Introduction: Our Wisconsin Revolution (OWR) does not have a manifesto-style document articulating its structure and goals. That would be inappropriate for an organization that hasn’t even had its founding convention yet, and that aspires to be deeply member-driven. What we do have is a well-developed vision and the beginnings of a program. To explain them, here is an interview between Joel Rogers (JR in what follows), who is one of the core organizers helping launch this group, and Matthew Kearney (MLK in what follows), the editor of this blog. The interview was conducted on February 21, 2017. It will be published here in serial, edited for clarity.
MLK: What is Our Wisconsin Revolution?
JR: It’s an independent, statewide, membership driven, democratic-populist, or popular- democratic political organization, social welfare organization, that aims to make Wisconsin into a real democracy starting by taking its government back from corporate elites, and making it not just ‘over’ and ‘of,’ but as Lincoln put it, ‘by and for’ the people.
MLK: What is the relationship of Our Wisconsin to the national Our Revolution? And while you’re at it, what is the national Our Revolution?
JR: Our Revolution was an organization formed by operatives in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign after that campaign ended. Sanders said repeatedly that what we need in America is a peaceful political revolution from below to overturn the governance of our country by the elite billionaire class and restore it to the people. And they took the name Our Revolution as the name of the thing that they wanted to form to carry this out afterwards.
What Bernie donated to Our Revolution was his very valuable list of identified activist supporters and donors. Our Revolution itself is a start-up. It has had only a couple of in-person board meetings. It’s got pretty minimal staff. But it does have this very valuable thing: Bernie’s list. And his blessing. Our of respect for his Senate colleagues, he’s staying out of direct involvement. But it certainly has his blessing.
MLK: Is it official now that this is the state chapter of Our Revolution?
JR: Yes. We are their chapter, and as their chapter we get access to and help in using their list for Wisconsin, which is more than 100,000 clean, non-duplicate names and emails, and cell numbers for about a third of them.
Wisconsin is one of only seven full-state chapters of Our Revolution so far. The others are Iowa, Ohio, Texas, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. In the other 43 states, they’re proceeding on a much more localized basis. Of all the state chapters, they tell us we’re probably the furthest along, as pathetic as we may seem, in terms of having an orderly process of formation on a statewide basis.
MLK: Speaking of an orderly process of formation, I keep hearing about a statewide convention that’s planned for later this spring. What is that and what’s supposed to happen at that thing?
JR: Well, it’s supposed to be a founding convention. We take seriously the idea that this is a member-driven organization, which is an important difference from a lot of progressive public interest groups. We actually want the members to run the thing. And that means we need to get them together, on some regular basis, to do the business of the organization. The founding convention is the first time we’ll do that. The members will decide on governance rules, and our program, and the political and organizing plan for the next few years, and they’ll elect leadership for going forward. All existing transitional leadership will then step down, and we’ll be off and running, with member support. That’s the idea. And probably have some trainings, and maybe even a little fun.
MLK: So how are you being run now?
JR: We have an Interim Organizing Committee as the de-facto governing body of the organization until that convention. People can see who’s on it by going to the website. It meets by conference call biweekly. And we’ve got some temporary officers and board members of the incorporated entity. That’s the “transitional leadership” I just referred to, at least statewide. Different local chapters have their own version of the same.
MLK: You mentioned before that Our Wisconsin is going to do a lot of electoral politics work. But I understand it’s not organizationally part of the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party, or the Green Party. How does the electoral politics part of this organization work?
JR: If your mission is to make Wisconsin a real democracy, starting with taking the government back from corporate elites and making it by and for the people, you’ve got to do a lot of electoral work. And, certainly, there’s a lot of opportunity to do it in Wisconsin. There are more than 15,000 elected public officials in Wisconsin. It’s not just the governor, plus the Supreme Court, 33 senators, and 99 assembly folks. It’s a bunch of other people. Almost all these people are in non-partisan elections where anyone can enter them and there’s no party line indicated. So you don’t need to be a party to have someone compete for the office. And in truth, you don’t need that for the partisan elections either. What you do is enter a major party’s primary, and compete there.
We are incorporated as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, tax-exempt social welfare organization under Internal Revenue Code §501(c)(4). You can do almost anything a party does, while avoiding the hassles of defending a ballot line as a minor party, and party-specific financial reporting requirements. Most elections in Wisconsin are nonpartisan, so the party label thing never comes up. In partisan elections, we’ll enter people in primaries, and we’ll widely advertise who our candidate is, and see what happens. But we don’t want to be a third party, since under current rules that would means we’d forever be inviting our supporters to spend votes on a candidate with no serious chance of winning, or we’d spoil, that is, deny their second most preferred candidate enough votes that their least preferred one wins. For example, voting for Nader instead of Gore ended up helping Bush in the general, or voting for Stein instead of Clinton ends up helping Trump. So that’s why we don’t want to be a third party.
