The Larson Report

A Capitol Update from State Senator Chris Larson


Hello neighbor,

 

It’s been almost two months since our last Larson Report. In that time, the early fall warmth has given way to a brisk pre-winter chill, the Packers are building toward a run at the title, and Wisconsin selected a new President and state legislature. Unfortunately, our current President and his allies in the Republican Party, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and State Representative Joe Sanfelippo, have done all they can to sow discord and disinformation, and even sought to overturn the results of this election. 

Joes

They’ve done all of this while the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its 9th month in Wisconsin, has been spiraling ever-further out of control. By any measure, our state and our democracy are on shaky ground. Trust in our institutions are at all-time lows, while polarization in our politics remains unbearably high. Even when broad consensus emerges among the public on key issues, gridlock and gamesmanship have prevented the will of the people from becoming the law of the land.

Perhaps no single problem more clearly exemplifies this failure of our democracy as it exists today than the COVID-19 crisis. At a time when we needed a coordinated, capable, and unified federal response, what we got instead was a slipshod, decentralized, and ineffectual mess - a mess that has cost us billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives.

How did we get here, who is to blame, and what can we do to ensure our government meets the needs of all people, not just the wealthy and well-connected? The answers to these questions are complex, but in the end it comes down to how we consume information, voting (and voter suppression), money in politics, and gerrymandering.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be going into each of these areas in some detail. I’ll answer questions like why, despite Wisconsin being split roughly 50/50 in most statewide elections, does our state legislature have more than a 60/40 Republican majority? What barriers to voting exist in our state, and how can we fix them? How can we mitigate the influence of big money? This week, I’ll be discussing the role of information (and misinformation) in our politics.

As always, feel free to reply directly to this email with any questions or comments you might have. If you know someone you think would be interested in receiving our emails, be sure to share the link below so they can sign up!

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It is my privilege to serve the people of Wisconsin in the State Senate, and I look forward to doing all I can in the new session to improve the lives of our neighbors. Without further ado, let’s get to it!


Part I: The info wars

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” - Thomas Jefferson

The Problem

How information is produced and how it is consumed in this country has a lot to do with how we got to where we are today. Where we once had figures like Kronkite, Rather, and Murrow, we now have Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, and somebody’s angry uncle Bob on Twitter. Major television networks used to view their nightly newscasts as prestige programming, where ratings numbers were secondary to the quality of the product. If Americans could trust the newscast, they’d be more likely to stick around for the entertainment to follow.

Meme
Today, we have 24-hour news networks with personalities to fit every ideology. Two-thirds of Americans get at least some news from social media (despite serious concerns about its accuracy). News has become a form of entertainment. Its goal is no longer to seek truth, but to reinforce beliefs. Instead of a window to the world, the news we consume has become like a mirror, showing us the world as we already believe it to be.

This is not to say there aren’t wonderful journalists doing amazing work anymore, it’s just that their voices get drowned out in the endless sea of noise and it becomes difficult to know who to trust.

One place where trust is of the utmost importance is in local news. From the weather forecast you rely on to dress your kids in the morning to school closing announcements on snowy days, local news remains a vital source for millions of Americans each day. Unfortunately, mass consolidation in the newspaper and television industries have led to a severe reduction in local reporting, with fewer reporters expected to cover more areas in less time with fewer resources.

This lack of capacity for local reporting allows corruption to go unchecked in local government, and diminishes the attention paid to local political races, where our future Governors, Congressmen and Senators launch their careers. And so we’re left with a population where some people have no interest in hearing anything but what they already believe, others want to be informed but don’t know who to trust for their information, and others simply don’t pay attention at all, until major events like COVID-19 force them to sit up and take notice.

When these major events happen, it’s critical that the public is operating on a shared set of facts. Unfortunately, due to the reasons listed above, as well as deliberate attacks on science and truth waged by special interests and the politicians they support, we aren’t operating on a shared set of facts anymore.

Is the COVID-19 threat real? Do masks work? Is contact tracing important? Are vaccines safe? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes,” but you don’t need to look very far to find plenty of examples of people who disagree (and who have the internet community that reinforces their point of view readily available).


