“Let’s Give the Pendulum a Shove”

By Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

April 13, 2015

(This was the prepared text of the talk that Rothschild gave on Saturday, April 11, in Milltown, Wisconsin, at the Jefferson-La Follette-Dueholm Dinner.)

I’d like to thank Jeff Peterson for asking me to speak here, and for the Polk County and Burnett County Democrats for inviting me.

It’s great to see a few old friends, and I especially want to salute Bonnie Urfer, who used to work with me back at The Progressive 30 years ago and then went to Nukewatch, and occasionally to jail, in the cause of peace. She’s now earned her retirement, and I just wish I’d made it up here for her retirement party, but I try not to drive this far north in the wintertime.

I did have a beautiful drive up from Madison, today, though, and I saw lots of turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, sparrow hawks, and one bald eagle.

I’ve got to confess at the outset that I’m not a card-carrying Democrat, but I am a firm believer in democracy, and our democracy is in deep trouble in this country, and it’s in deep trouble right here in Wisconsin.

It’s in trouble because of what Thomas Jefferson warned us about 200 years ago when he said: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations.”

Well, he and our other Founders didn’t succeed at that, and the monied corporations are no longer in their birth. They’re fully grown now into monsters, and they are devouring our democracy.

Fighting Bob La Follette fought his whole life against the monied corporations, and that’s the crucial fight of our day, as well.

Wisconsin used to be the laboratory of democracy. Now we’re the laboratory of plutocracy.

Just listen again to that phony phone call to Scott Walker from the reporter who pretended to be one of the Koch Brothers. The transcript of that call should be studied in every high school civics class in the country because it shows so clearly what many of our elected officials have become: mere water boys for their wealthiest contributors.

You know, I never thought things could go so far backward so fast here in Wisconsin.

The forces that are in power today are against everything good and decent about this state.

They’re trying to roll back not just the Great Society, and not just the New Deal, but the entire panoply of Progressive Era reforms that La Follette enshrined.

We’re in the midst of a counterrevolution--nothing less than that--and they’re trying to turn the clock back more than 100 years.

Why?

Because they don’t want a single thing to stand between a corporation and its ability to grab as much profit as it possibly can, no matter the cost to the worker, no matter the cost to the environment, no matter the cost to the society.

That’s why they’re against unions.

That’s why they’re against government regulations.

That’s why they’re against environmental protections.

And isn’t outrageous that the state treasurer of Wisconsin and the state attorney general just this week told Tia Nelson, the daughter of Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was the father of Earth Day, that she, in her position as executive secretary of the Public Lands Commission, was not allowed to utter the words “global warming”?!?

These people don’t believe in science.

These people don’t believe in free speech.

These people don’t believe in democracy.

And these people don’t care about our world.

They have no positive concept of community, the common good, the common wealth, or the time-tested idea of working together to promote the general welfare.

In fact, they despise anything public: from public education to our public lands and even our public state parks, which incredibly they want to defund.

I believe they’ve gone way too far on this.

We like our public parks! It’s where we go to camp and swim and ski and fish and hunt and birdwatch and snowmobile.

We like our public schools!

The public school is the center of our communities. It’s where we come together.

And we like the teachers we had in public school, and the teachers our kids have.

We also like the University of Wisconsin, whether it’s in Madison or La Crosse or Eau Claire or Superior or Green Bay or Oshkosh or Milwaukee or Whitewater. And Scott Walker is hell-bent on destroying this public good, too.

And he’s a genius at exploiting resentments. It’s amazing that he’s somehow made teachers the enemy, teachers who have to bear the weight of all our social problems on their shoulders.

Walker knows that people’s wages have stagnated or fallen, so he tells those who are just one rung below teachers that teachers don’t deserve decent wages or health care. In this way, he distracts attention away from the people who are at the top of the ladder and who are preventing everybody from moving up. He plays this like a fiddle.

There will be, and I can already sense it, a turning away from the monied corporations and this politics of privatization: this politics of greed, selfishness, callousness, and the currying of resentment.

We’re better than that, here in Wisconsin. This is not who we are.

But I don’t believe in waiting for the pendulum to swing back. I believe in pushing the pendulum. I want to give it a big, fat shove!

Here are three things we, who believe in democracy and the common good, need to do to send that pendulum back our way:

1. We need to change the way we talk.

Yesterday, I was at a workshop about messaging that the great cognitive scientist George Lakoff was putting on. And he pointed out that there are millions of Americans who are partially progressive and partially reactionary, and we need to figure out how to appeal to their progressive side. We shouldn’t repeat the language or regurgitate the metaphors of those who are hostile to democracy; that’s falling into a trap, he said.

Here’s an example, which has always stuck in my throat, and that’s the word “entitlements.” We shouldn’t use the word “entitlements.” That makes us sound like spoiled little kids when all we’re demanding is what we’ve earned already: our pensions from work, which are nothing but deferred compensation, and our Social Security, which we’ve been paying into all along. Any cuts to pensions or Social Security is theft, he said, and we should call it out as such. So the next time you hear a politician advocating such a thing, you should say, “Stop, thief!”

Lakoff reminded us that you don’t persuade people on the basis of facts; if you could, Fox News would be out of business. No, you persuade people by appealing to their higher moral values and by fitting your politics into their framework of understanding the world. Otherwise, they will simply push away the facts they don’t like. That’s how our mind works.

