Introduction: This post continues an interview between Joel Rogers and Matthew Kearney, conducted on February 21, 2017. For Part 1, please go here.
MLK: The community part of this organization, on top of just running campaigns, seems very important to you. Can you say more about the elements of this community?
JR: Sure. Well, we talked about the more clearly political stuff – the view of the world, and commitment to action plan to improve it. Let’s say something about the other elements of community. Along with all the work, there’s got to be some support in doing it. People are not always going to know how to do some things that need doing. So you need to do a lot of training and education and coaching. People are going to mess up, or get discouraged. So you need a culture not just of clear expectations, but also encouragement and occasional forgiveness and care with each other. Some people call that love. I wouldn’t mind calling it that. And you need some fun. People may want to do some apolitical activity which helps develop the bonds of trust and affection that may feed back in some positive way to the politics. We don’t have any view on what that should be. I don’t care if it’s pub crawls or pot lucks, it could be vegan roasts or barbecues, it could be parties or poetry readings. Basically it could be whatever they want that gets people together to have some fun together, and see each other a little bit outside of the context of very hard politics.
Think of a sports team, of any kind, and you’ll get the idea. Only we’re not playing for a trophy, but for our lives as a free people. So it can get heavy pretty quickly. What I know, however, is that it’s got to be a team people want to be on, a community they want to join. So it’s got to respect them as people, and give them work to do that they see as meaningful. That means respecting their brains, and their time, and the rest of their lives.
MLK: To pull this off, I assume you’ll need some combination of money and volunteer time. How are you going to get those things?
JR: Yeah, some money and some volunteers. In politics, that’s what you always need in order to get power: organized money or organized people. But you also need some other things to spend that money or people on. You need a base of potential voters. You need a program that will actually advance interests of a lot of people. You need a strategy and a plan to win. And then, yes, you need money and people. Well, we’re never going to get the big bucks. But our thought is that if we get the people, which requires that we build these communities doing all these things, the money will sort of take care of itself. We’ll get small dues and donations from members, and we may be able to attract a few bigger individual donors, and maybe even some support from sympathetic organizations. We’re not talking about a big budget here in any case, at least for starters. Just enough to support staff to get all those volunteers you speak of organized and moving.
But that’s not the problem I’m mostly worried about. What I’m mostly worried about is getting those informed, active members playing well together. If we get that we’ll be fine. I really actually believe that.
MLK: A lot of people are paying a lot of attention to what’s happening nationally right now, and you’re talking about doing work on the local and state levels. How do those things interplay? How does working at the local and state level help to resist a destructive agenda coming out of Washington?
JR: We might start by trying to dispel the widespread myth that the federal government actually runs this country, since it really doesn’t. The vastly greater share of government work goes on at the state and local level. And anything that you want to do at the federal level — apart from the admittedly very important questions about war and peace, or the money supply, or federal taxation, or social insurance – you can certainly do at the state and local level, and often more easily than at the federal one. Public education, public safety and corrections, environmental, transportation, energy policy – for example, are all still mostly matters decided by state and local politics. The problem I’ve found is getting people, especially progressives, interested in those politics. That’s partly a function of their ignorance, which can be relieved, of how very much you can do there. But it’s also a function of not wanting to do the hard work of actually doing them.
MLK: How come the right doesn’t seem to have this problem, at least not in the same way?
JR: The right has a natural advantage here, especially in the exceptionally low-mobilization area that is state and local politics. Not just because it’s always got people willing to write big checks, which influence things even more at that sub-federal level than the national one. And not just because it’s always easier to tear apart a society than to build one. But also because it’s got a seemingly endless supply of people who, simply because they get satisfaction from being in charge of almost anything really, and are so worshipful of those with wealth, are delighted with the opportunity to be in charge of government, and to make it serve those people.
