At a packed "town hall meeting" at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison last night, progressive talk show host Ed Schultz told Wisconsin citizens to keep up their fight on behalf of the middle class, for the sake of the entire country. "I can't emphasize enough how you are being watched in the rest of the country," he said. "The only way we turn around the attack on workers is if you keep going door to door."
Standing on stage with the 14 Democratic state senators who recently returned from Illinois after fleeing to resist Governor Scott Walker's union-busting bill, Schultz got the crowd chanting "Recall!" and tried to shore up people's spirits for the recall drives against Republican senators across the state.
The dubious outcome of the recent Supreme Court race and a general lull in spontaneous, mass protests that have rocked the Capitol in Madison have dampened spirits -- especially as Walker and the Republicans press on with their radical anti-democratic agenda.
But people want to do something. Just today I received a petition titled "We the People are Demanding Our Democracy Back" from Rose Gardener, "just an ordinary citizen" who hopes to get Schultz and national labor unions to lead a massive protest of the Bush era tax cuts in Washington.
As the crowd gathered at the Barrymore, Walker was heading to Washington, DC, to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on his achievements so far in Wisconsin.
There is no doubt that Wisconsin's struggle has gone national.
And the stakes are daunting.
As Joel Rogers of the UW's Center for Wisconsin Strategy put it in a recent letter to Isthmus, Madison's alternative weekly:
Governor Walker, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, and the Fitzgerald brothers who control the state legislature are "made men of a well-resourced, well-organized, and lethal political project that goes well beyond wrecking unions and schools, inflicting pain upon the poor, and otherwise debasing a single state. As explained by Grover Norquist and Karl Rove, this project aims at national repeal of most of the democratic achievements of the 20th Century, a return to business domination of public life not seen since the Gilded Age and McKinley, and whatever constraints on popular action are needed to make that domination permanent. In short, to reverse and then halt the progress of democracy in America."
The urgent task for Wisconsinites and the majority of citizens across the nation, Rogers says, is to "build a mass democratic movement, not just a moment -- an organized people force as strong, determined, and savvy as the organized money force that wants to kill us."
Wow. That is one tall order.
How do we convert the spontaneous popular outpouring against the "made men" and their heavily financed and well-organized lobby into something with real organization and power?
I put that question to Joel Rogers on the phone this morning.
He said he doesn't think it's that hard.
First, we need a name we can agree on for our movement. "Call it Dream Reborn or Progressive America...call it what you want," he says.
This movement should be independent of politicians and foundations -- financed by many, many small donors.
"It would be easy to find 1 million people to give $100 or $1,000 a year. If it's $100 that's $100,000,000. If it's $1,0000 that's $1 billion. You could do a lot of damage with that."
The uprising in Wisconsin shows how quickly a broad cross-section of the public can come together around a basic, progressive agenda.
"Let's say you agreed on the broad ends of the movement -- democracy, equal opportunity, peace. The broad agreement is not hard," Rogers says. "Then -- how do you play together?"
That is the trickier part. Not only are we disorganized and spontaneous, our existing infrastructure of progressive groups has a lousy track record when it comes to working together.
"We need progressive groups, labor unions, and all the fractured parts of this nascent movement to work together," Rogers says.
He contrasts how the left is divided with the more coordinated, disciplined Right. That difference, he says, goes back to the 1970s and the Powell Memo: a storied document drafted by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Powell for the head of the Chamber of Commerce, advising business leaders and conservatives to form foundations, coordinate their message, and build a grassroots movement.
As the group ReclaimDemocracy.org explains:
"Though Powell's memo was not the sole influence, the Chamber and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration's 'hands-off business'philosophy. Most notable about these institutions was their focus on education, shifting values, and movement-building."
Paul Ryan's budget plan, Scott Walker's assault on public employee unions across the country, and the whole multi-pronged attack on democracy from the Right is the outgrowth of the Powell plan.
What we need is to do the same kind of organizing on the left.
But while the Right has an interlocking set of think tanks, politicians and pundits who are trained in the right-wing message, a political farm team, and corporate financing, "What do we have?" says Rogers, "A bunch of foundations."
Progressive groups competing for foundation funding creates a dysfunctional system, he says.
"So the Hewlitt Foundation goes big into cap and trade and people say, 'Hey let's do that!' And the whole environmental movement follows suit. It's ridiculous," Rogers says.
A truly grassroots movement, relying on small donors and working in a coordinated way, would solve that problem.
Rogers's "7 Habits of Highly Successful Social Movements" theory is essentially a blueprint for how progressives could build a movement to counter the Right.
In Wisconsin, it is particularly relevant right now.
To succeed, in Rogers's theory, social movements need:
Blood (young people who are mentored and inspired and empowered to lead)
Service Centers (campaign opposition shops or a big voter file with tons of names on a single list)
Message: (think of your favorite signs from the Wisconsin rallies: "We're just trying to have a society here," "save our schools," "invest in people," "save the middle class")
Messengers: (trained, as the right trains its people, to run for office, be on TV, etc. -- and who show a range of faces as diverse and fractious as society -- but all hitting on the same message -- think of the Fab 14)
Models -- (like ALEC for our side, that produce draft legislation and talking points for legislators etc.)
and, of course, Money (from small independent donors)
Much of that organization sounds a lot like the early Obama campaign: before the Presidency, the national Democratic Party, and Wall Street took over.
In fact, if Obama had not demobilized his connection to an independent, small-donor base, he would have been better positioned to resist much of the right-wing takeover of government.
During the Presidential campaign, Rogers advised the Obama campaign to adopt progressive policy positions on a range of issues.
"My great disappointment with Obama," he says, "is that what ought to be done is so clear, and certainly there was such an elite consensus -- a consensus among the chattering classes at least -- that I thought he could actually implement it."
To wit: "You can't run an economy as dirty and wasteful as this and have a decent standard of living. You can't have a government completely hostage to banksters and get intelligent policy. As a declining power you can't shoulder responsibility for the world's security."
Unfortunately, Obama got elected, the professionals took over.
Even on the smaller, economic development issues, "There are obvious areas where Obama hasn't done the things he was offered on a silver platter," Rogers says. "I tried to offer this energy efficiency plan for cities -- labor was on board, business was on board, it could have generated several million jobs," Rogers says.
But that is not the main point for people in Wisconsin.
"We -- the left -- have to have a structure that doesn't rise and fall with a particular person running for office," Rogers says.
Listening to him talk, you start to get the feeling that building that structure doesn't have to be so hard: "A million small donors can flip the country."
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "What Now, Wisconsin?"
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.