At the same time, we don’t want to be affiliated with either of the major parties, or waste our time trying to change their current leadership. What we want is for our members and other voters to know that the candidates we’re endorsing will fight for the program our members have endorsed, and understand how enacting that program benefits the people and society. That’s the only important information you need. And we don’t need or want some party label or affiliation for people to get that message. Indeed, it may just limit our potential support. A lot of people we want to get have voted Republican for years. Even more haven’t voted at all, because they don’t think major party politics matters to them. A lot of people have that view; the biggest party in the U.S. and certainly Wisconsin, is the party of non-voters. We want everybody to vote. And we don’t want this picture of it not making a difference – which people have come to hold in their heads because of their experience with the two major parties – to get in the way of their hearing our message and voting for our program, which we think is quite different from business as usual.
You can think of Our Wisconsin Revolution as something that’s acting like a party without needing to be one, and also being the political party that you sort of would want to join if our voting rules weren’t so screwy.
MLK: Are you going to train your own candidates?
JR: Of course, along with helping them in other ways. Running for office is a daunting task. A lot of people who should be in government don’t know what it involves, or how to take it on. We intend to help on both things, and make running for office as easy and possible for ordinary people to do. And this is doable. You can learn how to be an effective politician. And it’s much easier to train somebody with good values on how to be a successful politician than it is to train a successful politician without any values to have some good ones.
MLK: What are you going to cover in the training?
JR: The training is of different kinds and stripes, and here I’m talking not just about candidate training, but campaign staff training, and OWR member training. Some of it is skills training, which is not just coding voter preferences, but it’s how to talk to people who really disagree with you, or don’t trust you. Politics is relational, but some people don’t even know how to begin a conversation with someone on the other side. Here’s a hint. Learn how to listen. Really listen. Tell your story, but listen to theirs. It gets a lot easier to navigate policy differences once two people actually see each other. So we’re training people in how to do that. That can be done. We’re going to have to have thousands, tens of thousands of conversations in Wisconsin over the next several years, , and our candidates are going to have to be ready to have those conversations.
Then there’s analytic stuff. How exactly is the billionaire class making a fortune out of Wisconsin, and why should you be upset about that? How exactly have they rigged the economy? And what opportunities do we have to put things right again?
MLK: Would it be fair to say it’s more about what people would like to see in the future than about how they’ve voted or behaved politically in the past?
JR: Absolutely! We really don’t care what your voting history is. This is definitely a forward-looking thing. OWR’s trying to put forth a positive vision of what we think Wisconsin could be. It’s trying to enable meaningful action at the local level where we can certainly win elections, and building its own base and identifying leaders that over time we think are going to really transform Wisconsin government in good ways.
MLK: So OWR has these electoral goals. Are there other things besides those electoral campaigns that OWR wants to do? For instance, things like protesting, collective actions, issue campaigns, maybe a social event or an artistic event now and then?
JR: Yes, yes, and yes on all those things, but let’s step back and look at why. This thing is focused on the government, at least in the first instance. It’s electorally and governing focused, so it’s going to be doing a lot of conventional politics for that reason. But even if you’re doing conventional politics, it helps enormously to have an outside game as well as an inside game, a non-electoral game as well as an electoral one. And you see around you today, there are all sorts of protests and resistance and rebellion against what Trump has been doing. And as you know from six years ago and stuff that you studied in your dissertation, there’s a big rebellion of sorts in Wisconsin. Our members are very active in that stuff.
What we’re asking them to do is to make their presence as OWR members visible, and make the case for joining it, since we’ve all got to move from protest, eventually, to governance. But that said, yeah, you definitely need an ongoing, outside-of-the-halls-of-government game. You need to be showing to the general public that you have support within it, and showing to elected officials that there are people watching them. You need to be able to protest or condemn those who behave badly, and show support and approval to those trying to do the right thing. You can do that with emails and letters and such, but the best way, always, is to show them you care enough to put your body where your mouth is. That could be protests, marches, demonstrations, civil disobedience, you name it. As long as it’s peaceful, we’re fine with it.
So, yes, I imagine we’ll be doing lots of non-electoral things in public space. But the other third major area of activity, and this is really crucial, is work with members in chapters. The real foundation of OWR is an active, informed, organized membership. That doesn’t happen by itself. It means a bunch of people with a shared view of the world – What’s happened? Who or what is responsible? What can we do to improve things? – and commitment to the organization’s plan for improving the world, and to each other in implementing that plan. All together, that describes a sort of intentional community. That’s what we’re trying to build, and that’ll take the most time and be the greatest source of strength.