A big challenge for OWR will be persuading people who don’t thrill to bossing others around, and are less ridiculously worshipful of business, to step up their game and throw in to state and local politics. We think these people are around, somewhere. And we know how to make the job of doing that more rewarding and less lonesome. We can give them a cool program, and run them as teams, and provide an approving and appealing community. But they do need to step up, and I’m not sure, in the end, how many will.
MLK: This is all a nice idea but it’s certainly not a new one. What’s the rationale for doing this now?
JR: First of all, things are pretty horrible now, and if you’re not thinking about politics now, you’re probably not thinking about anything. So people are much more focused now, I think. Sanders gave us this tremendous gift of a list which identifies a starter base. And obviously what we’ve been doing as progressives hasn’t worked out so well, so maybe it’s time to try something new. I think that progressives recognize all these things. So they’re playing a bit better together. Put all that together, and I think you’ve got a rational basis for hoping that this old idea might actually take off this time. But again, what we really need is some sort of political organization that is open and porous but also focused enough that we can get our values connected somehow to power. That would focus disparate progressive energies on at least one thing that we can all agree is needed, which is a very different government than we have now, and a major and more democratic departure in policy. And for that we really need some organization.
MLK: Are you looking to replace or rule over other organizations in any way?
JR: No no no. When I look around the state at all the progressive, small-d-democratic organizations, I don’t see anything that looks like this – again, statewide, not dominated by Milwaukee or Madison, not a party, but electorally focused, with a program, that’s members-governed and directed, so not another coalition. We are independent and a non-party, but we’re doing electoral work and political work of other kinds. I don’t know of any organization in Wisconsin that is quite like that. So there’s nothing to compete with. We want the other groups to continue doing all their charitable and good work. We don’t even want their money, which is mostly foundation money. We want to work with any of them that have something to offer, and inviting all of them in, essentially offering ourselves as their electoral arm.
MLK: The connection with Sanders has some people confused around whether the door is open for members to bring forward issues and projects that Sanders didn’t focus on himself, or that weren’t the core of his campaign. Can they?
JR: Yes, of course. This thing will be up to the members. Now it’s true that we’re modeling some of what we do, particularly in messaging and program, on Bernie’s campaign. That rotated the axis of conventional political debate form left-right to top-bottom. There’s a billionaire class, and a bunch of politicians in their effective employ, that’s busy destroying democracy. And there’s the rest of us — 99 percent? 90 percent? – certainly a vast majority in any case – who need democracy for our flourishing, and maybe survival. That’s a fight we can win, so long as we’re still able to vote, and government is still decided by elections. That’s the big point of agreement with Bernie on message.
And on program, his point was to begin to restore democracy by getting big money out and people back in, with a secure and convenient vote; to de-rig the economy by removing extractive billionaire rents and getting a big middle class and better shared prosperity the measure of its success; to get some better and more efficiently supplied public goods, which means effectively free public education at all levels, not just K-12, which means real action on global warming and other pollution; which means making health care a real right; and to make people who are better off pay more for those public goods and that government. We agree with that too. That’s what Sanders was basically there to say. And he was saying: A) It’s possible. There’s lots of money in this country. We can do this. B) It’s actually more efficient. We could save money, which reduces the tax burden in doing it. C) There are a bunch of people who are making a ton of money by it not being done, and D) That’s the real fight, with them. It’s not with each other.
But in translating that to state and local politics here, all sorts of Wisconsin-specific and additional programmatic demands or suggestions are obviously needed and welcome. And the way we do that may often have differences in emphasis and even content from things he suggested in the campign. No holds are barred, as long as its credible and democratic. As Sanders would be the first to admit, he certainly didn’t close the patent house on good ideas.
Joel Rogers is the Sewell-Bascom Professor of Law, Political Science, Public Affairs, and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written several books, mainly about democracy, and has been involved in progressive politics for many years. For OWR, he currently serves on the Interim Organizing Committee, and as President of its incorporated entity, Our Wisconsin Revolution, Inc.