Sunday, March 18, 2012

Issue #54- Progressive Visions

What This Is…
Issue #54- March 18, 2012
In this issue: The New Progressive Movement, Elections and the Progressive Vision Compared to Conservative Ideals

Sustainable Progressivism …
We are standing on the edge of something here in Wisconsin.  At the current moment it's difficult to know whether it is a precipice leading to an abyss of plutocracy, or if we are on the verge of something more positive and progressive.  The history of our state and nation is filled with these moments.  Moments where movements arise and form the basis for a change in political, societal or economic systems.  America was founded on change.  Change that arose out of time periods like the Great Awakening of the mid-1700's.  Changes that have created a fundamental alteration in the way people view different aspects of their world.  Whether these changes have come from the religious, political, economic or other sector of our society (or more frequently a combination of many sectors) the common thread is a recognition that there is a fundamental injustice in the current system.  As Danny Glover said in an interview with Progressive Magazine, "…Change happens through movements.  The movement to end slavery, the movement to bring justice for those who have been left out of the system, movements to include women, movements around sexual preference--all these movements brought about change."

While all these movements have had the goal of improving our society, they all have met with resistance and a failure to achieve the most far reaching of their goals.  Instead of a single revolutionary moment we have seen a gradual progression towards these objectives.  America continues to fail to live up to the noble aspirations that its citizens and leaders espouse.      

The struggle to gain equal rights for African-Americans provides an example of this.  The 2nd Great Awakening in the 1830's and 1840's saw a significant rise in abolitionist sentiments and led us to the Civil War which "freed" the slaves in America.  After the Civil War we saw a reaction leading to the conditions of the Jim Crow Laws.  Activists worked and eventually the Civil Rights movement of the mid-1900's arose.  Yet after the "end" of segregation and the supposed  opening of equal opportunity in America for people of all races we find ourselves in a nation where access to the best health care, education and economic opportunities are still heavily influenced by a person's race.   

This pendulum of political policies and societal attitudes creates cycles where different groups expand or contract their influence on the existing general culture.  In typical times we see this in slow, incremental progress in one direction or another.  However, there are periods of time where we see a more intense struggle.  We are currently "enjoying" a period of widespread conflict in our political, economic and social facets of American culture.  Wisconsin is at the center of these recent battles in all aspects of the struggle.  A struggle that has seen the polarization of our population and the decline in the ability of our political system to deal with the divergent ideologies. 

We have seen the far right of the Republican party advance a far reaching agenda designed to alter the landscape of our state in all ways.  The push has been through legislative and legal means, but also can be felt in our daily life and is very visible in the media.  This conservative agenda has been met by a strong resistance from more progressive Wisconsinites who have made their voices heard through protests, recalls and legal actions. 

The achievements of this progressive resistance have been impressive in many ways.  Simply maintaining energy and focus during the course of a tumultuous year has been no small feat.  In our modern day and age the attention to any single issue by the general public is usually measured in days or at most a few weeks.  There are many reasons to feel good about the direction our movement is headed.    
At the same time there is concern about the ability of progressives in Wisconsin to build a lasting legacy out of this reaction to Governor Walker and his GOP allies.  Historically, progressive movements operate in fits and starts with many setbacks.  Considering that in many ways the values espoused by progressives are ones shared by a large number of Americans it may seem strange that lasting victories are difficult to achieve. 

There are many reasons why progressive movements falter and some of these are visible in Wisconsin today.  One of the strongest is a social inertia that exists because of the fact that most people are concerned with living their daily lives.  We can share a concern about the poor, worry about groups that face discrimination and have a general interest in promoting the common good.  However, at the end of the day most of us are self-interested and driven by things that directly impact our personal sphere of influence.  Unless we are a part of a group facing challenges we don't put solving the problems at the top of our "to do list". 

It is because of the fact that we see ourselves in a certain way and view people different from us as the "other" that we fail to act in a consistently progressive way.  It is difficult to see how your own personal lifestyle is supported by the existing system.  We all want to see ourselves in the best possible light and it is difficult to sacrifice our safety and stability for someone else.  It is only when we are directly attacked (for example the teachers in Wisconsin) that we are moved to act.  Once the threat is removed (say that collective bargaining rights are restored) then it is easy to return to our previous way of life. 

