Cap Times Idea Fest: Progressives must talk with voters where they live, panel says

By Pat Schneider, The Cap Times 

Progressives need to reach out to voters where they live to rebuild a movement that once was influential in the state and the nation, panelists said Sunday at the Cap Times Idea Fest.

That means not only going to voters in their communities, but also dropping partisan rhetoric to talk about their issues — and even incorporating progressive values into the public discourse about local issues — panelists said.

Cultivation of grassroots connection and leadership has never been more important than since the election of President Trump, they said.

Maurice Cheeks, a Madison alderman, recalled that the morning after Trump’s election in November, his mother texted him a message of hope.

“Don’t be discouraged,’ he recalled that she wrote. “People need local officials to lead now more than ever.”

Cheeks was part of a discussion entitled: “What’s next for progressives in the age of Trump?” Other panelists were; Gwen Moore, U.S. Rep. (D-Milwaukee); U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison); Matt Rothschild, executive director, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign; and state Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point). The session was moderated by John Nichols, associate editor of the Capital Times.

The panel was part of the first Cap Times Idea Fest, a series of conversations with more than 60 leaders from politics, the economy, education, journalism and culture presented Saturday and Sunday at UW-Madison.

The progressive movement, with its focus on social activism and political reform, stretches back a century in Wisconsin, Nichols noted. Born out of Republican Party, the movement by the late 1950s was the organizing force behind a resurgent Democratic Party in Wisconsin.

Progressive values still resonate today, and local government can be a voice in restoring the movement, Cheeks said.

“Democrats need to say: ‘We believe government has a responsibility to make life a little bit easier for people,’” he said.

That means making it more possible for people to take care of their families, and building cities with quality education and affordable childcare and transportation systems that let people take a job on the other side of town, Cheeks said.

Partisan divisions erode when people start telling their stories, Shankland said.

“Constituents come up to me and say: ‘I’m about to lose our house,’ or ‘I can’t find a job.’ I keep those people in my head at all times,” she said.

Not that her largely rural district in central Wisconsin hasn’t experienced the political polarization that is tearing at the nation. People told her they couldn’t put her campaign sign up on their barns because of what the neighbors would say, Shankland recalled.

The recent controversy over nearly $3 billion in state incentives to Taiwanese tech manufacturer Foxconn to build a plant in southeast Wisconsin will provide an opportunity to challenge voter support of Republican economic policies, she said. “My constituents recognize that the Foxconn deal benefits a small number of people and that their paychecks will go to pay for it.”

Her rural constituents vote conservative because they think government is not working for them and vote for the smallest government possible, she said.

 “We need to show people we can make government work for them, she said.

For Pocan and some other Democrats, bringing the progressive message to voters this year has meant hosting town hall discussions in the districts of neighboring Republican representatives.

He has been doing it on the turf of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Janesville), who has not held such a session in his home district for 690 days, Pocan said.

And as Republicans in Congress falter over how and whether to deliver on promises to repeal and replace Obamacare, voters talking about the issue in the communities hear emerging talk about “Medicare for all” and realize there is an alternative, he said.

Going out into more communities has made Pocan realize how much of the progressive activist infrastructure in the state needs to be rebuilt. “We can make this a movement not a moment, but we have to be careful how go about that.”

Rothschild said the petitions calling for fair mapping of Wisconsin political districts that he brings to the Farmers Market on the Capitol Square every Saturday used to get a couple of dozen signatures.

Since a federal court struck down the current map, drawn up in secret by Republicans in 2011, those petitions are getting a couple of hundred signatures a week, he said.

“That issue is on fire,” Rothschild said, and those who want to strike down political gerrymandering are hoping for victory before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the case next month.

Whether it’s pushing big money out of politics or snuffing out the embers of fascism fanned by Trump’s racist and nationalist rhetoric, advancing progressive causes won’t be accomplished through a 10-point plan, he said.

“We need to make relationships with people who don’t agree with us and engage in conversation,” he said.

Rothschild also called for an end to the “petty divisiveness” among progressive among Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, on social media and in social circles.

“It’s corrosive. We’ve got enough problems,” he said.

Moore echoed that sentiment, recalling how she was furious in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election with all the political blocs who didn’t do enough to elect Clinton.

“We have to forgive each other; collectively we have created the environment that gave us Donald Trump,” she said. That’s what Republicans who had turned up their noses at Trump ultimately did for self-preservation.

For progressives trying to reinvigorate a movement, it’s even more important. “Don’t make perfect the enemy of the good,” Moore counseled.