More than 60 people attended each of four recent Town Hall meetings on key election issues with University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty members. The meetings in Appleton, Madison, Milwaukee, and suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, were sponsored by UW–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and Department of Political Science along with the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
Audience members asked more than a dozen questions at each 90-minute meeting, and many stayed after the formal discussion to speak with the panelists.
Responding to the questions in Milwaukee about poverty, the faculty members shared their research on education, incarceration, and other issues. Professor Emeritus John Witte, whose research focuses on K-12 education policy, suggested a neighborhood approach.
“I think you can do it in Milwaukee because it’s small enough,” Witte said, citing the predominately Hispanic Walker’s Point neighborhood and its United Community Center as examples.
One of the Community Center’s goals for improving that area on Milwaukee’s south side, Witte explained, was to have homes in the neighborhood become owner-occupied. “And I think it has dramatically come back from a very low point,” he said.
Another audience member asked how the panelists and other people can influence public policy when “facts are less important than ideology and emotions” in elections.
“One of the things we’re doing at the university is meeting legislators where they’re at in terms of their interest in moving policy in a strong and positive way,” said Professor Susan Yackee, who moderated the meetings in Milwaukee and Madison. One example, she said, is the annual Family Impact Seminar.
“This is driven by our elected state legislators on both sides of the aisle,” said Yackee. La Follette School Associate Director Hilary Shager (MPA ’05, PhD ’12) and Outreach Specialist Heidi Normandin (MA ’98) meet with a bipartisan group of legislators who decide on a topic that they want to learn about using evidence-based research, Yackee added.
Sociology Professor Mike Massoglia, who grew up in central Wisconsin, acknowledged that it can be difficult when the research suggests one path, but elected officials take another.
Whether it’s through research or teaching, he said, his obligation as a professor at UW-Madison is to educate the state. “I believe in my core that social science data can inform the public and make a better and more just world for us to live in,” Massoglia said. “I believe it as much as I believe the sun will rise tomorrow.”
In addition to sharing his research with individual legislators, he teaches students how to use data and to understand the pluses and minuses of various policies. “The world is much more complicated than political soundbites,” Massoglia said.
The Madison Town Hall meeting focused on health care, climate/energy, and criminal justice. One audience member asked why there seems to be an unwillingness to address improprieties at the highest level.
Cecelia Klingele, an assistant professor in the Law School, responded by explaining how district attorneys (DAs) and attorneys general make decisions to bring or not bring charges, including resource allocation and confidence in finding proof to persuade a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. “I can’t answer why specific decisions get made in specific cases, except to say that it’s a really hard call and a lot of times there’s a good reason to have gone the other direction, and a prosecutor is making the best call they can, weighing a lot of factors,” she said.
Another person asked about the United States having a difficult time coming to grips with climate change. Associate Professor Greg Nemet acknowledged that the country went from a leadership role in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s to being a laggard. Yet, he remains upbeat.
“One of the biggest reasons to be optimistic is that there are a lot of gains to being a leader in terms of fostering new industries that could be important in the future, generating new sources of employment that’s important for a lot of places where growth has been slow, and there are other benefits,” he said. “It’s not all about paying the costs and let everyone else free-ride.
here are other benefits in terms of your negotiating positions on other issues and being ahead of the curve.”
Health care was a frequent topic as well. One audience member asked why the United States has the most expensive health care, yet it’s among the worst for health outcomes. Professor Jason Fletcher explained that one of the reasons is that the U.S. health care system is drastically different from other advanced countries, many of which have single-payer systems rather than employer-sponsored.
On the bright side, Fletcher said, 20 million more people have health insurance since the Affordable Care Act was enacted. The impact on costs is much more uncertain for many reasons, including “when you reduce costs, you reduce someone’s livelihood,” he said.
Yet, the United States is in unchartered territory. “Without a real complete redo, it’s hard to know how we could move from paying three times the advanced-country rate to something more like 1½ times,” Fletcher said. “Even cutting a couple thousand dollars per-capita off is real money.”
Professor David Canon, chair of the Department of Political Science, moderated the discussions in Appleton and in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. “UW–Madison alumni and others in the audience asked thought-provoking questions of the panelists – all experts in their fields of study who share a deep commitment to helping inform public debates,” he said.
Professor Yoi Herrera, Associate Professor Nils Ringe, and Assistant Professor Joseph Conti discussed foreign affairs and immigration in Appleton on October 5. The following week, Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication Michael Wagner and Political Science Professors Ken Mayer and Howard Schweber focused on polarization and politics in Lake Elmo on October 10.