Things are not going well for the Democrats.

GOP states unravel their policies, from abortion to education. Their voters are blocked. Courts legislate away their core policies. Republicans exploit apparent deadlock to threaten or even reverse a system that had mistakenly been thought to be permanent. The Democrats are on their back foot, as the saying goes.

A single recent election – for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court – may have given them the formula for a comeback.

Until the Civil War, American political life reflected an almost simple faith in individual freedom, especially for the dominant group in the nation. It allowed only a limited role for government. Today, this is the philosophy of Republicans who control states from Florida to Wisconsin.

The Great Depression and World War II produced an alternative, offering a larger government to serve common interests as well as protecting individual rights. The public interest should no longer be dominated by a single group – white men. As Democrats, they once governed from Florida to Wisconsin.

American politics settled into a contest between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The Democrats and their policies from Social Security to civil rights gained broad popular support.


Their gains sent a signal to Republicans that holding onto power depended on uniting against a growing government. Concerned about becoming a permanent minority, thanks in part to the wide availability of government benefits, they reacted strongly. In their war for political survival and renewed control, virtually anything goes.

Their conservative platform would restore much of the pre-Civil War system. Facing a growing non-white, non-male electorate, they try to change the rules to suppress voting by these groups. Financed by super-wealthy, anti-regulation economic conservatives, they seek to attract social conservatives, who oppose increased government tolerance of diversity.

The conservatives have achieved levels of discipline and finance allowing them to become the apparent political equal of the liberals. While that balance is said to cause stalemate, it is enough to allow the conservatives the ability to block change and repeal past measures. They work to make their gains permanent.

In pursuing their agenda, the Democratic Party’s liberals have seemingly believed that virtue is its own reward. By helping more people, they have assumed they will win elections. But many people are left to understand for themselves the value they derive from government action. They may face Republican efforts to suppress their participation.

All of this happened in recent years under a Republican governor and Republican legislature in Wisconsin. They rolled back progressive legislation and redistricted the state. Now, it is estimated that under the state’s extreme gerrymandering, the Democrats would have to gain the support of about 60% of the voters to regain a legislative majority.

A Republican member of the state elections board boasted that the number of Milwaukee voters in 2022 had been sharply cut “with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.” That reduced turnout was greater than the narrow statewide reelection margin of a GOP U.S. Senator over a Black Democrat.


Efforts by Democrats to draw state legislative districts to prevent gerrymandering on the basis of race prevailed in the state Supreme Court, when a conservative judge broke ranks. But the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the GOP, reflecting its reluctance to reject any gerrymandering unless there is a formally declared intent to discriminate.

The conservatives are ready to exploit fully any advantage they gain and see no benefit in compromise. Liberals have a weak response. But the recent election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court seat reflects a better understanding of the challenges and their possible solutions. It could be the key to Democratic recovery.

This was the most expensive state judicial election ever in the U.S. Democrats are now able to mobilize money like the GOP. In American politics, money matters and more money matters more.

Backed by the Democrats, the judicial candidate was a woman, yielding an all-female liberal court majority. Instead of playing coy like most judicial candidates, she clearly announced her positions on key issues. She was as forthright on abortion rights as GOP-backed candidates have been.

Democrats stressed the importance of this victory, given the possibility of voting challenges after the 2024 presidential election. It was a statewide race, where a Democratic majority could produce a positive result that could not yet be achieved in gerrymandered legislative races. They got out their vote, and she received a stunning 55.5%.

The Democrats need to start winning by big margins. All across the country, they can learn from Wisconsin. Get off the defensive. Find women candidates. Run statewide. Focus on a few key issues, even if it’s risky, and hammer them home. Raise money. No matter the obstacles, get all your voters to the polls.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

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