Earlier this fall, NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd visited Wisconsin as he sought to assess one of the most polarized political battlegrounds in the country.
From Act 10 more than a decade ago to the attempted recall of former Gov. Scott Walker to close presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, the state is something of a living laboratory for all the crosscurrents of American politics.
“I think what was interesting is how everybody in hindsight views the divide of 2010, 2011 and 2012 as small potatoes compared to what we’re dealing with today,” said Todd, moderator of Meet the Press.
Todd interviewed three former Wisconsin governors — Walker, fellow Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Jim Doyle. He also spoke with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and independent voters.
He called Vos the most “fascinating” political figure in Wisconsin as he tries to keep his Republican caucus together even as some in the party cling to the false claim that former President Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2020.
Todd’s findings will be detailed in Meet the Press Reports, which airs on NBC News NOW at 9:30 p.m. Central time Thursday, with the episode available on-demand starting Friday on Peacock.
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Todd.
Q: Why Wisconsin?
Todd: Wisconsin is patient zero for polarization, where we are as a nation. Before America got divided and put on the jerseys and families stopped speaking to each other over Donald Trump.
The question I have is, can we learn anything about our national polarization from what happened in Wisconsin? And does Wisconsin have to heal itself before the nation can heal itself? Or is this now metastasized where until we heal ourselves nationally Wisconsin is just going to be sitting on the ledge until the nation gets out of this red-blue divide.
Q: How polarized do you find the state?
Todd: It’s extremely polarized. Part of it is because of geography. I think the most amazing thing about Wisconsin is the lack of swing counties. There aren’t 50-50 counties in the state. There used to be. When I first started covering elections, Brown County was one of the five most important counties in the country. It was a 50-50 county in the ’90s and early aughts.
Q: Is there any evidence that the polarization will end?
Todd: I didn’t find any in Wisconsin. There’s exhaustion. The only good news is you get that sense that everybody wants it to end. … Rhetorically, everyone wants it to end to turn down the temperature. In that sense, there’s a desire to do something. But that’s not the way to win an election. The problem that we’re running into is what it takes to win an election and get your vote out is to polarize.
Q: Do you view polarization as good or bad, or simply a fact of modern American political life?
Todd: I happen to think it’s bad personally. I come from the school of thinking that the whole point of politics is to resolve a conflict without a weapon. You come to a political resolution to avoid violence. I believe politics is the art of compromise, not the art of winning and losing.
Polarization does not help in governing. All polarization does is help and identify your base voters. You do certainly force people to make a choice at the end, but it doesn’t lead to better governing outcomes. Polarization has only created more gridlock, not less. … I would argue that it has been bad. Now if you’re a devoted liberal or a devoted conservative, polarization is a good thing. It’s a way to power.
Q: What’s your favorite Wisconsin city?
Todd: I’m a Packers fan, so there’s only one city to love.