRV, pending implementation in 2021. IRV is commonly used for student leadership and other non-governmental elections. It was used by all voters in four states in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries.

    The Effort by States and the Hurdles

    Similar to the Progressive Era, we are seeing action taking place at the state level. Two prominent leaders are the states of Maine and Alaska. In Maine, the Instant Runoff Voting initiative (Measure 5) was approved by the voters on November 8, 2016. In Maine, several lawsuits followed the passage of that state’s ranked-choice ballot measure in 2016. The Maine State Senate requested that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issue an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of instant runoff voting, which was adopted for statewide elections via initiative in November 2016. In their ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court advised that Maine's instant runoff voting law conflicted with the Maine Constitution, but ruled it could be used for federal congressional elections. The new process was used in the November 2020 election.

    In Alaska, the instant runoff voting measure was approved by 50.6% of voters in the November 2020 general election and is slated to take effect in February. The Alaska measure was threefold, and the wording follows :

  • Requiring persons and entities that contribute more than $2000 that were themselves derived from donations, contributions, dues or gifts to disclose the true sources (as defined in law) of political contributions;
  • Replacing partisan primaries with open top-four primaries for state executive, state legislature and congressional offices;
  • Establishing ranked-choice voting for general elections, including the presidential election, in which voters would rank the candidates.
  • Alaska’s measure is broader than Maine’s. It will eliminate the state’s system of partisan primary elections. Instead, all state candidates for each political office would compete in the same primary election. The top four vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. As was the case in Maine, the issue is now facing legal challenges. The timing of any legal challenges are such that even if the measures would be overturned, the issue would be in effect for the 2022. It should be stated, in both states, there was opposition from both political parties.

    Meanwhile in Wisconsin, there are plans to introduce legislation that would allow instant runoff voting for congressional positions. A bipartisan group of state legislators has been identified that will introduce legislation in 2021. Supporters recognize the challenges ahead. The Wisconsin Legislature has been largely inactive for the last twelve months and there is a long list of issues on the agenda. The partisan divide is significant, particularly between the Republican-dominated Legislature and the Democratic Governor. And the November election has surfaced a large constituency that is questioning the very integrity of the election process. Add to that, there exists and reluctance be either party to change the status quo. Make no mistake, it will take persistence for Wisconsin Instant Runoff Voting initiative to become law. But we encourage people to follow these developments and lend support where needed. It is time to follow in the footsteps of the Progressive Era and to fix this cornerstone of the American democracy...the election process.

    *Source: FairVote

    It's Never Too Late to Recognize the Right Thing

    December 2020

    There is a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but more appropriately credited to author Nicholas Sparks...It’s never too late to do the right thing. The reference can be applied in many aspects of life. We learn as we move through life and surrounding conditions can evolve. The quote is framed to remind us that, despite our beliefs and past actions, we should not be bound by them once we realize that a better path exists. This quote is worth our reflection. We may look back at our beliefs and past actions with some degree of regret. From there, we have a choice. We can double down our position. Or we can now “do the right thing”. Of course, we cannot change the past. The latter option reminds us of the importance of the actions we take today. We cannot change the past, but we can take steps to influence the future.

    This is a truism in all aspects of life, including politics. To be certain, there is political pressure to support partisan positions. But as conditions evolve, there may be opportunities to reach out to members of the other political party. Such is the case in an ad that was developed by the Stop the Covid Spread Coalition. In this nonpartisan ad, Congressman Mark Pocan (Democrat) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Republican) jointly promote safe practices in response to the expanded impact of the COVID pandemic in Wisconsin. The message is clear. COVID-19 is not a “left” or “right issue, but a public health issue. Many of us have questioned why leaders in the two major political parties have not taken similar collaborative steps at an earlier stage of the pandemic. However, in the words of Nicholas Sparks, the options boil down to rationalizing the missteps or missed opportunities of the past, or do the right thing now. Fortunately, Congressman Pocan and Speaker Vos opted for the latter.

    Another example of bipartisan collaborative messaging is worth noting. State Representatives Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), Jill Billings (D-La Crosse), and Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua) released a joint statement on December 1, 2020 asking for cooperation with masking, distancing and sanitation guidelines:

    “Recently we had the opportunity to participate in a webinar where a number of medical professionals discussed their current day-to-day experiences as hospital workers during this pandemic. The stories that the hospital staff shared show the reality, and the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wisconsin Hospital Association is asking that we all work together to stop the spread.

