Finding political identity: How the pandemic changed one UW-Madison student’s primary vote

Finding political identity: How the pandemic changed one UW-Madison student’s primary vote

Editor's note: This story is the second in Madison Commons' series of profiles focused on the current climate of economic uncertainty and the 2020 election cycle.

Dylan Witte can count on one hand the number of times they've brought up politics to their parents. In fact, it was only once, in fourth grade, when they were learning about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. 

Their father's response was, "Excuse me, what?"

Witte — a nonbinary, queer-identifying UW-Madison junior (who uses they/them pronouns) — thought that was a normal reply. That is until they came to study in the state's politically diverse capital. 

Witte’s two college roommates talked a lot of politics, and Witte wasn’t sure if that was “acceptable behavior.”

“For me, politics was a taboo subject growing up. It was something we didn't talk about,” Witte said. “I've been at a deficit for politics.”

Learning to Talk Politics

Coming from 15 minutes outside of Janesville, Wisconsin, it was not an easy transition. When Witte was growing up, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who resided in the neighboring town, was a local celebrity. Witte would see him out strolling the streets in casual attire. Everyone knew who he was — including Witte’s conservative family.

“I felt a real spiral of silence happening to me because I felt like the conservative, more Republican side was all I was seeing,” Witte said. “It was all I was allowed to talk about or know.”

That’s starting to change.

Since coming to Madison, Witte has learned about various political stances and policies. While trying to understand them all has been a “whirlwind,” they identify somewhere between an independent and a liberal. 

Despite the Democratic Party's crowded primary field, Witte never had a favorite for the 2020 presidential race. They liked Elizabeth Warren because she supported blood donation from gay men. And then Pete Buttigieg, because he was the first openly gay candidate. 

With Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders as the last remaining candidates for the nomination at the time of our conversation, Witte said there was still much to consider. 

Leaning in a Different Direction

“They were my least favorite choices at the beginning and now I feel like I'm just picking. I was definitely looking more toward Bernie before the pandemic, but now, looking back on their economic viewpoints, I feel like I need to lean the other direction,” Witte said. 

Witte has been quarantined in their Madison apartment for more than three weeks. While others are preparing for an apocalypse, Witte said those in power aren’t doing enough to convey who is truly at risk.

“There's still false information out there and political figures, like Trump, are not doing the best they can do to dispel that,” they said. “He keeps trying to throw scapegoats at everything, and this isn't a situation where you can do that.”

Additionally, the U.S. economy is still nowhere close to re-opening in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It has not only changed the 2020 campaigns but also how the public views the candidates, who are dealing with a real-time public health and financial crisis.

It’s a test of leadership and competency — a test that shifted Witte’s allegiance.

“I'm leaning toward Biden solely due to the fact that I'm not comfortable with Bernie trying to mess with the economy, especially with the state we're in,” Witte explained. “I feel like Biden probably has the best policies that will help us get us back to where we need to be.”

Witte admitted they wouldn’t be comfortable saying that out loud in Madison. They have a couple of friends who are die-hard supporters of Sanders, where it’s “Bernie-or-bust.”

For Witte, the “Bernie Bro” negativity rubs them the wrong way. There needs to be a form of trust to talk about politics, Witte said, as it’s something that can be “triggering” at times.

That’s because Witte has been pulled between political identities their entire life, with a conservative upbringing and then coming to terms with their sexuality.

It’s been a “rollercoaster,” Witte added, one that can be seen distinctly in the 2018 Wisconsin gubernatorial election.

Moving Closer to Center to Move Forward

While all of their friends were set to vote for Democratic candidate Tony Evers, the choice wasn’t so simple for Witte.

“I grew up in a very conservative place and I have a very unique outlook. I was able to look at Evers's plans and see things most Democrats don't see, like how that's going to affect small farms and small businesses, like the one my mom runs,” Witte said. “Picking Evers was detrimental to my family and their way of living — but [it] also helped my current state of living.”

Witte ended up voting for Evers, but still felt like they belonged in their own section of the political minority. They considered not voting at all.

“I'm not going to lie and say I don't think about it,” Witte said. “It's definitely crossed my mind. But it is a civic duty and if we want the country to be a democratic republic then we have to vote, we have to support the things we've asked to have in place.”

Witte’s father doesn’t vote, and their mom owns a small veterinary clinic and oftentimes can’t get off work in time to make it to the polls. Witte's brother, who just turned 19 and has plans to get a confederate flag tattoo, will most likely vote for Trump. 

That option has never crossed Witte’s mind. They have just two qualifications for the next president: someone who is not Trump and someone who is “a little bit mild in their beliefs.”

“It's getting a little too polarized,” Witte said. “The only way we are going to be able to accomplish anything is if we start reigning in that leftism and getting closer to center. That's the only way we can move forward.”


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