Sunday, June 24, 2012

Issue #68 June 24, 2012- A New Hope and More

What This Is…
Issue #68- June 24, 2012
In this issue: Lies, Community First and Issue Updates

Lies or Politics as Usual?…
Americans have a love/hate relationship with politics and politicians.  On one hand we continually hear complaints about the fact that our leaders are out of touch and don't represent our interests.  Sit in any public place long enough and you will hear someone talk about how "those politicians" are messing up everything.  Yet, at the same time we can't escape the fact that we have come to  rely on our politicians for many of our basic needs.  Without our government we would find ourselves without many of the services and resources that we expect as part of living in America in 2012.

One of our biggest complaints about politicians is the belief that all of our politicians routinely lie to get and maintain political power.  In fact, many defenders of GOP elected officials in Wisconsin used this belief as a defense of their candidates.  I heard many conservatives express the idea that the recalls weren't justified because all that has happened here is simply "politics as usual", that Walker/Fitzgerald/etc. weren't doing anything that a Democrat hadn't done as well.  They countered attacks on their candidates, not by refuting the attacks, but rather by using the "all politicians lie" mantra as a cover.

Accepting the concept that all of our elected leaders are liars is a pretty dangerous assumption.  It is one of the reasons why our voter turnout is so pathetic here in America.  Many people simply assume that their vote, or their opinion doesn't matter because all elected officials are cut from essentially the same cloth.  These voters turn their back on the system and are rewarded with politicians who have no accountability and who fulfill the low expectations of the electorate.  This helps further the GOP strategy of reducing voter participation and reinforces the idea that government doesn't and privatization is the only alternative.

Do our elected officials lie?  This is a difficult question to answer because, in order to know if a lie has been told we have to know the speaker's intent and motive.  Does a broken promise count as a lie?  Is it a lie if the speaker promises to achieve something and then fails, despite putting forth their best effort to try and make good on their campaign pledge?  Given the nature of our political system it isn't difficult to find examples of politicians promising something and then failing to make good on that promise due to opposition from other politicians.    

Then there are the different degrees of truth telling.  All of us are guilty of telling the occasional "white lie" or small "fib".  Maybe we tell them out of courtesy or maybe because we don't think our untruth will hurt anyone and telling a lie will make our lives a little easier.  While the concept that "honesty is the best policy" is certainly one to try and live up to, the reality is that all of us are guilty of stretching the truth, omitting details and even outright lying. 

It may sound like I am building a defense for political figures to lie.  However, this isn't the case.  Politicians are human beings who operate under a microscope of public scrutiny.  As such, they are subject to a higher standard of truth telling when dealing with public issues.  What I am calling for is the hope that citizens will begin to look at how they define lying when it comes to political and public figures.  Candidates who make campaign promises in good faith and work to uphold the trust that the voters give them are not liars.  Candidates who manipulate facts, omit important information, or who outright lie are a different matter and we need to be able to differentiate between the two.

As I said before, here in Wisconsin we are hearing from conservatives that their candidates are simply politicians and that they are manipulating information just like any other public officials have done and will do.  What is concerning is that the general public is believing this and is choosing to ignore the growing evidence that we have a morally questionable administration and an equally untrustworthy set of elected GOP officials in our legislative and judicial branches.        

Of additional concern is the fact that the media, instead of doing its job of accurately reporting information, is further muddying the water.  All citizens should have easy access to unbiased journalism that provides us with information that we can use in our efforts to be responsible citizens.         

A New Strategy For Activism…
As we continue to move away from the recall election we are able to gain more perspective on what the recalls meant in this struggle between competing ideologies in Wisconsin and across the nation.  With most events of a historical nature, the true impact won't be known for years to come, and the recall election's effects fit that mold.  Many people will analyze the results and why Walker was able to hold on to his office, but the real impact of the Wisconsin Uprising won't be determined in the near future. 

No matter what side of the conflict you are on, it should be clear that June 5th was not the end, but only another battle in the ongoing war.  No side can claim total victory while their opponents are still organizing and resisting.  The progressive movement in Wisconsin is far from defeated. 