    “We are in the midst of a public health crisis. Across the state our hospitals are filling up or are already full, and in some cases, are sending sick people home to make room for the sickest of the sick. In addition, our medical staff are overburdened, stretched too thin, facing their own quarantines, or are so burned out that they cannot continue to work. We can each do our part to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The Wisconsin Hospital Association asks us to wear a mask, wash our hands & socially distance. We need to slow the spread to give our hospitals time to heal those already in their care. If we follow the CDC and Wisconsin Hospital Association’s guidelines together we can accomplish this goal. Please join us in frequently washing your hands, staying socially distant, cleaning and disinfecting frequently used surfaces, covering your coughs and sneezes, and wearing a mask when you are in public, or around people who aren’t a part of your household. When we all take these steps we can slow the spread.”

    Collaborative messages such as these are vitally important. In a climate of political divisiveness, they can be met with outspoken skepticism and negativity. But many citizens very much welcome this approach. It serves as a reminder that we face a common enemy, not the opposing political party, but COVID-19. Mark Pocan, Robin Vos, Steve Doyle, Jill Billings and Loren Oldenburg have earned a green light for their collaborative efforts.

    The quote by Nicholas Sparks is “It’s never too late to do the right thing”. The message provided in this quote is true for us as citizens. Given the politically divided conditions in our country, there will be pushback for elected officials who make public collaborative statements. But we can provide words of support for these actions. This does not mean we agree with all of the policy positions the politicians may represent. It does mean, when we see elected officials acting as unifiers, rather than dividers, we have an opportunity to provide recognition. In this regard, we can adopt the Sparks statement with a slight modification...”It’s never too late to recognize the right thing”.

    As members of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, you may wish to provide recognition for these legislators. You can send a message via email to the following addresses:

  • Representative Mark Pocan - address to: Chief of Staff Glenn Wavrunek
  • Representative Robin Vos
  • Representative Jill Billings
  • Representative Steve Doyle
  • Representative Loren Oldenburg

  • It's Never Too Late to Recognize the Right Thing

    December 2020

    There is a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but more appropriately credited to author Nicholas Sparks...It’s never too late to do the right thing. The reference can be applied in many aspects of life. We learn as we move through life and surrounding conditions can evolve. The quote is framed to remind us that, despite our beliefs and past actions, we should not be bound by them once we realize that a better path exists. This quote is worth our reflection. We may look back at our beliefs and past actions with some degree of regret. From there, we have a choice. We can double down our position. Or we can now “do the right thing”. Of course, we cannot change the past. The latter option reminds us of the importance of the actions we take today. We cannot change the past, but we can take steps to influence the future.

    This is a truism in all aspects of life, including politics. To be certain, there is political pressure to support partisan positions. But as conditions evolve, there may be opportunities to reach out to members of the other political party. Such is the case in an ad that was developed by the Stop the Covid Spread Coalition. In this nonpartisan ad, Congressman Mark Pocan (Democrat) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Republican) jointly promote safe practices in response to the expanded impact of the COVID pandemic in Wisconsin. The message is clear. COVID-19 is not a “left” or “right issue, but a public health issue. Many of us have questioned why leaders in the two major political parties have not taken similar collaborative steps at an earlier stage of the pandemic. However, in the words of Nicholas Sparks, the options boil down to rationalizing the missteps or missed opportunities of the past, or do the right thing now. Fortunately, Congressman Pocan and Speaker Vos opted for the latter.

    Another example of bipartisan collaborative messaging is worth noting. State Representatives Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), Jill Billings (D-La Crosse), and Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua) released a joint statement on December 1, 2020 asking for cooperation with masking, distancing and sanitation guidelines:

    “Recently we had the opportunity to participate in a webinar where a number of medical professionals discussed their current day-to-day experiences as hospital workers during this pandemic. The stories that the hospital staff shared show the reality, and the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wisconsin Hospital Association is asking that we all work together to stop the spread.

