Michigan and Wisconsin together are part of the epicenter of political power in the US. Indeed, these two states form the core of a region—the “Midwest”—that plays a perennial outsized role in US elections. Three of the four people to hold the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives in the first two decades of the 21st century hailed from a state with Great Lakes shoreline. Michigan and Wisconsin have twice recently shifted the direction of presidential elections by awarding their twenty-six electoral votes to President Trump in 2016 and subsequently President-elect Biden in 2020. Joe Biden may not have won the presidency without their key electoral votes.
City councilors, members of Congress, and presidents have won or lost elections in swing areas of these states through their conduct at small, local events, and a common recurrence during elections in both states is that of razor-thin election margins.
These electoral patterns show that like any population group, Midwesterners’ beliefs are not monolithic. They reflect diverse local environments and personal backgrounds that together maintain a political microcosm of the nation. Despite these voting trends and spectrums of political preference, residents of both states demonstrate relative unity around government spending priorities. When UCS polled residents of Michigan and Wisconsin to understand their priorities for government spending and whether spending $1.5 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next 30 years should be a national priority in this moment, the answer was clear and shared by most: no.
While taxpayers financially back Social Security, Medicare, and transportation projects with their federal taxes, a substantial portion of overall tax dollars pays for national defense. Congress is set to allocate $740 billion for military spending this year alone. In fact, Michigan and Wisconsin taxpayers shouldered a tax burden of more than $3 billion in fiscal year 2020 to support the $65 billion the US spends annually on nuclear weapons systems.
Nuclear weapons and related technologies are extremely expensive, yet some have no clear strategic role. Land-based missiles, which could cost nearly $100 billion, are no longer necessary. In our poll, Michiganders and Wisconsinites voiced different spending priorities for their tax dollars, like cleaning up polluted drinking water supplies, expanding access to health care, and repairing infrastructure—they saw these as more critical programs to fund. Over resourcing nuclear weapons technologies while under resourcing residents’ priorities is an injustice with inequitable consequences.
Rebuilding the nation’s nuclear arsenal is a $1.5 trillion project most voters opposed, finding arguments against rebuilding the nuclear arsenal more convincing than arguments supporting it. Women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, [and] People of Color) identifying voters, constituencies with rising political power nationwide, were most likely to oppose rebuilding the nuclear arsenal.
Why does the Midwest matter?
Currently there is no national anti-nuclear constituency to speak of, nor growing calls on Congress and the incoming Biden administration to re-think its insatiable appetite for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the pentagon and unnecessary nuclear weapons programs. A significant part of the problem is that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle function as if the political risks of advocating for more butter and fewer guns far outweigh the potential political benefits.
Our polling suggests otherwise and offers insights into how advocates for change and progressives in Congress can help shape a new national discussion about what constitutes security—both in our communities and in our world. Our polling makes clear that voters most often see security through the lens of their own lived experiences such as the threat of COVID, inadequate health care, dangerous roads or bridges, or racial violence.
And our polling makes clear that these strong preferences for a re-allocation of federal spending priorities are not held exclusively by “coastal elites” or peace activists.
Nuclear weapons spending is not the only reform on the table. Michigan residents, among those from other states, demonstrated overwhelming support for nuclear weapons policy reforms in earlier UCS polling. One of those reforms is a No First Use policy which President-elect Biden has supported on the record.
With the 2020 election season over, the Midwest’s sizeable soapbox is once again up for grabs. As such, these states will remain in the national spotlight and in mind for politicians of all stripes. Major political parties have a ticking clock until the next election day to improve their outreach as demographics shift nationwide. Such shifts are represented by Michigan and Wisconsin as majorities and political power continues to move toward women, Black, and other BIPOC residents.
Those who hold public office at every level should listen to Midwesterners on nuclear weapons or risk the US falling further behind the world. A landmark treaty banning nuclear weapons will become international law in 2021, just two days after President-elect Biden is inaugurated. Much must be done, quickly, for the United States to keep up with the international community, Midwestern constituents’ priorities, and avoid a new arms race.
The featured image in this blog is courtesy of Tony Mucci on Unsplash