What we saw in Wisconsin was just the latest chapter in the conflict that has existed for centuries.  A conflict that centers around a fundamental disagreement over the role of government in shaping and cultivating a civilized society.  The political philosophy that guided the original leaders of the colonists resistance to English rule spoke to an essential difference between a "state of nature" where everyone was out for individual success and a society where the government and citizens worked for the betterment of all people.

Here in the United States we have faced significant challenges in providing equal opportunities for all of our citizens.  Our nation is made up of people from all parts of the world who came here for different reasons.  The diversity of our citizens in culture, race, ethnicity, experience and countless other demographic divisions is at the same time a strength and a weakness.  Our nation's history is filled with stories of hope and opportunity and also with exploitation and cruelty.

We face the challenge of celebrating our past successes and our vast potential as a nation that can welcome diversity, yet we can't ignore the violence and inhumane treatment of so many people.  When looked at from a historical perspective, one can see gradual progress being made towards achieving the dreams that were expressed in our founding documents.  Unfortunately, while many of us have worked for social justice and a more inclusive society, there is always significant resistance to these objectives from those who fear the "other" as a threat to the political, social or economic status quo. 

The victory of Scott Walker in the recall was as much a validation of that fear as anything else.  In fact the conservative movement in Wisconsin is built on resisting the impending changes in demographics and an effort to hold on to power for the existing elite.  We are a state that is seeing some significant changes in the population of our state and these changes make for unsettling times.  This is especially true in a state like Wisconsin that has a few medium sized urban centers surrounded by a landscape dominated by smaller communities.  Look at maps of the election results and you will see this clearly on display.

What would be easy for many progressives to do, is to simply look at this as an example of ignorance, racism, or other negative trait of the voters in the state that supported Walker.  However, by doing so we will simply increase the divide between the different factions that already exist and eliminate the ability for groups to find common ground.  No one likes to be told they are less informed, less tolerant or less responsible.  Instead, we need to find ways to have positive discussions with our opponents so that they see a need to help find solutions we can all live with.

Progressives find themselves in a similar position when trying to mobilize the populations of the more diverse areas of Wisconsin.  For years the Democratic Party and progressives in general have assumed the support of these different groups of citizens.  This is mainly because the Republican party hasn't offered any reason for diverse populations to support their candidates.  Yet, the "minority" populations of Wisconsin haven't received much in the way of meaningful support from either party.  Diverse neighborhoods see an influx of activists during election cycles, but are virtually ignored in the periods between political campaigns.  Much of the political activism in these areas centers on simply getting people to the polls (with the assumption that they will vote for a Democrat when they get there).  In other words, "we need your vote", but do little to earn it. 

Our current efforts to organize communities and our entire political structure are designed to support citizens who are used to the existing system.  We have committees, elect leaders and discuss problems in the same ways that we always have.  This means that any group that wants to have an influence in making changes must adapt to a certain way of doing things.  This effectively limits who has a voice and disenfranchises and devalues a segment of our state's population.

So how do we make changes in our existing system without completely undermining the stability of our social, political or economic structure?  In other words, how can we incorporate the diversity of our state so that as many groups as possible are heard and respected in the debate?  How can we undo the efforts of the GOP to "divide and conquer" us?  How do you bring the small town together with the urban center and engage them in meaningful discussion?  Ideally our elected officials would be able to provide a forum for the needs of different groups to be heard, however, we have seen that this system is breaking down under current antagonistic conditions. 

Our leaders in the 1700's recognized what needs to be done in these types of situations.  When our governing bodies and leaders fail us, we must act ourselves to restore a just and civil society.  You can see efforts to restore Wisconsin springing up in many places across the state as different groups work to find ways to bridge gaps and communicate with others.

Here in Madison several labor groups are working to try a new approach, called Community First, to organizing and communicating across demographic boundaries.  We had our first meeting this past week and discussed the need to work with community organizers and groups to bring people together for coalition building and problem solving.  This effort is designed to go beyond electoral politics and move towards building long term relationships between labor organizations and different community groups. 