    “We are in the midst of a public health crisis. Across the state our hospitals are filling up or are already full, and in some cases, are sending sick people home to make room for the sickest of the sick. In addition, our medical staff are overburdened, stretched too thin, facing their own quarantines, or are so burned out that they cannot continue to work. We can each do our part to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The Wisconsin Hospital Association asks us to wear a mask, wash our hands & socially distance. We need to slow the spread to give our hospitals time to heal those already in their care. If we follow the CDC and Wisconsin Hospital Association’s guidelines together we can accomplish this goal. Please join us in frequently washing your hands, staying socially distant, cleaning and disinfecting frequently used surfaces, covering your coughs and sneezes, and wearing a mask when you are in public, or around people who aren’t a part of your household. When we all take these steps we can slow the spread.”

    Collaborative messages such as these are vitally important. In a climate of political divisiveness, they can be met with outspoken skepticism and negativity. But many citizens very much welcome this approach. It serves as a reminder that we face a common enemy, not the opposing political party, but COVID-19. Mark Pocan, Robin Vos, Steve Doyle, Jill Billings and Loren Oldenburg have earned a green light for their collaborative efforts.

    The quote by Nicholas Sparks is “It’s never too late to do the right thing”. The message provided in this quote is true for us as citizens. Given the politically divided conditions in our country, there will be pushback for elected officials who make public collaborative statements. But we can provide words of support for these actions. This does not mean we agree with all of the policy positions the politicians may represent. It does mean, when we see elected officials acting as unifiers, rather than dividers, we have an opportunity to provide recognition. In this regard, we can adopt the Sparks statement with a slight modification...”It’s never too late to recognize the right thing”.

    As members of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, you may wish to provide recognition for these legislators. You can send a message via email to the following addresses:

  • Representative Mark Pocan - address to: Chief of Staff Glenn Wavrunek
  • Representative Robin Vos
  • Representative Jill Billings
  • Representative Steve Doyle
  • Representative Loren Oldenburg
  • Bipartisanship is a More Than Splitting the Difference

    October 2020

    The November 2020 election is considered to be a high stakes determination on a number of important policy issues. One area at stake is bipartisanship. This is not a legislative policy, rather it is a pathway to address policy issues. Bipartisanship has fallen into a pattern of disuse. The partisan divide has more than doubled in the last decade according to the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center has determined that political party loyalty is the overwhelming factor in the growing partisan divide (when compared to age, level of education, religious attendance, race or gender). Why is that? There are a number of reasons.

    To be certain, both political parties have been actively promoting strategies to prevail on policy issues through achieving a political majority...a winner takes all approach. This in itself is not new, though there has been a conscious effort to bypass some of the balancing legislative protocols such as the conference committee and the filibuster. The phrase "elections matter" is often heard today. Of course, this is not the first time our nation has been deeply divided. To be certain, we were divided during the Vietnam Nam war period. But there are other emerging factors at play today. As we have discussed in past issues of The Ethics Report, there is a convergence of 1) a dramatic rise in reliance on social media and 2) the expertly designed interference to divide Americans. For example, in 2016, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) inserted extensive fabricated posts on social media, designed play upon partisan fears and racial animosity. The campaign of fabricated posts by the IRA led to more than 31 million “likes” and “shares” on Facebook and Instagram. Remember, these were fabricated posts, designed to divide U.S. citizens and erode the integrity of the American democracy.

    What do voters think about bipartisanship?

    It appears that voters have mixed feelings about bipartisanship. Many view the divisive political climate with concern. The 2019 Pew Research Center study showed 85 percent of Americans feel the political climate to be less respectful, fact-based and substantive. It raises a legitimate question...can America truly be great if our nation is so deeply divided?

    At the same time, there are conscious efforts to promote bipartisanship. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin recognizes the work of the Bipartisan Policy Center , a think tank that promotes bipartisan solutions to many of the nation’s most pressing policy issues. BPC has developed suggested policy statements and pathways for addressing: Campus Free Expression, Corporate Governance, Economy, Education, Elections, Governance, Health, Immigration, Infrastructure, and Technology. These policy solutions are intended to provide viable options for members of the two major political parties to craft legislation that will measurably improve or address conditions. And the policy solutions are intended to inform citizens that viable bipartisan options do exist.

    We also like the work of Braver Angels This organization promotes civil dialog among citizens with both firmly-held conservative and liberal views. Their approach involves grassroots workshops held in various communities all around the country. Their goal is to help citizens better understand and respectfully listen to and consider the views of others.

