Who wouldn’t want an ally in the legislature like Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington? He talks straight, he talks tough and he takes on terrorists — that is, he makes statewide headlines after an embarrassing outburst where he calls members of his own political party “terrorists” for going behind his back when cutting a budget deal with the governor. Despite his apology, only a few months later, the speaker has shown his demeanor has far from changed — now, Assembly Speaker Vos is eagerly leaping to attack a judge appointed by none other than Gov. Scott Walker, the face of Wisconsin conservatism.

The ruling that prompted the shameful display on the speaker’s part has its roots in an avoidable controversy of the GOP’s own making: with a series of high-profile losses in elections portending an explosive Democratic wave election, and similarly grim performance at the state level, conservative governors across the nation have decided that the only winning move in the election game is not to play. No less than three Republican governors, Walker among them, chose to not call special elections to fill vacancies. Walker provided a flimsy rationale that such elections would be wasteful spending for representatives who would only hold office for a short period of time before being up for reelection, and that, with the Legislature out of session, they would fulfill no important duties.

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Aside from the unexamined implication that we pay our lawmakers to do nothing when they are out of session, as opposed to the common wisdom that they connect with and speak to their local communities, their rationale also suggested democracy is a privilege given on the condition that it is cost-effective. The idea that a district’s voices and votes should be put on hold because of a bureaucrat’s miserliness, or that there is any stretch of time where it is unimportant for individuals to be represented in government is absurd. They are insincere fig leaves to cover the truth that the Republicans are afraid of a loss of power.

Recently, this attempt to turn back the blue tide was met with legal challenge and defeated, a court summarily ordering the governor to hold elections. Conspirings by conservatives to override the judge’s verdict were — though chillingly plausible for a party increasingly defined by its cynicism — mercifully short and fruitless.

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Confronted by the cold, hard truth of the law as written, Speaker Vos, weighed in: Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds, who decided the case, was not only an activist judge in his eyes — she was an “activist Dane County judge.” Then — in perhaps the most startling display of political originality since the American flag lapel pin — he goes on to suggest that “something in the water” may make Dane County residents “feel they are smarter than the rest of the state.” Though the insinuation that a judge is smug for being qualified to make legal interpretations could be dismissed out of hand, the animus behind the speaker’s sneering is worth dissecting.

It isn’t enough to disagree with the judge’s interpretation of the law, however blisteringly simple the law may be (that mandating special elections be called “promptly” does not allow for three-month delays), there must be an insidious agenda rising behind it. More than that, the agenda must be tied to a place. Maybe it doesn’t pertain to the Dane County that houses Wisconsin’s capitol and its great centers of learning, but instead the Dane County of Republicans’ fevered nightmares, a useful other to point to, an urban outsider to be blamed for the woes of rural innocents.

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This should not be understood as Assembly Speaker Vos’ true position, however. The speaker would not be a stranger to Dane County and would have seen the truth of the county with his own eyes. Someone who got their political start in sixth grade and kept a steady upwards trajectory couldn’t afford to be held captive by provincial misconceptions. These politics of tribalism are a mean, not an end.

For the true motive behind Assembly Speaker Vos’s comments, one needs only compare the philosophies of the judge and the man smearing her. Judge Reynolds has said that the judiciary should be “a co-equal but independent branch of government.” As for Speaker Vos? “I prefer judges who defer to the legislature.” Far from independence and co-equality, “rule of law” seems to now mean that judges should kiss the ring and arbitrate based more on what conservatives wish than statutes say.

Looking back through this lens, even the absurd “terrorist” remark hides that implication that power which does not pass through Speaker Vos is illegitimate and dangerous. Whether he apologizes for this brazen attack won’t change the ambitious hunger that prompted it, and one needs only wait until the speaker is next defied for the mask to slip again.

Ethan Carpenter ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in political science.