BARTH: Dear voters: Keep jerking on that chain

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THE MESSAGE delivered by voters in this consequential 2018 mid-term election was fairly simple and straightforward.

A divided America now has the divided government that looks and feels like the prevailing political winds.

The deep blue and deep red parts of the country are still, for the most part, the same color pattern. The divide is easily apparent in the data - urban versus rural; small state versus big state; people of color, suburban white women, young people and the higher educated versus white men, blue collars, small towns, and non-college graduates.

IN BOTH Madison and Washington the results follow that trend. The red-blue map in Wisconsin shows Democrats' strongholds in cities and Republican territory in lesser populated areas. It appears incumbent Gov. Scott Walker and incumbent Attorney General Brad Schimel, both Republicans, may not have performed as well as needed in some suburban areas, where the national trend included defections by college-educated white women.

That national trend turned over enough seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to give Democrats majority control and divide Congress. Republicans added to their slim majority in the Senate. On the horizon, though, are storm clouds for Republican planners. In 2018 Senate Democrats were defending an inhospitable landscape and the results were predictable all along. In 2020 it will be Republicans with the more inhospitable electoral landscape, with an expectation of losing seats.

That's the way democracy works. It's messy. And despite the best laid plans of the hyper-partisans - sometimes, even when those plans include cheating strategies like gerrymandering - the voters always have the final say.

HERE'S my theory on how this all shakes out. I like to think it's an optimistic theory, counting on the people to have more sense than the politicians.

The two primary political parties today poorly represent the 327,564,880 (as of the November 6, 2018 estimate) Americans who make up the body politic. That's because the left-leaning party, the Democrats, veers away from the preferred course of most everyday people who spend their days taking care of themselves and their families, not obsessing over politics. Likewise, the right-leaning party, the Republicans, steers wide of the mark with its own obsessions over ideological purities.

I've always loved the phrase that most people play within the 40-yard lines. They are not rabidly left, or rabidly right. Day-in and day-out, they are not convinced the sky will fall unless one party or the other achieves absolute control over all the levers of power and everyone's lives. They know they're lucky to live in America and have confidence this freedom-loving country isn't tumbling head-long toward a dark place.

They think we'll be OK. So do I.

THE FOLKS who founded this country were pretty smart. They understood human nature. Power and privilege craves more power and privilege. Left unchecked, the powerful will hoard authority and resources and lord it over everybody else. Thousands of years of human history prove the point - which is why the Founders' notions about self-government were so radical at the time, and still are radical.

Those smart folks built a governmental structure chockful of checks and balances, specifically to make it really hard for despots or one faction or another to permanently grab and hold power. The people have the ability to jerk the chain and impose course corrections.

For those of us who believe in individual liberty and are suspicious of the political parties and their thirst for power over us, the Founders' system is unbelievably brilliant.

Meanwhile, for those ideologues who are convinced of their side's infallibility - always right, all the time - the Founders' system of checks and balances can be maddening. "How," they must wonder, "can the people not see that we (fill in blank, D or R) should rule?"

THIS IS a divided country. And the country is safer with divided government. Under one-party rule the tendency is to do whatever the firebrands want, without regard for any dissenting opinion. No one should be surprised by that arrogance. Again, it's natural. A speeding car with no brakes hurtles along until something forces it to stop. The right to vote - extended over decades in an imperfect but effective way - is how the people call a halt to runaway political extremism.

With divided government two things can happen. Elected officials can rein in their worst partisan impulses, find common ground where possible and maybe fix a few problems. Or they can line up to scream at each other and get nothing done.

Most days, either one of those options seems better than one ideological minority or the other forcing their excesses down our throats.

I'VE BEEN covering politics for a long time. I've seen the good and the bad. Most of the individuals who go into politics are good people, and initially get involved for the right reasons. Over time, though, they learn to toe the line and put party first - or they are weeded out by party bosses. Democrats and Republicans do not want mavericks or independents, they want soldiers to the cause.

So, congratulations, voters. You pushed back. You split government, giving the politicians an incentive to talk to each other and try to work on behalf of the larger good, not just the red or blue tribe.

A final piece of advice, though: You're not done. Already, both sides are scheming of ways to snatch back one-party control. So keep a firm hand on that chain. Practice jerking.

William Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News.

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