    But at the same time, the political parties are promoting negative advertising in record numbers. According to NBC News a report by Advertising Analytics projects campaign advertising in 2020 to reach $6.7 billion, most of which will be spent on attack ads. Although people report that they are tired of the negative advertising, it continues to thrive. To quote Joe Heim, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, negative advertising survives “because it works”. It is difficult for an elected official to endure a nasty campaign, and then turn around and embrace the opposition responsible for the negativity.

    Can the Partisan Divide be Healed?

    The future prospects of increased bipartisanship are uncertain. The public appears to be growing weary of the extreme political divisiveness. But it is an uphill struggle to overcome the forces that promote the divide. Efforts by groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and Braver Angels help because they encourage public awareness regarding the viability and benefits of well-crafted bipartisanship. This is an essential step in the uphill climb. Voters must first recognize that a bipartisan approach can lead to better and more lasting outcomes for everyone. From there, voters must support candidates who actively engage in bipartisan efforts. People must believe that “bipartisanship works”.

    Bipartisanship is More Than Splitting the Difference

    The initial steps toward increased bipartisanship are important, but there will be limited results unless elected officials actively work to support their entire constituency (which you may recognize as one of the four principles of ethical leadership). This involves engaging with members on the other side of the aisle to better understand their viewpoint and to build trust. This requires an open mind. Ronald Reagan said about the evolving relations with the former Soviet Union, “trust, but verify”. That process involves both formal and informal engagement and communication. An example of the formal approach is the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. As stated by Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves, “This committee’s mission is to make Congress work better for the American people, which includes boosting transparency and finding ways to ‘open up’ the People’s House with just a click of a mouse”. Engagement and communication can also be done informally. A wonderful example is the friendship between Supreme Court Justices Anthony Scalia (a conservative) and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (a liberal). Their philosophy on law was significantly different, yet their friendship was real. They certainly earn a posthumous green light from our organization.

    Without Expectations, Is Moral Character Possible?

    September 2020

    Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama spoke at the convocation at Liberty University, the Christian school with more than 100,000 students enrolled. Liberty University is recognized for its conservative core philosophy. Johnson is considered to be a trusted lieutenant of Barack Obama.

    He spoke of five traits that constitute a good leader: “tell the truth, build consensus, be inclusive, never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, and follow the Golden Rule”.

    He went on to state, “We no longer expect our political leaders to tell us the truth and we no longer expect our political leaders to play by the rules. Our expectations of our political leaders have sunk so low we now accept from them personal behavior that would be unacceptable for our children, our students, our employees, or cadets, soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines under our military command.” He added that “leaders too often seek to gain attention by pandering to our fears, our suspicions and our prejudices.” He did not specify names or examples, allowing the students to draw their own conclusions.

    His remarks regarding the five traits of leadership bear a strong resemblance to the four principles of ethical leadership: truthfulness, transparency, acting as a unifier and representing all constituents. Although his remarks clearly address leadership behavior, he was also speaking to the expectations of citizens. He was asking the students at Liberty University...why do we accept behavior from political leaders that we would not accept from family, friends, co-workers or employees?

    The Dynamics of Political Party Loyalty

    Political polarization is a major factor of influence on the words and actions of leaders. Conservative author David French, in the September 11, 2020 article in The Dispatch, The French Press, takes note of this dynamic. In the subsequent dialog following the revelation in the Bob Woodward book, Rage, where President Trump revealed that he knew that COVID-19 was far deadlier than the flu, many saw it as an issue of untruthfulness. French stated, “When critics of the president declared, beginning even in 2015, that - character is destiny, -this is what we meant. When the time would come to tell the hard truths, the president was likely to fail—and fail he did.” He also added, “I’ve seen folks in the conservative media—including friends of mine—argue that if the president had been sounding the alarm accurately and consistently that he would have faced immediate pushback from the Democrats and the media. I agree that the reality of negative polarization means that there are too many people who oppose anything Trump says simply because Trump said it.” French goes on to add, “But that does not relieve the president of the obligation to tell the truth.” Such is the challenge of leadership in these politically polarized times, certainly for ethical leadership. Jeh Johnson is calling for leaders to follow their moral compass, even though they will face intense criticism, regardless of their position. Donald Trump has earned a red flag, perhaps the largest red flag awarded as of yet, for his admission that he was aware of the seriousness of COVID-19, yet he wanted to play it down rather than speak out with transparency.