“Fake News”

The elephant in the room with all I’ve said to this point is the problem of “fake news.” What started as a legitimate way to identify misinformation circulating online (much of it originating from Russian hackers) has been weaponized by Donald Trump and his allies into a catch-all term for anything that they don’t agree with or which casts a negative light on anything they’re doing. For the angry uncle Bob I mentioned before, it’s a way to end a conversation without either person coming to any sort of agreement with the other.

Instead of helping us identify false information, as the term would suggest, “fake news” has instead jeopardized the very concept of objective truth, of facts, and the science that is based on those facts. Let us take the issue of mask-wearing during COVID-19 as an example. At the start of the pandemic, we were all struggling to figure out how the virus spread, and what we could do to stop it. Initially, it was feared that everyday citizens attempting to wear face masks would 1) reduce much-needed supply for medical personnel, and 2) would provide people with a false sense of security which might actually lead to increased infections, and 3) would not be very effective at actually preventing the spread to begin with.

Fake
As more information was gathered, and more research was done, a scientific consensus grew that not only do masks help tremendously in keeping people from getting the virus in the first place, they also likely serve to reduce infection severity for people who do end up getting the disease. Moreover, it was found that even cloth face coverings, if double-layered, can prove quite effective at preventing transmission, if both parties in a social interaction wear them. This has helped to alleviate the worry that medical professionals would not have access to the more robust, fit-tested N95 surgical masks.

Unfortunately, that damage had already been done. For months and months after the start of the pandemic, our office was bombarded with emails from people citing initial reports (which later proved to be inaccurate), distortions, and outright lies about the effectiveness of masks. To this day, we still hear from Wisconsinites who say masks not only don’t work, but are somehow going to kill them if worn and are tantamount to slavery (no, I’m not kidding). We even heard people who were solidly anti-choice when it comes to abortion rights use the slogan “my body, my choice” to defend not wearing a mask.

People literally died because of “fake news,” which turned out not to be fake at all. Masks work, and have most definitely saved thousands of lives, if not more.


What can be done?

I’ve painted a grim picture so far, and with an anti-science majority in our state legislature, where one party has refused to allow us to meet and debate legislation for 7 months, what (if anything) can be done? Thankfully, there are lots of things we as individuals can do to mitigate the impact of the information wars on our democracy.

First, we can be better consumers of information. The University of Wisconsin Library has put together an extremely useful website on this very topic. CLICK HERE to check it out for yourself. With a little practice, you’ll be able to separate the wheat from the chaff with relative ease (and avoid the embarrassment of being the person who shares the 2-year-old news story as if it had happened yesterday. We’ve all been there).

Second, you can support quality, local, independent journalism. If you come across a source you find useful, support it! Whether it’s a subscription model, an ad-supported outlet, or both, do what you can to ensure the reporters you follow can make a living bringing you the information you find so valuable every day. I have some favorites of my own, but I’ll leave it for you to decide which ones you’d like to support with your hard-earned dollars.

Third, you can vote for politicians who support investing in science and public education. For all his other faults, it’s one thing Thomas Jefferson strongly believed in.

"[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power."

Here, as he often does, he uses science as a synonym for knowledge and inquiry in general, but the power of these words remains. We need to fully fund our schools, and we need to raise free thinkers capable of making sense of a world full of conflicting, often biased information.

For my part, as ranking Senate Democrat on education, I will continue to work tirelessly to ensure our schools and our UW system and technical colleges are given the resources they need to prepare our future leaders.


Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this report. I look forward to sharing more of this story in further installments. Our Democracy is in a fragile state, but nothing worth doing is easy, and a brighter future is possible if we stay active, informed, and united against the threats that we face from those who would seek to undermine this American experiment.

 

In service,

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The Larson Report - Democracy in Distress

  • Part I: The info wars (above)
  • Part II: Suppression of opposition (coming soon)
  • Part III: $peech is not free (coming soon)
  • Part IV: My voters, by choice (coming soon)

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