Aims McGuinness, 51, is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee He lives in Milwaukee. Aims says that the Coronavirus presents a formidable challenge for the electoral chances of Democrats.
Hello, Aims, how’re you doing?
I’m fine, everybody in my family is fine, thank you. How about you?
Same here. I am with my 100-year- old mother in a village in Switzerland. Only downside is that my wife is stuck in New York. How are things shaping up in Milwaukee?
It’ s not as bad as New York or Detroit or New Orleans and we are better off than Chicago. One of the greatest concerns is that the sick and the dying are disproportionately African American. As of Monday, there were 83 deaths in Wisconsin and 33 of them were African Americans in Milwaukee. That’s 40 percent of coronavirus-related deaths, in a state where African Americans are only 7 percent of the total population.
Are there explanations?
I have not read any from public health experts, and I certainly am not one of them myself. The poverty rate of African Americans in Wisconsin is 3-4 times higher than the poverty rate for whites. And poor people have less access to healthcare and are far less likely to have health insurance. Nationwide, African Americans on average have higher rates of chronic illness than whites, including conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. So, when the pandemic struck, it hit people who were already facing tremendous health challenges and obstacles to healthcare. Working-class people who have jobs often have jobs that make social distancing hard, in the service industry and elsewhere.
How does the university cope?
The campus administration gave professors and lecturers two weeks to turn their classes into online classes, and we’ve done our best. Some students are sick or have sick family members, and many face unemployment. Not all of them have internet access and good computer technology at home. In one of my classes 100 percent of the students participate online, in another one only 80 percent. It is this one missing fifth I am most worried about.
Wisconsin just had its presidential primary election. How did the Corona crisis affect the process?
It’s a disaster. The governor, a Democrat, wanted to postpone the election until June and make voting by mail possible. The Republican state legislature said no. The issue then went through the courts up to the United States Supreme Court where the conservative majority decided against the governor. So, we had the election on Tuesday. In the whole city only 5 polling stations were open. People had to wait in line for two hours and more, supposedly standing 6 feet apart. Many were wearing masks. Even so, it was a public health disaster.
Can you not vote by mail?
Yes, if you ask for a ballot in advance and you make the deadline. But thousands of people did not get the ballots in time to send them in by the deadline. And ballots which were not mailed by Tuesday will not be counted now. A lot of people were disenfranchised, most of them in the city of Milwaukee. This is probably the least democratic election Wisconsin has ever seen—or at least since 1919, when women were guaranteed the right to vote.
Did you go to the polls?
No. My wife and my daughter and I requested absentee ballots, got them in time, had them witnessed and had a friend bring them to the polling station. How does it work in Switzerland?
Not like in the United States. Contrary to you, we are obliged to register with our town of residence and automatically registered as voters. Most everybody mails his ballot in, only a small minority goes to the poll. It works fine.
One of our handicaps is that voting rights are a state issue. The US constitution actually does not guarantee the right to vote. All is decided on the state level and wherever Republicans govern, they have tended to increase the barriers against the right to vote. In Wisconsin the GOP did this systematically since 2011. They redrew the electoral maps to their advantage, and they enacted a ridiculous voter identification law. You can only vote here if you provide a photo ID with your current home address on it. If you are evicted, and Milwaukee has a high rate of evictions, you must find a new home, move there and get some new picture ID before you can vote.
What was participation in Tuesday’s vote?
There are no figures yet, we are still waiting for absentee ballots to come in and be counted. It seems likely that the total number of votes will be relatively low.
Was there any campaigning going on – rallies, door-to-door canvassing?
No. For public health reasons there were no rallies and no canvassing. This probably hurt Bernie Sanders, since he is famous for his huge rallies and his grassroots mobilizations. And, of course, he dropped out of the primary Wednesday.
Is this the reason for Sanders’ withdrawal?
I don’t have any specific insight. Bernie cited the fact that is almost impossible for him mathematically to win primary. I think he was afraid that he would be criticized for staying in for too long and thus hurting the chances of the Democrat’s nominee. This was a criticism made of him in 2016 by supporters of Hillary Clinton.
Tell me about the general situation in Milwaukee. Is everything closed?
Restaurants and bars are closed. Some restaurants are open for takeout. You order by phone and pick up the food. Sometimes you go into the restaurant to do this, other times a restaurant employ will bring it outside. Grocery stores and liquor stores are open.
Do people wear masks?
Increasingly so. How is it in Switzerland?
The government says masks are not the answer and does not recommend wearing them. But people are a bit wary of this because they know there is a shortage of masks. There is a huge pro and con about mask-wearing, with experts on both sides.
Seems to be the same as here. It is upsetting if the experts disagree.
How about layoffs in Milwaukee?
Oh, it is terrible. Milwaukee still has a larger manufacturing sector than other parts of the country. The unemployment claims are soaring. It is way worse than 2008.
We read that the US government organized a gigantic aid package for companies in trouble. Does the program work?
The Trump administration did a terrible job. It is disorganized and dominated by strong conservatives who claim to want to limit the powers of federal government. And it is obvious that the President said things about the pandemic that are false. He has always told lies, quite brazenly, but now the consequences of his lies are becoming lethal.
OK, but do the programs work?
That’s too soon to say. As far as I know the checks have not been sent out yet.
Does the situation translate into criticism of the President on the political right? Do you see resistance to Trump in the Republican party?
I honestly do not. The United States is so divided in terms of how people get their political information. Most Republicans think Trump is doing a good job. The loyalty to him is very strong. But it could be that he will lose support in suburban areas, among voters which are not tied ideologically to either political party.
Will the Democrat’s convention in Milwaukee take place?
It’s already postponed to August. I think it will happen, but probably as a much smaller event as usual, given the concerns about the virus. This will likely hurt the Democrats. It will take a big mobilization to beat Donald Trump – and in a pandemic it is hard to mobilize.