By Mark L. Taylor
The Commoner Call (3/27/17)
Given the steady flow of sludge from the Trump White House and usual flow of delusion and deceit from deep inside Scotty “Bucky Weasel” Walker’s fur-lined burrow a fella’ needs to spend some time with friends when he can and this past Saturday somewhere north of 200-plus progressive friends journeyed to Mazomanie for the 9th Annual Wisconsin Grass Roots Festival. The annual event is put on by Wisconsin Grassroots Network. WGN Nate Tim and a small army of local volunteers always put on a hell of a gathering. Folks from all across the southern part of the state traveled to Wisconsin Heights High School. While ALEC and the Koch brothers like to meet with their billionaire buddies in Palm Springs and remote luxury ranches, Wisconsin progressives prefer a public school – the incubator of community democracy.
There were a number of good break out session throughout the day. The following are just a few of the observations from my reporter’s notebook of the day’s event:
The day began with a short talk by University of Wisconsin professor Katherine Cramer Ph.D, a scholar who turned out to be in the right time with the right book. Published in 2016, her book “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker” was perfectly timed for the earthquake that rattled the nation in November. Cramer spent several years meeting with rural residents around the state in gas stations and restaurants and listened – really listened – to what discontented and disconnected rural voters were saying, feeling and worrying about.
“My time with these folks has been absolutely delightful,” Cramer said, noting that the theme she heard over and over from rural Wisconsin was that they were being left behind by state leaders and corporations; that theirs was a world of diminishing opportunities, services, resources and basic respect from those running the show.
She said that in the midst of almost depression level economic distress, rural folks told her, “We are trying to do this the best we can and no one pays attention.”
A common feeling among the folks she met with was that nobody making decisions really knows – much cares a cow pie – about those rural communities.
State Sen. Kathleen Vineout gave another one of her usual high octane, fact-loaded presentations. Vineout is one of those rare individuals who can take statistics and make them sing with insight. She began her comments noting that until last November’s Trump victory only 22,000 votes determined Wisconsin’s three previous democratic presidential votes. Vineout noted, “We are not a blue state, we are a swing state.”
While there has been much justified focus on the large rural Trump vote, Vineout pointed out that if Hillary Clinton had gotten the normal dem vote out of Milwaukee, the Fox Valley or Central Wisconsin (she didn’t need to win them all) she would have won Wisconsin.
Based upon the November vote totals Vineout had a stern message for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and progressives all across Badger Land: “The numbers tell us we have to compete all across Wisconsin. No matter where you live in Wisconsin there is work to be done. .. If we want to win we have to generate ideas that resonate all over the state.”
The needs of state residents are many and we need to focus, Vineout noted, on the common good and things like decent paying jobs, rural broadband necessary for rural business development and farms, roads and transportation, health care and supporting local public schools. She challenged the gathering of activists to work locally, get involved in community organizations and volunteer work and know that we all have to practice “365 day-a-year activism”.
The Raging Grannies provided some tart commentary with their pointed versions of old singalong standards. Don’t estimate the ability of this group of grannies to go toe-toe-toe with anyone the right wants to put up. (Commoner Call photo, 2017.)
Journalist John Nichols pulled no punches when talking about the failure of the Rethuglicans or, for that matter, the Democratic Party – “Or, as I like to say, ‘Who’?”, Nichols deadpanned..
Last week’s collapse of Trump and Ryan’s tax giveaway scheme for the wealthy, dressed up to masquerade as a health care program, shows that the GOP simply can’t govern. After seven years of whining, railing and voting something like 60 times against Obamacare Paul Ryan and and his Ayn Rand cult members had diddly-squat on how to replace Obamacare. In fact, beyond shoveling more of the nation’s wealth to the rapaciously indolent billionaire class the republicans have no idea what to do to meet the needs of average Americans.
“They failed,” Nichols thundered. “Healthcare is not a privilege for the wealthy. It is a right of every human being!”