While the cynics might say that labor is reaching out to the diverse populations in Madison because of political need, the reality is that many of us feel that this effort has been needed for a long time.  Here in Madison we have large numbers of citizens who have been excluded from decision making and who are struggling to make their voices heard.  Cooperation between labor organizations and different neighborhoods, demographic groups and other interests is natural and logical.  Look at the names of the major civil rights leaders and you will find that they were advocates of worker's rights as well.  Labor rights and civil rights have been companions throughout our history and the relationship should be strengthened during this time of crisis.  Strengthened with the intend of maintaining and increasing connections even after we have successfully reclaimed Wisconsin's progressive tradition. 

What is important in this effort is that it is a joint effort with groups treated as equals.  No single group gets to control the agenda and each group gets to speak for itself.  This presents a challenge in organizing, but means that we will see our movement strengthened by the diverse approaches to problem solving.  Each group provides insight and ideas along with enthusiasm as issues of importance are addressed. 

This outreach of labor to historically disenfranchised groups has tremendous potential to help all groups advance their agenda and bring specific concerns to the attention of the larger community.  It also allows for communication between diverse interests and helps counter the "divide and conquer" strategy currently employed by the GOP.  As the Madison community organizes and unites we can begin to develop ideas for reaching out to other communities and begin to expand the connections outside of the traditional Democratic strongholds.  More importantly though, unifying coalitions like the one we are working to establish help citizens view each other as human beings and not as stereotypes that are created by propagandists of either party.

This effort is in the initial organizing stages and we face some significant challenges as we work to establish relationships with other groups.  We will need to work to counter the negative images of organized labor already in place.  We will also need to convince other groups of our good intentions and willingness to cede some authority over the goals and objectives of the organization.  Additionally we face the challenge of building a movement among people who have been excluded from meaningful access to power for extensive amounts of time.  Convincing people that their actions can make a difference is always challenging, and is more difficult when there isn't a long history of successfully organizing for action.

At the same time there is hope for the future and a new way of "doing business".  I am a firm believer that good can come from bad circumstances, and we are certainly facing some tough times in the near future.  Projects like "Community First" provide us with legitimate reasons for optimism in uncertain times.       

Issue Updates…
Worker's Rights…
 A few items from the past week involving the struggle to defend worker's rights in Wisconsin and across the nation.  I encourage you to read the comments in the articles (where available).  They provide insight into the dialog surrounding the issues of interest to progressives. 

Real Education Reform…
We continue to face multiple attacks on public education as well as significant challenges in our efforts to address the needs of educators, families and students

We can't forget the need for honest discussion and debate about ways to address the Achievement Gaps that impact many of our students. 

The Madison School Board has passed a budget for the next school year. 

In Wisconsin it's clear that Walker's reforms won't have a positive impact on public education (and they were never designed to improve education, just change the balance of power). 

On the national scene, many educators view the current Democratic leadership's plans with skepticism and disdain. 

Overall, the trends in public education are not favorable and we need to work hard to turn the ship around and head in the right direction (or should I say "left").  As opportunities are cut and conservative "reforms" are implemented our students will suffer the consequences. 

Honest Elections…
With the break between elections, now is the time to work on reforming our system.  However, we can't forget that control of the state senate hangs in the balance.

A cool interactive chart of PAC spending and which campaigns get the money.

It's My Money and I'll Spend How I Want To…
The economy is the issue that resonates most immediately with voters and we need to continue our activism in this area.  There are opportunities to spend money in meaningful ways as well as larger societal issues around the economy.  In the end we all need to reflect on the importance of money, material goods and consumption in our own lives.   

An Economist Explores the Unintended Consequences of Man’s Quest for Short-Term Gains from 1493 to T

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Issue #67 June 17, 2012- We Continue The Fight

What This Is…
Issue #67- June 17, 2012
In this issue: What's Next and More Recall Reflections

What's Next?…
For the first time in recent memory, progressives in Wisconsin are left without an immediate, concrete timeline and clear objective to focus on.  Over the past 16 months we have followed a path of elections pointed towards the ultimate goal of recalling Governor Walker.  Now we face a critical time as we look towards the future without the unifying force that the recall provided.  