I heard a quote somewhere to the effect that it takes a smaller percentage of people to resist than it does to rule.  This concept contributes to the failure of progressive movements to maintain their momentum.  It is much easier to point out an injustice than it is to create an environment or a system that eliminates the injustice.  In fact it is impossible to create a perfect society and as a result we will always see some facets of our nation that need to be improved upon.  The reality is that we will combat a variety of challenges, but change will need to be slow and incremental.

Another reason why progressive movements struggle to implement widespread change is a simple reality that also affects conservatives.  In every group there are different degrees of activism and different views about what appropriate change should be.  The goal of most citizens is a simple one, to live safely and comfortably.  Revolutionary or radical movements don't lead to times of stability and are resisted by the majority of people.  Currently we are seeing the fringe elements of the GOP trying to wrest control of their party away from more moderate groups.  We've seen the effect of this as moderate Republicans are among those signing recall petitions.    

That same sentiment can work to divide progressives as well.  Last February while some labor leaders called for a general strike, others called for teachers and others to return to work and use the political system to counter the GOP's actions.  You can see the divisions in different wings of the Occupy movement.  Lisa Fithian, an organizer and protest consultant, said, "One of the problems is when people are doing different shit, we are starting to disrespect each other because we are thinking that your way is not as rad as our way….  We have to accept what each movement's gifts are, and where we can be in alignment."  People in a movement begin to jockey for position and vie for control of the direction they want the movement to take.  One can see this sentiment in the statement by Danny Glover, "President Obama is a man who had certain advantages because of the civil rights movement.  He had the opportunity to go to some of the best schools in this country--schools that train you how to run the political paradigm, not challenge it."

Given all these challenges it is easy to question what exactly we hope to see happen with the resistance movement in Wisconsin.  Will this simply be a blip on the radar and after a brief conflagration will our state return to the previous status quo?  One would certainly hope that this isn't the case.  Instead of a simple return swing of the pendulum it would be a tremendous victory for progressives if we could see lasting change emerge from the flames of the Walker administration's attempt to trample the rights of Wisconsin's citizens. 

How do we go about making lasting change happen in Wisconsin?  It really boils down to a few simple things.  As Fithian said, "…It's the balance between reforming and revolutionary things."  Balance is the key, we should realize that the system of government that we have is one that, when applied properly, allows a significant number of voices to be heard.  While there are many aspects of our current system that need to be improved the question remains, what do we replace it with?  Groups that have been disenfranchised and hurt need to be empowered and supported as they gain their voice. We must work to undo the damage to our political system engineered by Walker and his allies.  History has shown us that a vindictive winner in any contest allows for more instability and even stronger reactions to follow. 

However, simply recalling Walker, changing legislation, altering our political, economic and social climate along with restoring labor rights isn't enough to make lasting change.  We know that the radical conservatives (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) will be looking for ways to advance their cause and are not giving up any fights easily.  It is because of this that we have seen the failure of previous reforms.  Jim Crow became the norm in the south in large measure because the existing leadership and social structure remained intact.  We must develop new leadership and it must be strong leadership.

That leadership must be supported by the most important part of the puzzle that is a lasting progressive legacy.  The citizens must be vigilant and active in order to prevent a return to the status quo.  We had strong leadership in Wisconsin (Russ Feingold anyone?), but the people fell asleep at the wheel and as a result we are well of the road.  With a vigilant and active citizenry we can prevent some of the more radical proposals of the right from becoming a part of the fabric of our society. 

Lisa Fithian said, "Movements build because people have some sense of hope and victory and accomplishment."  The progressive resistance in Wisconsin is at the forefront of providing all of these.  The battles to be fought are many, but working together we can see an opportunity to build a better state and lead the way for the rest of our nation.    