While the challenges of the current moment are many and deep, Nichols also pointed out that the future is full of challenge. Automation, he noted, will soon devastate whole fields of family-supporting employment. More driverless cars … and trucks … and even fork lifts … will translate into fewer and fewer truck drivers, cab drivers and heavy equipment operators. The accelerating pace of digital technology will subtract millions of jobs from banks and stores not in some far away future but within the next ten years.
But, Nichols, notes, neither party has a plan to ease the transition and meet the needs of a growing underemployed workforce.
In the last election, Nichols said, “The Democratic party failed at every turn to talk about the future.”
One candidate, Nichols, noted – Bernie Sanders – did talk about the future and plans for universal health care and free public college education to prepare people for the coming changes. And we all know what the DNC did to Bernie.
While the challenges now and in the future are many Nichols has no time for whining and throwing in the towel.
“Where are we at? We get to resist!,” Nichols said with a wave of his hands to a noisy gym full of people. “I love that. Again and again, this presidency has failed because there has been resistance. Brothers and sisters, we live in glorious times. Build a resistance bigger than their cruelty.”
Katherine Crane of UW-Madison, Mike McCabe of Blue Jean Nation and Scott Wittkopf of Frame for the Future held an afternoon standing room only workshop on how to connect and communicate with our communities.
Just a few observations from that discussion:
Mike McCabe challenged activists to get beyond the usual Democratic party one-size-fits-all approach to campaigning of throwing facts out, thinking that facts alone – and the more the better – will overwhelm Fox “News” disinformation and republican BS. McCabe noted that without some form and connection of relationship all the facts in the world will be lost in the flurry. “If people don’t trust you they will reject all those facts and go on believing what they believe,” McCabe said.”People don’t care how much you know if they don’t think you care.”
It’s a case of killing the message because of the messenger. There are plenty of failed democratic candidates who can tell that tale.
McCabe also challenged we gray heads in the crowd who are always wondering “where are the young people?” at progressive gatherings.
“You gotta’ go to them”Mike noted.
Hmm, now there’s an idea, eh?
Katherine Cramer shared some of her experiences of going back two or three times to meet with the same groups of rural residents she interviewed for her book “Politics of Resentment” to better understand and deeply hear their stories. Her experience underscored the importance of time and face-to-face conversation. Social media, online interviewing, questionaries, focus groups and Skype will never take the place of having conversation about deeply personal concerns over a hot cup of coffee in a cross roads diner on a cold morning, Cramer advised. That can work for both researchers and community activists.
Scott Wittkopf spoke of the importance of connecting with people on shared values, not issues and – God forbid – facts. Progressive need to listen carefully and then speak of a positive vision of the future; a vision that responds to the needs and values of people and communities in need.
“Without caring for others,” Wittkopf noted. “There is no democracy.”
Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, was the final speaker of the day and was also the speaker at an evening gathering at the Old Feed Mill Restaurant in Mazomanie that evening. The Madison-based CMD has done a lot of bold, ground breaking work over the past few years and her topic reflected that approach: “The Radical Act of Telling the Truth in an Era of Fake News”.
As the daughter of refugees of two different communist revolutions, Graves readily admits she takes what is happening in the Trump administration both politically serious and personally threatening.
“There is very little he won’t do, “Graves said. “This is the biggest crisis this country has ever faced.
“We have to punish every single Republican and any democrat that goes along with this man.”
The good news is that what is needed is beginning to happen and that is a movement of resistance.
“A movement is different than a [political] party. A movement transcends party,” Graves said. “This movement that has been unleashed is just magnificent. …The reality we have to face is this is a long really long race.”
It is a race greater than a single election cycle or a single candidate or ballot initiative. While the challenges are many, the evidence of a spreading resistance is encouraging.
“Even in the midst of the cataclysm of 2016, good things are happening,” Graves observed.
The quote of the day went to a member of the Menomonee and Potawatomi tribes who announced to the Saturday evening dinner gathering:
“Welcome to my country.”