The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
There are things I respect a lot about Sheriff David Clarke.
For example, years ago, I mentored an African-American youth in the inner city for four years. Thinking that Clarke might be an impressive professional figure for him to meet, I asked the sheriff if this teen could shadow him for a day on the job. He immediately said yes, and he really went out of his way for this youth. He took the youth around for the entire day, and when I picked him back up, the teen was carrying a bag with new dress shoes in it. The sheriff felt badly because the youth was wearing a suit with blue tennis shoes, and he impressed upon him the importance of carrying yourself with professionalism and confidence.
The youth regarded Clarke as a powerful and positive role model, and for a time, he talked about wanting to be a cop. I think in a lot of ways Clarke is a strong and positive male role model in this town.
I also agree with him, in general, on the revolving door that is the criminal justice system. While the mantra in other corners is to reduce incarceration, I think we don’t drop the sentencing hammer hard enough on the subset of those who commit the most violent and repeated crimes. He’s right to highlight it. And he’s right when he defends the cops from what I also believe is a too generalized, unfair narrative that has stereotyped an entire profession, turning the guys with the white hats into the so-called enemies. That’s ridiculous. Cops are not the problem as a group in American society, even acknowledging that some of them go awry. As for that hat of his own, well, if you can pull off a cowboy hat on TV in Milwaukee, more power to you. His rhetoric gets unhinged at times. Never heard the sheriff "punt" a question. This can be good sometimes and bad sometimes.
So this is not a generalized ad hominem broadside. Rather, it’s a very specific and narrow critique of a set of comments that Clarke made this week to talk radio, comments that I think were completely off the wall and should be discussed. Even acknowledging the fact that the sheriff can be hyperbolic, his comments were really astonishing. Even more astonishing to me, they were applauded throughout various conservative corners on social media.
Specifically, Clarke went on talk radio and brought up the Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and gay marriage (I oppose the decision on Obamacare but support the decision on gay marriage, by the way). He quoted the Declaration of Independence and said the consent of the masses is required or "it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute new government ... " Not controversial so far.
But then he said this:
"That’s what I mean when I say we need to turn this sense of resignation into anger and anger into rage. Because only when people are enraged will they feel that we have no other option like the Founding Fathers did on July 4, 1776 and declare independence from this intrusive and overbearing federal government and decide that we need a new government. I’m through waiting for the next election ... I’m pointing back to this document which says the Declaration of Independence, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish and institute a new government, and I think that’s where we are at right now. People say how do we get there, how do we do that? Finally some state is going to have to stand up to the federal government and say we’re not doing it, we don’t care what you said under that ruling, that ruling in our estimation is unconstitutional, and here’s what we’re going to do."
What’s astonishing to me is that, one, this statement is not generating more controversy and, two, there are a number of people defending this with straight faces. That’s right: This view has gone somewhat mainstream. It’s now not controversial for an elected official to basically advance the argument that we need to abolish the American government.
Think about that for a minute.
One woman on a comment thread on a page run by someone I respect even said America has "become the Evil Empire."
It is now rather commonplace – or at least not considered absurd – for an elected official, and various conservatives, to openly call for the abolishment of the U.S. government, or at least to entertain that thought, as well as what would be tantamount to almost a new Civil War: Defying the rule of law and literally just ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court.
You can’t just ignore the U.S. Supreme Court. That undoes everything the Founders created. It circumvents the rule of law and would upend social order far more than same-sex marriage has. I recognize that some people think the court has been reading rights into the Constitution that don’t exist. I recognize there are those who feel the unelected court is acting like a legislature. I also recognize that some people feel government is too overbearing and that the Court has moved far afield from what the Founders intended.
I will say this though; Ronald Reagan was for limited government, but he would never have called for an abolishment of the American government. That shows how far the debate has shifted. His harshest rhetoric was saved for the enemies outside our borders. Remember the shining city on a hill? What happened to the GOP’s optimism, its patriotism? When did things take such a paranoid and dark turn? I don’t think it’s any way to build a party, frankly. People are drawn to optimism, not pessimism. They want to believe in this country (again, if they are losing faith). They don’t want to feel like we are the evil empire.
As an outspoken woman, I feel like I won the Powerball of life just being born in this country. I am allowed to drive, I am allowed to vote, I have freedom of the press and of assembly and of speech and of religion. I don’t have to worry that an ISIS tyrant will throw me off a roof. I don’t live in Greece where they have started rationing cash, or in the Third World where I worry about clean water or having enough food for my kid. And so on. This is all obvious. We live in a very imperfect country, but we live in a great country. And we’re lucky, and it’s time people remember that.
Frankly, one reason I oppose the Obamacare decision is because I do see that as an example of government power too unrestrained (but I don’t want to abolish the American government over it). However, I see the gay marriage decision as entirely consistent with the values elucidated by the Founding Fathers (individual freedom, equality for all, separation of church and state).
I recognize they didn’t specifically use the words "gay marriage" in the Constitution and almost certainly they didn’t envision it. However, they also didn’t give any rights to blacks, Native Americans and women. The ideals they created, though, were beautiful ones (again, equality, individual freedom, separation of church and state) that can easily be applied to gay marriage through the equal protection clause. I also recognize that the 14th Amendment was passed in the Reconstruction era to apply to freed slaves. But that doesn’t mean its principles can’t be applied to other circumstances.
I am not sure society ever errs by giving more equality to people, and I see gay marriage as a rather Libertarian stance (although we also have freedom of religion in this country, so I strongly believe that people should not be censored or damaged if they exercise it by opposing the SCOTUS decision). It’s sort of odd that conservatives who are so upset about the power of government and so entranced by individual freedom want government to meddle in people’s personal relationship choices. Obviously government needs to draw some kind of line, but I would draw it at relationships that cause harm to others (such as incest or marrying very young children). I can’t think of any way in which same-sex marriage causes harm to others.
However, if you don’t like what the Supreme Court did, the way to fix that is to elect presidents who will appoint justices in line with your beliefs. It’s not to urge people to become enraged because we "need a new government." It’s not to essentially float the idea of a new American revolution.
It’s amazing that an elected sheriff doing so is not news.
They say the extremes at the poles meet, and this comes dangerously close to a call for revolution that belongs out of the Black Panther Movement or the rural militias.
Clarke is not alone in this belief. How mainstream is it? More than it should be (although I think he’s too smart to really believe this; I mean how does one go about instituting a new American government, exactly? I thought conservatives tended to support the U.S. military, not want to fight against it. Good luck with that). What would the Sheriff’s Department do? Fight the military? I mean, c’mon. What do you think the feds would do if the state just decided, oh, guess what, we are not going to abide by the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Think about it for a minute … what would we become? The United State of Wisconsin? If Gov. Walker wins the presidency, would the new country of Wisconsinstan fight against him? Oh never mind.
I think conservatives need to look long and hard at why some of them think it’s OK to openly float the idea of abolishing the American government as if it's a serious discussion and thought. And I think it’s time the party regains its inner optimism. That’s what will expand the party. This kind of rhetoric will inevitably retract it.
I learned last week that my great-great-great-great grandfather, Christian Detter, was a Revolutionary War soldier. He was the descendant of Palatine Germans and joined a Pennsylvania militia. The cause he fought for was a beautiful one, and it created a set of ideals that have stood the test of time. This July 4, I will be celebrating this country’s independence, not wishing for a new Independence Day from it.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.