We’re in a battle of competing moralities and clashing definitions. The anti-democratic forces believe that “freedom” means only “Don’t Tread on Me” or, in more contemporary lingo, “Leave me the F alone.”

But we who believe in democracy believe that “freedom” is much more than that: That you can’t be truly free unless you have freedom from want, as FDR so famously put it. You can’t be truly free unless you have an education that can give you opportunity. You can’t be truly free unless you have a union; otherwise you’re spending eight hours a day living in a dictatorship.

2. We need to change who we talk to.

We must learn to talk to people who don’t agree with us: Not the diehard Fox News, Rush Limbaugh devotee, who spits at liberals and progressives. But we need to talk to people who are decent and have a somewhat open mind. As Lakoff pointed out, there are millions and millions of Americans who have a split worldview. We need to appeal to that pro-democracy part of their brain and not write them off entirely.

It’s about talking face to face in our neighborhoods and our offices and our places of worship with people who don’t already agree with us.

You know, on the near west side of Madison or on the isthmus, it’s possible never to bump into someone who doesn’t agree with you.

We can listen to Democracy Now in the morning. We can talk to our progressive colleagues at work. We can read The Nation and The Progressive at break time. We can watch MSNBC when we get home. And then we can get on Facebook with all our progressive friends.

But that’s not healthy. It doesn’t challenge us mentally. It doesn’t build empathy. And it doesn’t advance the cause of democracy.

3. And we need to change how we campaign.

It’s not about raising scads of money to produce the slickest TV ad, or to put together the perfect focus group. It’s about building a massive, grassroots movement.

And we had a taste of that, for a great, shining moment, back in 2011, during the uprising over Act 10, which was the most exhilarating political experience I’ve had in my 40 years of political activism. Spontaneously, people rose up, first by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands, and then by more than 100,000 as folks poured into Madison and streamed up E. Washington Avenue to the capitol, day in and day out. It wasn’t just teachers and AFSCME members. People from every occupation were there: The carpenters were there; the electricians were there; the Teamsters were there with their 18-wheelers; the farmers were there with their tractors. There was real solidarity going on—it wasn’t just an old, musty labor song. It was a living, breathing thing!

And people organized beautifully during the recall effort against Scott Walker, getting almost 1 million signatures. I remember being at the Government Accountability Board when box after box full of signed petitions came in from every single county in the state: From Douglas County to Kenosha. And it’s hard to get people to sign petitions; I used to try, back in the day. Here you had determined, committed people in each county circulating petitions to their neighbors, friends, colleagues and fellow residents.

And I just wonder: Did the state Democratic Party make the best use of these petition circulators and the petition signers? You would know better than I. But it was an organizer’s dream to have all this in place, and we need to put something like it back in place.

The good news is that a similar grassroots effort is happening around Wisconsin (and around the country) to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the horrible Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and to say, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money is not speech.

That decision said corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect this candidate or defeat that candidate. And it contained the two most naïve statements ever written in a Supreme Court decision:

Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

And “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

What planet were those five justices living on when they came up with those whoppers?

Fortunately, people right here in Wisconsin haven’t fallen for them.

In 57 villages, towns, cities, and counties all across this state (and three were added just this week), the people or their representatives have voted by overwhelming margins in favor of such an amendment.

In Eau Clair County, 70 percent of the people approved of such a referendum on Nov. 6, 2012.

In Chippewa County, 68 percent of the voters approved it on April 2, 2013.

And I Douglas County, the board of supervisors unanimously approved it on June 20, 2013.

This, to me, is a very hopeful sign.

And there are other hopeful signs. I’ll just briefly mention a couple.

First, the nationwide campaign for a living wage of $15 an hour has caught fire. It’s already passed in Seattle, and it’s forced WalMart and McDonald’s to raise their wages—not to $15 an hour yet—but still it’s having a direct effect.

Second, the Black Lives Matter movement—the focusing of attention on the appalling violence that some police officers use, especially on black males—is energizing a new generation of activists, who are demanding equal justice under the law.

And on a personal note, in the last few months, since getting my new job at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, I’ve become aware of something amazing here in our state:

The pro-democracy nonprofit sector has never been as united as it is today: environmental groups, labor groups, civil liberties groups, civil rights groups, voting rights groups, prison reform groups, education groups, women’s groups, LGBT groups, immigration groups: we’re all rowing in the same direction.

We’ve put aside our egos. We’ve shelved our petty differences. We’ve torn down our silos, and we’re working together as never before.

It’s about time.

Together, all the pro-democracy forces in this state, along with the majority of Wisconsinites, who are decent, caring, and well-meaning people, can regain the upper hand from the aristocracy of the monied corporations and those who seek to divide and conquer people with the crudest of means and the vilest of intentions.

Together, Wisconsin can become Wisconsin again.

But we’ve got to give that pendulum a shove.

As Fighting Bob La Follette put it 100 years ago, “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

We need more democracy, now, in this country.

And we need more democracy, now, right here in Wisconsin.

So let’s go get it. Let’s give that pendulum a big, Badger shove.

WDC Executive Director Matthew Rothschild
Matthew Rothschild
WDC Executive Director

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