    Does the burden of ethical leadership lie solely on leaders?

    The research supports the importance of leaders as role models. In many ways, leaders can help shape the actions and beliefs of others. And even though in the American democracy, we elect representatives as well as those that serve in the executive branch of government, all elected officials (for better or worse) are role models. In a time of intense political polarization, we need leaders who work at unification...leaders who are willing to do the heavy lifting...leaders as described by Jeh Johnson.

    It we also need to cultivate the expectation of ethical leadership among citizens. That is what Johnson was referring to when he said we are finding ourselves accepting from political leaders “personal behavior that would be unacceptable” for others in everyday life. In fact, our silence is beyond acceptance, it reflects endorsement.

    What can citizens do to raise the expectation of ethical leadership?

    In the American democracy, we are provided the opportunity in a number of ways. We can band together to address “large scale” issues. For example, in the November 2019 issue of The Ethics Report, we talked about the work of the “Badass Grandmas of North Dakota”, who succeeded in passing a state constitutional amendment in 2018 to address the lack transparency in state government. They accomplished this even though they were outspent by the opposition 20 to 1. Clearly, average citizens can achieve some amazing things. But there are also “small scale” steps citizens can take at the local level. They can raise questions about truthfulness, transparency, unification and across-the-board representation at local candidate forums. They can express their thoughts to traditional and social media sources. They can support candidates that exemplify the values of ethical leadership. Indeed, these “small scale” steps, in the aggregate, can at times have an even greater effect than some of the “large scale” efforts because they start at the local level where change can be more readily embraced. For example, candidates who are seeking to be elected to the state assembly are going to be more in tune with the stated beliefs in their home community. Imagine the effect if the conversation on ethical leadership is occurring in many communities across the state and nation. Citizens are role models too.

    The Presidential Election: Things We Don't Like...Things We Like?

    August 2020

    2020 will be a year many of us would like to forget. The pandemic, the economic downturn and the partisan divisiveness have taken a toll. And the presidential election has become fully embroiled in these elements in an ongoing and seemingly endless way. Yet, despite these conditions, there may be some watershed moments in this year's election as well. Some things, born out of necessity in 2020, may become part of the new way forward in future years. At the risk of sounding pretentious, here are some things we don't like about this year's election...and some things we like.

  • We don't like the extreme negativity of the ads. Of course, negative ads are not new. And as political science leaders explain, they are used because the data supports that they energize the support base for the campaign(s) that use(s) them. However, in this year's cycle, the ads began actively running nearly a year ahead of the November election. Many are very weary of the ads. We don't like the way the pandemic has become a political issue. The President's performance in a time of crisis is an appropriate point for election debate. However, the issues of face masks and business closings have evolved into an emotional partisan debate, pitting individual freedom against public health. For our country, this is a lose/lose debate.
  • We don't like the way the President is casting doubt (through repeated tweets and public statements) on the integrity of the election if mail-in voting becomes the predominant format for voting in November 2020. There is nothing more vitally important to the American democracy than the integrity of the voting process. It is the responsibility of the President and the Congress to ensure voting integrity. Casting doubt on the integrity of the election, without taking appropriate action, is simply irresponsible.
  • We don't like foreign governments interfering with the elections in the U.S. Through the efforts of the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, many of these attempts have been exposed and thwarted. However, the President should be taking a strong stand against these interference efforts. To date, his words and actions on this issue are lukewarm at best. Of course, there are a number of other items that could make the "don't like" list. These are the ones that stand out most for us. However, there are also some things on our "do like" list.
  • We do like some of the virtual elements from the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. The traditional DNC and RNC has devolved into a stale, tradition-bound process that has little significance to the electoral process. The virtual elements introduced this year brought in variety and engagement lacking in recent years. In future national elections, there will not be (hopefully) a pandemic to address. However, hopefully some of the virtual creativity and innovation remains.
  • We do like the way groups have organized to protect and promote the integrity of the electoral process. One example is the national VoteSafe Coalition process. This process is developing in many states. It involves developing a bipartisan coalition of prominent current and former elected leaders to promote voting...and safe voting in the upcoming election, despite the conditions of the pandemic. At a time of extreme partisanship, these bipartisan efforts are like a big breath of fresh air.
  • Of course it is important to remember that there are still more than two months to go (as of this writing) before the November 3rd election. And there may be developments that are yet to unfold. The vital element to consider, regardless of the things you do not like, or like, about the election? It is important to vote. The American democracy may not be perfect, but in the absence of active and engaged citizen voting, all of the alternative outcomes are much worse.
  • Lee Rasch

    The Heavy Lifting of Leadership for Elected Officials

    July 2020

    Is the American Democracy fractured? What is causing the cracks? By all accounts, the growing partisan divide and “silo mentality" of the major political parties is a major factor.