Don't Forget To Vote…
The electoral process becomes the centerpiece of our resistance movement.  We've seen how much damage can be done in a short amount of time by a party that monopolizes power and isn't worried about building consensus.  Our hope is that we can begin our revolution at the ballot box.  The next few months will give us a clear indication of where we stand in our efforts to educate and mobilize the general population.  "I'm tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn't work.  Of course it doesn't work.  We are supposed to work it."  This quote from Alexander Woollcott sets the tone for where we must a majority of our focus over the next few months.

Our message must be consistent and we must show people why Walker's policies are not good for Wisconsin.  This is true even if our economic situation improves.  Karl Rove put it well when he said, "As people do better, they start voting like Republicans - unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing."

How important is voting to the resistance?  Emma Goldman once said, "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."  Precisely what the GOP has been attempting to do for many Americans.  While we have seen positive signs in the courts regarding Wisconsin's voter ID law, the fight isn't over yet.

The recall elections and the presidential election should see large numbers of voters make their trek to the polls.  However, the local elections coming up in a month are of great importance for many reasons.  Here in Madison we will be electing two school board seats in April.  With the passage of Act 10 and the continuing efforts of Wisconsin conservatives to privatize our education system while degrading our public education system these school board seats become vitally important. 

With all that's gone on in Wisconsin over the past year we have no excuse not to become informed and cast a ballot in the upcoming elections.  The local races that are decided this spring typically see a low turnout.  Last spring's Supreme Court election drew a virtually unprecedented 34% of the eligible voters out, and that was immediately after the events of February and March which increased political awareness significantly.  Not exactly a figure to be overly proud of.  Low numbers like those will greatly increase the chances for conservatives to succeed in the April elections.          

The Consequences of a Miscast Ballot…
Wisconsin has long bragged about our legacy of good, clean government.  That image has been tarnished over the past decade by scandal and now a legislature that appears divided, confrontational and ineffective.  We elect officials to represent us in their words, deeds and actions and this current group of Republicans have not shown much in the form of leadership. 

Instead of putting together legislation and policy that directly improves the quality of life here in Wisconsin they seem intent on putting outside agendas ahead of the people who live here.  In doing so they are following a blueprint used on a national level by GOP lead bodies of government.  The pattern involves creating legislation designed to test how far to the right they can push a particular issue.  In Wisconsin this has happened in a variety of areas.  Republican lawmakers have led a special session on jobs that resulted in little or no real progress in improving our economy.  As Nicole Safar, Policy Director at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin stated, "Every time the Republican leadership says they'll be focusing on job creation, they do get very distracted on women's health."  This lack of focus on issues that we need addressed combined with a total disregard for established practices and no efforts to compromise with Democrats has made the current legislative session an embarrassment at best. 

What is also deeply disturbing is the speed with which legislation is being rushed through.  While I'm sure that conservatives are pleased with their ability to steamroll their way ahead, one only has to look at Alabama's anti-immigrant policies to see the harm that can be done by not thoroughly debating issues before making them law.  Their anti-immigrant policy has created huge problems for their agriculture industry.  Gerald Dial senior Republican in Alabama said, "We've got just a couple of hours before adjourning the session and I've got a bill that I haven't got time to read.  But here's my predicament:  I'm a state senator.  I vote against this bill, it looks like I'm promoting illegal immigrants.  So you've got me boxed in."  He went on to say, "We overreached.  It's done some things we didn't want to do.  We probably didn't have enough debate over it, because it was passed on the last day of a legislative session, at the last minute of the last hour.  And hey, I made a mistake.  But that's the great thing about being in the Legislature:  You can come in the next year and make corrections if the bill is wrong."  Unfortunately for us in Wisconsin our GOP legislators don't seem to show much remorse over their actions. 

High among the values that progressives are fighting for is the concept of freedom for all.  Freedom is a frequently (mis)used word that has become a cornerstone of conservative propaganda.  It is time that progressives reclaimed this word and the principles behind it.  Freedom is not a guarantee of success, but rather an equal opportunity for individuals to succeed no matter what their race, religion, gender or any other defining trait. 

Freedom requires a level playing field and the only way to establish that is to have a referee that is able to arbitrate disputes in a fair manner.  Government, unions and other organizations provide us with that intermediary level so that individuals who have power are forced to deal reasonably with those who are less powerful.  Freedom involves making sure that individuals have a reasonable level of control over their lives and their actions and are not forced into situations where their choices are unduly restricted. 

