We Can't Take the High Road to Avoid the Arena in the Battle for American Democracy

We Can't Take the High Road to Avoid the Arena in the Battle for American Democracy

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
This famous quote was sent to me by a college friend after I dropped out of the 2016 WI-7 congressional race against Sean Duffy--the prize-winning lumberjack turned “Real World” cast member turned Republican shill turned FOX News host/political profiteer.
I had moved to Wisconsin from New York City when my late wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer, and I quickly realized after throwing my hat in the ring that the 7th Congressional District had lurched WAY to the right of where it had been while I was a kid living in Stevens Point, and I had moved far to the left of where I had been in my early 20s after living in Boston, Palo Alto, Chicago, and NYC.
In Wisconsin’s Spring Election last Tuesday, as you can deduce, about half of those who entered the political "arena" to run for office lost their races.
Progressives saw more good news than bad-- a 63% win rate among 287 candidates supported by Democrats--but like every election in Wisconsin, there were some heartbreaking losses.
Most notable for me was progressive mayor Katie Rosenberg’s loss in Wausau, the largest city in Wisconsin’s most rural 7th Congressional District.

I know Katie and have watched her from afar as she worked tirelessly to clean up Wausau’s water. From tapping (pun intended) into federal infrastructure dollars to replacing dangerous lead pipes to removing PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” from their water supply, Rosenberg eschewed partisan politics and rolled up her sleeves to help her community.
I don’t know this to be true, and I'll apologize to Katie and her campaign if I'm way off the mark here, but I’ve heard through the small Wisconsin progressive political grapevine that after being targeted by Republican dark money-funded negative ads, Katie refused to punch back, and instead chose to stay positive and focus on her record of solving problems with intelligence and creativity.

This noble approach reminded me of how I was gritting my teeth when, after watching horribly racist ads being leveled at U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, I saw television commercials of him making peanut butter sandwiches and telling stories about his working class upbringing.
If I'm correct in my analysis of both campaigns, the disconnect seems clear: two wonderful candidates with track records of being good, clean, community servants were beaten by nastiness and dark money, and they—either because of their own good natures or through the advice of their kitchen cabinets, refused to play in the mud.

Now, given that my #progressivebeer brand was forged in the crucible of Covid-induced economic disaster and within the lion’s den of deep red Northern Wisconsin, I have a reputation of punching back. HARD.
Back then, I felt I had to fight back in order to survive, and I’ve been punching and punching for the last several years because Republicans know I’m a threat and keep throwing obstacles my way as a result.
Unfortunately, in the heat of the battle, I sometimes forget exactly who I’m fighting against and swing a little too broadly. Just last week, I went on a bit of a rampage and punched “down” a few times after some small-time trolls left little nuggets of nastiness on my company’s Facebook page.
I was reminded that this negative aggression wasn’t helping the cause of making Wisconsin more progressive by an unlikely source—a singer/songwriter named Edward David Anderson that I had hired to play in my new taproom and help me deliver beer to Wisconsin's Driftless region

Ed and I were talking about our love of music, and that conversation reminded me of my earlier career as an artist who was passionate about creating beauty, not ugliness.  

“Kirk, it’s easy for you to demolish these trolls on Facebook, but you know they’re not your enemy, right? There’s probably something hurting within them, and that pain is what compelled them to lash out at your company. The progressive policies that you’re advocating for may actually alleviate some of their pain. You can be better than this.”
Those were wise words he spoke, and they served as a great reminder that musicians, who hone their craft to stir our souls, are so often our (and Society’s) North Star.
So we shan’t punch too hard, but neither can progressive politicians simply lay down our arms and claim moral superiority when attacked with lies and misinformation by MAGA ugliness.
How does the LEFT succeed against the naked aggression and filthiness of Republican politics without lowering ourselves to their level and sullying our own souls?
The answer to that is probably very nuanced, and probably why there are so many well-paid political consultants, but I saw an example last week in a Biden political ad that suggested a way to thread that needle.

In this ad, President Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders are watching a video of Trump telling a room full of his rich cronies, while he doesn’t think the cameras are rolling, that he’s going to cut their taxes. They explain why cutting taxes for the rich is exactly the opposite of what America needs when we’re facing a historic level of income inequality in this county. They also discuss how this hypocrisy makes them angry, because Trump would never propose cutting taxes for the rich to the working class folks that belong to his cult, go to his rallies, and who will ultimately end up voting for him.
This ad is aggressive, and attacks Trump by using his own words against him.
What this ad ISN’T is one that avoids indicting Trump for his inexcusable history, and focuses solely on Biden’s policy successes.
Biden isn’t eating peanut butter sandwiches in a kitchen. Instead, he’s grappling with Trump in the ring, using Trump’s own bullying and hypocrisy as a weapon against him.
So what MUST Wisconsin progressives learn from this last Spring election that ultimately is a harbinger for the all-important Presidential election coming up in November?
We must take our gloves off and fight in the mud with a Republican Party that has not only lost its way, but whose leaders at the top are advocating for the death of our Republic as we know it. 
We’re fighting a war for the heart of American Democracy, and there’s no “high road” or “low road” in this war. There’s only an ARENA, and the fighting that happens in that arena is surely to be messy. Mistakes will be made, we might punch the wrong person every now and then, and we’ll probably all have to atone for some sins we’ve committed along the way. 
But mind you, there’s no avoiding this ARENA if we are to save our country. We MUST enter the fray, and we MUST fight. There’s simply too much at stake to take a moral high road that avoids this battle.

I'm wise enough to know that I clearly don't have all the answers, and I will NEVER proclaim that my way of fighting is any better than anyone else's, but I do know that it's "all hands on deck" for every progressive in this country, and we have to start fighting and enter the ARENA.

For many, that fight includes joining your county's Democratic Party, or joining other progressive groups in your community--one example being Citizen's Action of Wisconsin--to knock on doors, call your neighbors, write postcards, etc. 

And obviously the easiest way to fight is to donate money to progressive political campaigns or organizations that are already doing this important work, including the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting the Minocqua Brewing Company. We'll see you all in the arena, and we'll make sure to bring the beer.

Kirk Bangstad,
Owner, Minocqua Brewing Company
Founder, Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC

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