    In 1988, Phil S. Ensor coined the term “silo mentality” which described the condition where the subsystems or departments in an organization are in conflict. For example, different departments may fight for budget dollars, head count and control over direction, seemingly intent on winning no matter the effect on the overall company or organization.

    In large corporations, silos can get so intense as to bring the competitive drive of the company to a halt. Ironically, the participants in the conflict often do not recognize the damage being caused. Silos can develop anywhere. Unfortunately, they are also common in healthcare and higher education.

    Over the years, there have been numerous studies on the silo mentality and how to overcome it. Nearly all conclude that leadership is an essential factor. Leaders can communicate common, overriding goals that are essential for organization success. They incorporate cross-divisional communication practices. They can reward teamwork. They can call out internal conflict and remove people, if needed, who are the repeated source of conflict. In other words, they can do the “heavy lifting” needed to break down the silo mentality. On the flip side, if leaders ignore or contribute to the conflict, the climate worsens. In my words, all hell breaks loose.

    Silos and turf wars are particularly challenging in the political environment, where the political parties have differing interests. The growing partisanship differences between Democrats and Republicans are inherently more challenging because the differing interests can be very fluid and, in some cases, lack integrity. At the national level, the President, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House can play a major role in defining the common, overriding goals. This is not happening now, despite the presence of an apolitical national threat in COVID-19. However, all elected officials at the national, state and local levels also bear some responsibility of the partisan fractures. This is clearly the case for those elected officials who refuse to reach out to members of the other side.

    To be certain, campaign funding from special interest groups, media bias and misinformation on social media can make “reaching out to the other side” very difficult. But many Americans are seeking bipartisan solutions as exemplified by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship. The U.S. Chamber is the world’s largest business organization and they recognize the inherent problems associated with a deeply divided political climate. It is a challenge in today’s climate for any elected official to take on the heavy lifting of bipartisan leadership. But it is needed now more than ever. Elected officials can be readily accused of selling out to the other party. Therefore it is important to support citizen efforts to promote positive examples bipartisanship. The U.S Chamber of Commerce has earned a green light for the Jefferson-Hamilton Award.

    Of course, when we vote, every citizen has the opportunity to recognize those elected officials who are willing to do the heavy lifting. As citizens, through voting, we can step outside of the partisanship silo. We can recognize the damage that is occurring and take a stand to bring about bipartisan solutions for the complex problems we face. Our country will be the better for it.

    2020...Beyond 2020

    June 2020

    2020 in the United States will be a year to remember and, for many, a year to forget. In a matter of four months (March to June), we have experienced the surge in COVID-19 infections resulting in varying stay-at-home polices in each of the states. During the four month timeframe, more than 100,000 Americans died from the virus. The pandemic, coupled with the closing of many businesses, led to a dramatic downturn in the economy and an increase in unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. By early May, pressure was building to reopen the economy, resulting in citizen protests in a number of state capitals. Most states began relaxing stay-at-home policies in May. Then on May 25th, George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis. This event spurred massive protests in numerous cities across the country. There were peaceful protests as well as violence and looting. And there was an emergence of dialog and actions designed to address systemic racism. Some counter-protests are now also emerging. Throughout all of this, the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing.

    For people of the Baby Boom generation, the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 are reminiscent of the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. There are differences, of course. The dramatic, sudden and combined impact of the pandemic and economic recession is something this nation has never experienced. Meanwhile, the controversial war in Viet Nam was more like slowly sinking in quicksand.

    Clearly, elected leaders in both political parties are struggling with the dynamics in 2020. The November elections are a little more than four months away. To their credit, national leaders have passed three stimulus bills, focusing on the combined impact of the pandemic and the economy. And national legislation is moving rapidly, designed to address systemic racism and excessive force by the police. However, throughout this process, the rhetoric and actions of President Trump have not been unifying...particularly at a time when the pandemic...a nonpartisan threat...looms large. As noted by the Pew Research Center, we are a nation divided at this time President Trump has earned a red flag by his divisive words and actions.