This has been an ongoing struggle in all societies and America is no exception.  A couple of quotes that I found interesting about this topic follow.

"Men will cede to women only what be ceding gives them an assurance of power, like making an allowance to a wife or educating a daughter to citizenship, or they will cede only what they consider has ceased to give mastery--just as they are now ceding the vote….Even the woman movement we call feminism has not succeeded by and large in giving women any control over men.  It has only changed the distribution of women…removing vast numbers of women from the class supported by men to the class working for them."  Elsie Clews Parsons, Social Rule- 1916

From the New American History published in 1921  "Thinking men began to realize that workmen were not really free, because the courts would punish them if they made a combination to raise wages." 

Our Progressive Vision…
What truly defines our current progressive movement in Wisconsin is the vision of hope, equity and unity.  This vision will be difficult to maintain if we are able to gain political power, but every effort must be made to keep this vision intact and at the forefront of our decision making process.  In many ways this past year has seen another "Great Awakening" here.  An awakening to the need for us to work collectively to address our differences and to protect our interests.  Wisconsinites have woken up and are now actively participating in our democracy.

We are facing an uphill climb in our battle to restore rights to all citizens.  We must also counter the fear based policies implemented by the GOP.  Republicans have used fear as a tactic to help galvanize support for their policies.  The result has been catastrophic here in Wisconsin and around the United States.  Recently we've seen negative impacts in…

The economy-  

Women's Rights-

Worker's Rights-

According to the US Public Interest Research Group 30 US corporations have spent more on lobbying Congress than they have on paying taxes.  Even worse, 29 of them got rebates.  Wonder what type of legislation they are supporting? 

(First the Muppets, now cows in children's books?!?)

Health Care-

Public Safety and National Defense-

Immigration and Race Relations-

In Michigan the ability to appoint Emergency Managers to oversee communities facing financial distress is used more frequently in communities where African-Americans live.  These Emergency Managers can't increase taxes, but can privatize and reduce services as well as appoint new leadership for schools and other public agencies.


As you can imagine I have lots to say about the conservative agenda and its impact on education, however, I'll save most of that for next week's edition which will focus on education "reforms" and other issues in education.

The scope of the attacks is staggering and progressives have been scrambling to try and hold their ground in as many places as possible.  This has resulted in feelings of solidarity between groups under attack.  However, we must always be aware that the GOP will try and use any means possible to drive a wedge between groups that oppose them.  This becomes clear when they talk about things like union bosses trying to fix elections for their benefit while at the same time saying that illegal immigrants are stealing jobs from American laborers.  We must keep communicating accurate information and not allow Republican propaganda to divide us.  

Legal and Ethical Troubles…
In addition to the problems that our Republican leaders are causing through their policies there are also issues for them in the legal department.  Justice Prosser has been able to dodge responsibility for most of his words and actions, but things may be catching up to him.

Governor Walker's administration is continuing to face legal issues as the John Doe investigation continues.

As if it isn't enough to have your administration under investigation he continues to struggle in the PR department as well.  You really shouldn't criticize educators making half or a third of your salary and then talk about making real money outside of public service.  Most of us could say the same about our choice of occupations too.  This comment looks even worse when his calendar showing the amount of personal time is listed in his schedule.

All of this would probably have been forgiven if he was willing to listen to others and had made some concessions to public unions.  On one hand my family and many others are suffering because of his actions.  On the other hand, his rigidity and extremism have allowed for a rebirth in union activism and a growing awareness of the importance of politics for many Wisconsinites.  Maybe we have Ronald Reagan to thank for some of this.  We can all remember Walker's comments about his idol and Reagan's actions regarding unions.  Clearly Walker decided to follow in his icons footsteps.  Consider the following quote from Jim Wright in 1987, "(Reagan is) a person with whom you can't seriously discuss serious issues….Many, many times…I have been with members of Congress in Mr. Reagan's presence, and I don't have the feeling that ever once, any of us have gotten through to him with any point of view other than the one he entered the meeting with."

No comments:

Post a Comment