In some ways I find this a terrifying prospect.  The fear is that the coalition that formed between different groups will break apart and people will return to their daily lives that were put on hold during the recall efforts, or focus their energy on their own specific interests.  The solidarity that was developed between groups with different interests can be fragile and we are vulnerable to the "divide and conquer" strategy.  This is especially true when so many of us are facing economic challenges that force us to make decisions between our personal interests and the good of our society as a whole. 

Another danger is that the issues we face are so big and daunting that it becomes easy to get discouraged.  Working to recall Walker gave us a specific goal to work for.  Protecting the environment, restoring worker's rights, protecting and promoting quality public education and all the other issues that were keystones in the recall movement are ongoing issues that require constant attention.  It can be tempting for involved citizens to disengage from the process and return to their previous states of momentary outrage and general "What can I do anyway?" thinking.       

However, we can't forget that we've already faced moments like this one during our 16 months of resistance.  I remember thinking that everything would fall apart after MTI returned to work in February, after the Supreme Court election and after the summer recalls of 2011.  I wasn't convinced that we would be able to get enough signatures to recall Walker, yet we nearly doubled the number needed. 

So, now that we come to another crossroads in the path towards restoring Wisconsin values to Wisconsin, I look ahead with more confidence and faith in myself and my fellow citizens.  The road ahead is uncertain and filled with challenge, but we've already come so far together that it is difficult to imagine us failing to complete the journey. 

What we can't forget is that we've travelled the road together, not as individuals or as specific interests, but as a group unified by a vision of a society that provides equality of opportunity and support for all.  Now is the time to strengthen our connections and build bridges between groups that will eliminate divisions and allow us to be the ones to conquer.  Without the pressure of the recalls and without the intensity of emotions that the electoral cycle created we have an opportunity to reach out to all citizens of Wisconsin and share our message and be heard by the more moderate opponents of our movement.  There are many citizens who voted for Walker, but did so without conviction and they need to hear from us.  There are also many who continue to feel that the system has abandoned them, and we need to show them how they can make it work through their participation.

It should be crystal clear to all of us that this is a long term struggle.  However, the battle only continues if we don't give up the fight.  Remember your physics, an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  That rule applies to humans as well.  Most of us will settle in to routines and accept what life deals out without much resistance unless we have support and prodding from others. 

In fact, most people will go out of their way to defend the status quo.  They will use any number of different justifications, but we can see countless examples throughout history of good people defending bad things.  It is this inertia that allows conservative policies to gain acceptance as being "good" for our society.  This inertia fuels resistance to progressive ideas like desegregation, inclusion and acceptance of diversity.

There is a certain amount of irony in the idea that conservatives in Wisconsin have labeled themselves as the party of reform, while at the same time painting progressives as the party of the status quo.  The GOP did a magnificent job of portraying themselves as the party moving Wisconsin forward even as they implemented policies from the 1950's and earlier.  They also were able to present themselves as a party with a plan of action, no matter how misguided and destructive their plans were (and will be).    

Over the past 16 months progressives in Wisconsin have built a good case against the "reforms" offered by the GOP.  Unfortunately, progressives failed to establish a widely accepted impression as a party with a plan to make Wisconsin a great state to live in.  As we look at the results of the recall election we see that many people saw a difference between protesting against specific policies and providing a plan to move a state forward.  Governor Walker was able to manipulate this situation to make himself look like a man of strength and action.

Much of my writing has been designed to justify and support the protests against the policies of the GOP in Wisconsin.  As I said, the case that has been made by many activists (I try to share as many sources as I can) that the conservative agenda is not a good one for most Wisconsinites.  Now, as we move away from the initial stages of the conflict here we must provide a blueprint that will guide our thinking and hopefully influence future policies that are developed in Wisconsin. 