    The News Media Is Not Helping

    This divisiveness is exacerbated by some of the major players in cable news media. The Poynter Report (a prominent media watch dog) cited the recent news event outside the White House. The following is an excerpt from their June 3, 2020 report.

    Two different audiences - and countries, perhaps - are wrapped up (with) two chyrons running simultaneously as President Trump stood in front of a church following his brief remarks Monday

    CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”

    Fox News: “President Trump visits historic St. John’s Church in DC amid protests.”

    And later, this from CNN: Trump says he's an "ally of all peaceful protestors" as police fire tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors near WH"

    Poynter goes on to report that this excerpt is just the initial snapshot of the detailed opinion-based coverage later that evening. They note that rubber bullets were not fired (as reported by CNN). Meanwhile, they point out that Fox News coverage appears to be clueless to the events on hand. Poynter states that it is as if these major media outlets are simultaneously describing two different countries.

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    We are at the mid-point of 2020 and clearly in a chaotic state. The prospects of a rapid turnaround in 2021 are not promising. David Gergen (political commentator and former presidential advisor in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations) stated in a 2020 visit to La Crosse, “It is very possible that, regardless of who wins the Presidential election in November, they will have a very difficult time governing for the next four years.” We hope he is wrong in this prediction. But we should not ignore the gravity of the situation.

    Is Wisconsin Broken Politically?

    May 2020

    Some people are asking. In the case of several recent high-priority, high-profile issues, it seems elected leaders have retreated into their respective political camps rather than attempt to address the collective needs of the state. The April primary election and the Supreme Court ruling on the Safer At Home declaration are two examples. Our nation might never gotten off the ground if our Founders used a similar approach to problem resolution.

    Of course, Wisconsin is not unique to divisive politics. Nationally, the divide between the two major political parties has grown dramatically in the last 15 years. Pew Research has been tracking partisan beliefs for the past twenty-five years. They asked persons who are declared Republicans and Democrats to respond to common core questions. The following charts demonstrate their findings.

    In 1994 and 2004, the median beliefs on core issues were actually fairly close, unlike where they are today. In a related study, Pew Research determined that the overwhelming factor in the growing political divide is not race, education-level, religious attendance, age or gender. Rather it is political party loyalty. As an elected official, an ethical leader should work to represent the needs of their entire constituency, not just those who belong to the same political party.

    Unfortunately, the actions in Wisconsin during the pandemic are following this divisive political pattern. The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a virus that does not determine those infected based upon their political party affiliation. It should be viewed as a common enemy, with a threat to both the health of our population and to our economic well-being. Elected officials should focus on the needs of the people of Wisconsin and commit every effort to address both of these threats, not pick sides.

    As citizens, we should be looking for the elected officials from both parties to stand up to their own party leaders and promote common-sense, collaborative actions to meet the pandemic threat head on. It is our best way through this. And it might open the door to a better, healthier political process in our state.

    The Power of Trust in Leadership

    April 2020

    One of the goals of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin is to help to prepare the next generation of ethical leaders among elected officials. The purpose of these workshops is to provide information for potential candidates for local elections (e.g. school board or city council) on how to run on an ethical leadership platform. The intent is to prepare elected officials in entry level positions to develop practices and a grassroots network to help them continue on an ethical leadership platform should they decide to seek a higher elected office at some future time.

    In September 2019, we held the Candidate Development Workshop in La Crosse. We had 12 participants, half were younger (under 35) and five of twelve were women. Teri Lehrke, Clerk in the City of La Crosse, provided information on the “nuts and bolts” of becoming a candidate. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin provided information regarding ethical leadership. Following that, participants had an opportunity to hear from two legislative officials, Steve Doyle (D), Representative of the 94th Assembly District in Wisconsin; and Lee Nerison (R), Former Representative of the 96th Assembly District of Wisconsin who provided insight regarding their experience (and challenges) in ethical leadership.