The progressive agenda is one of hope and one that provides the greatest opportunity for the most people.  If we can articulate this message well over the coming months we will see public opinion bend back towards the center and away from the far right.  The key is that we don't lose hope and faith in the people of Wisconsin and in the system of government that can work for the greater good, if the people exercise their influence.   
It's Not The End…
For many Wisconsin citizens June 5th seemed like the end of the battle and a return to "normalcy".  Now that all the protests and hoopla was done we could return to the "good old days" of  pre-February 2011.  A time when we could all roll our eyes at the shenanigans at the Capitol and everyone (Republican, Democrat, Independent, etc.) was unhappy with the outcomes, but accepted them with a sort of blind trust or at least apathy.  A time when our elected officials would work together to form policies and heated debate was an oddity.

While that past may never actually have existed, many Wisconsinites would love to go back to the days when politics wasn't perpetually "in their faces".  However, isn't that constant exposure to the truth exactly what is needed here?  If we simply accept what has happened as inevitable and throw our hands up and walk away from the political arena, what will we be left with?     

It would be a horrible mistake to assume that because of the past months the Republican leaders in Wisconsin have "seen the light" and will be more moderate in their future actions.  Nothing in Walker's past or in recent events would lead us to believe that we are in for anything other than more controversial and divisive policies over the remainder of his term in office (hopefully his only term).   

We can continue to hold out hope that the John Doe investigation will lead to some significant consequences for Walker.

In my last edition I laid out 4 major areas (Public Education, Fair Elections, Worker's Rights and Buycotts)  that I wanted to focus on as we move ahead with our resistance to the conservative movement in Wisconsin.  I plan on sharing information, articles and links to organizations that are operating here so that others can join in the effort.  Remember, our strength is in our solidarity and the unity we create with others.  That's why Walker knew he needed to try and divide us in order to conquer Wisconsin.     

I know that I am not alone in my belief that through citizen action we will be able to make positive change happen here.  I also recognize that there are many other areas that progressives are working in and don't mean to ignore or diminish any other aspects of the struggle.  What matters most isn't necessarily what you do, it's that you do something.    

Worker's Rights…
There is no doubt that this is an important aspect of the conflict.  We know that the GOP's strategy is to attack opponents in their areas of strength.  They knew that they needed to undermine the power of labor in the political process.  By weakening the power of workers at their jobs and in politics the GOP gained significant advantages in their efforts to seize power here, and across the nation. 

Working conditions and wages are of huge importance to most Wisconsinites.  We spend much of our time at work, we identify ourselves by our occupations and we need the income and benefits that our labor earns for us and our families.  Worker's rights have been a cornerstone of nearly every social movement and need to continue to be emphasized in the ongoing struggles in Wisconsin. 

The labor movement must work to counter the efforts of the GOP to paint unions in a negative light.  Solidarity between all workers is key to the effort to change the image of organized labor.  Workplace by workplace we need to demonstrate the benefits of organizing and find ways to expand the power of workers, even as management and conservative political leadership try to eliminate the influence labor has.  

Real Education Reform…
Education is the great equalizer.  It provides opportunities for individuals and groups in all areas, political, social and economic.  People value their educational opportunities and gaining access to an education is a part of the ongoing struggles for equality in our nation.  It is also a battleground as different groups try to control access to education and the content of curriculum taught in schools.  In addition it is an economic marketplace where there is the opportunity for significant profit to be made if someone places profit over student's needs.

Public education in the United States has been under attack for decades as conservatives have tried to undermine the credibility of educators and control the content taught in the classroom.  I've written quite a bit about the attacks and will continue to share information about future attempts to destroy our public education system.  In addition to this type of information I will also be sharing ways to defend public education and ways we can improve our public schools. 

There is no denying the fact that these are troubling times for public educators in Wisconsin and across the nation.  We face cuts to school budgets and cuts to educator wages and benefits.  With the loss of collective bargaining we face a time when educators will need to find new ways to influence debate over issues that impact education.  The privatization of our schools is gaining popularity in many circles and we face increased accountability through inaccurate and ineffective measures (standardized testing).     

Educators find themselves increasingly excluded from decision making about the schools they work in.  Republican and Democrat alike have accepted the conservative idea that testing is good and privatization is positive.  The voices of educators are ignored or silenced in the effort to "reform" education. 

The divide and conquer strategy is being implemented in the debate over public education as well.  Issues like the Achievement Gaps are used to make it seem that public education is failing and that public educators are not capable of or interested in educating "minority" students.  Instead of recognizing the challenges involved in educating a widely diverse population and supporting educator's efforts to work with all children, conservatives use the available data to cut funding and promote privatization of schools.  Societal issues like poverty, inequality in opportunities and access to resources are ignored and public education is blamed.

I'm not pretending that there aren't issues that public education needs to address, especially regarding the achievement of our African-American and Latino students.  However, the "reforms" that are offered by conservatives lead us down a path that increases the divide between groups instead of closing the gaps.  If conservative "reformers" wanted to be consistent they would reduce the oversight of educators and give us more independence to improve our public education system (just like they want to do for banking and industries like mining).  One of the simplest reforms that would work to improve public education is to simply allow professional educators a true voice in the formation and implementation of educational policy at all levels.      

However, all is not lost.  Educators, families and supporters of public education are working together to share positive messages about our schools.  Just as in the struggle for worker's rights, forming connections and building public support is crucial as we work to defend our system of public education. 

As we move forward into an uncertain future with the collective voices of educators stifled by Act 10 it remains to be seen what our public schools will evolve into.  No matter what happens, public educators need to make sure that their voices are heard in the debate.  We must work with community members, families and other organizations to make sure our students receive the educational opportunities that they need and deserve. 

Here in Madison we face another challenge as the leadership in our district changes.

Honest Elections…
Over the past 16 months Wisconsin has held a significant number of elections.  Between the recalls, primaries and regular elections it has been a period of continual campaigning here.  In addition to the seemingly endless election cycle, we have also seen heated debate over the need for reform in our electoral system.  Yet, after all is said and done we are left with bitterness and significantly divided opinions about the health of the most important part of our democracy, honest and fair elections. 

Perhaps the only thing that all of us can agree on is that we need to reform our electoral process.  From that point there is significant disagreement as to what the problems are and how to fix them.  Conservatives argue that voter fraud is rampant and that stricter control over voter registration and balloting will solve all our problems.  They want to place restrictions on same day registration and support laws that make voter ID rules more stringent. 

These proponents of stricter voting rules also claim to want to cut the costs of elections and change recall rules to increase the difficulty of recalling elected officials.  Of course this is the same party that ran fake candidates in the recalls and essentially doubled the costs of the elections by forcing primaries.  They also criticized Justice Kloppenburg for requesting a recount, but have no problem when Van Wanggaard asks for one in the recently decided election in District 21.

Progressives argue that the issue isn't voter fraud, but rather a system where money plays an overly important role in electing a candidate.  In addition to the influence of money progressives are also concerned about the accuracy of our electoral results.  I seem to have more accountability for the test booklets I give my 4th graders during state wide testing than some county clerks have for their voting results.

Until we have elections that all parties can agree are fair and that yield accurate, unquestioned results our democracy is in serious jeopardy.

It's My Money and I'll Spend How I Want To…
My final area of emphasis is one that we can all accomplish on a personal level.  Money drives our society and our politics and we need to think carefully about how we spend the money we earn.  Conservatives continually talk about the money that unions poured into Wisconsin's political arena during the recall process, but they fail to mention that union money comes from union members.  These same members have a voice in who their union endorses and supports.  Conservatives enjoy the financial support of multiple large donors (as well as other sources, but it is the large individual donors who concern me the most) who aren't accountable to anyone but themselves.  The only way that we can have an impact on these donors is to make a united effort to expose their influence and avoid supporting their companies.  

It boils down to conflicting views of what our society's economy is built on.  Conservatives look only to the bottom line and view their decisions in terms of profit and loss.  In this world view, there are always winners and losers and a person's value is viewed in stark economic terms.  Progressives look at our economy as a vehicle for providing the best opportunities for as many individuals as possible.      

In the end, each of us has a personal responsibility for helping develop our economic policies.  Each purchase we make, or don't make, is essentially a vote in the ongoing struggle to improve our economic situation and hold the wealthiest among us responsible for the decisions they make.  We are a nation driven by consumption and our economy relies on our spending.  What we don't need to do is be conspicuous consumers, instead we can spend our money wisely and support our local economies as much as possible.