    Both did an exemplary job in their presentation. Clearly, it was the highlight of the workshop. In this particular article, we are going to highlight the presentation of Lee Nerison (I will have an opportunity to highlight Steve Doyle in a future article). Lee Nerison was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and he served in that role until the end of 2018. He established himself as an independent thinker and he was one of only four Republicans who opposed Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 legislation in 2011. Act 10 was controversial in that it severely limited collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. At the workshop, Lee explained that he sought input from constituents and the majority opposed the changes proposed in Act 10. He informed his Republican colleagues that he was going to remain steadfast in his position. Ultimately, Act 10 passed and Lee likely lost some influence within his party. Nonetheless, he continued to build his reputation as an advocate for agriculture issues and the district he served.

    Lee went on to share an experience a few years after Act 10. Lee was targeted by the other political party as holding an Assembly District seat that could be won. Significant money from outside the district was funneled into his opponents campaign. Lee explained that he was “outspent” by his opponent by a five to one margin. Despite the campaign finance disparity, Lee Nerison won re-election. Lee’s reputation for integrity out-weighed the pressure from substantial opposition campaign funding.

    When I speak to groups about LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, I am frequently asked, “How can someone be an ethical leader given the existence of political party pressure and the high cost of political campaigns?”. I feel the best answer I can provide is to point to Lee Nerison. He earns a “big green light” for his exemplary service as an ethical leader.

    Can You Detect Media Bias?

    March 2020

    As shared in several issues of The Ethics Report, the trust in government has been eroding. At the same time, the trust in media has also been on a decline.

    An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts poll, released November 20th, found that about two in ten Americans trust that the media’s reporting is based on facts. Only 21% of Americans always or often trust the media and 47% sometimes have that trust and 31% said that they rarely or never believe that media reports based on facts.

    A September 2019 Gallup poll showed that only 41% of Americans have trust in the media. This trust level reverses the recent upward trend from the low point of 2016 when the trust level was 32%. The following chart shows the long-term pattern from Gallup polls.

    The trend in media trust shows an increasing partisan split over the past twenty years, with Democrats showing more trust in media sources than Republicans. The following chart shows this pattern.

    The Gallup poll showed notable increases in distrust of CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post among Republicans. Meanwhile, The Sean Hannity Show and Breitbart News are now distrusted by a larger share of Democrats than in 2014.

    Two Sources We Recommend

    The net result of the increased mistrust in the media leads to the basic question, “who can you trust?”. In answering this question, we should look in two areas, a) the tendencies of bias in the various media sources, and b) the tendencies of accuracy in those media sources. We recommend looking into AllSides and Media Bias/Fact Check,

    AllSides maintains a list of nearly 600 media outlets and writers. These outlets and writers are rated and placed into the following categories: Left, Lean Left, Center, Lean Right, Right and Mixed. The ratings are helpful to the media consumer. One can look at their favorite media sources and gain a better understanding of the messaging they are receiving. It also allow the consumer to seek out new media sources in the effort to develop a more balanced perspective. AllSides also does a Left, Center, Right comparison of stories with similar topics. This is helpful in developing a more balanced perspective of controversial issues. AllSides also solicits reader feedback (What Do You Think?) in their ratings. As such, they may adjust ratings over time based upon feedback. Furthermore, the reader feedback is listed next to the AllSides rating.

    Media Bias/Fact Check (MB/FC) also rates various media sources. They are considerably more comprehensive with more than 3000 sources in their data base world-wide. They rate media sources in the following categories: Left, Left-Center, Least-Biased, Right-Center and Right. They also categorize media sources identified as: Pro-Science, Conspiracy-Pseudoscience, Questionable Sources and Satire. MB/FC provides an added service by rating the fact check organizations. Essentially, they fact check the fact checkers.

    All Media Has Bias

    Both of these websites can serve as an excellent resource for a “quick check” when one comes across an article with a questionable message. They can also help us “check ourselves” in order to gain a better understanding of our habits for media consumption. Both sites recognize that all media has bias. AllSides addresses this through the feedback from readers. MB/FC addresses this through their “Least Biased” rating category. It should also be pointed out that the two sites differ in their ratings for some of the same media sources (e.g. BBC has a Left-Center rating on MB/FC, while maintaining a Center rating on AllSides). Alas, no system is perfect. But we offer a green light for both sites. In fact, we recommend that you bookmark both sites and spend some time browsing the information on them. If you are interested in promoting ethical leadership, it will be time well spent. And it may lead to the rebuilding of trust in media.

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