Our Wisconsin Revolution is a Different Twist with a Great Future

Madison       Frankly, the Bernie Sanders campaign’s successor organization, Our Revolution, has been confusing to me.  In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, its maiden voyage seemed covered with the controversy of staff hiring and firing with counterclaims roiling the organization over who and what was best able to carry forward the Sanders’ vision and program.  My conversations with Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), convinced me that his steady hand as chair of the outfit could make it interesting to watch.

The major asset of Our Revolution was the huge small donor list that had fueled the Sanders campaign sufficiently to challenge Hillary Clinton’s presumptive nomination in 2016, almost to the final weeks before her ascendancy.  Our Revolution was going to endorse a group of candidates at different levels who had either been Sanders supporters and sometimes renegades with the Democratic Party’s Clinton consensus as well as others who seemed to share the vision.  Some won.  Some lost.

Many of the other headlines around the Our Revolution program seemed to be focusing on internal fights within the Democratic Party over control and leadership positions in various states.  That strategy was confusing to me.  It seemed a fight over an empty suit that no one really wanted to wear or would look good in, particularly in the short term and without a campaign finance report.

Talking to people in Wisconsin, there seems to be something very different happening here with Our Wisconsin Revolution (OWR).   They are a separate membership organization with a c3 and c4 that is one of the very few state offshoots of the national formation.  Another fledgling effort is in Texas where Local 100 United Labor Unions has bumped into them several times.  From what I gathered, they did get the names of Wisconsin donors at their founding, but rather than assuming this could be a cash cow, they used it as an organizing tool to hold public meetings to organize OWR throughout the state.  Talking to my longtime comrade and friend, Joel Rogers, University of Wisconsin professor, who is also the OWR treasurer, he participated in a 28-city barnstorming tour in 2017 to help build the organization.  Now that’s real grassroots organizing!

The OWR program is clear from their website.  They are decidedly NOT interested in taking over the internal workings of the Democratic Party, though in terms of political and ballot activity they are promoting and endorsing candidates who are Democrats.  They are transparent and detailed in their political program and their openness with their members and the public.  They have a leadership structure that includes representatives from every one of the state’s Congressional districts.

It’s an all-volunteer army, as so many of the most important base-building developments around the country are now, but it has big time ambitions.  Obviously, the organization is just in its early days, so no one can guarantee its future, but this is an organization that clearly is being tailored for a different kind of outfit.  This is a potential statewide party in the making.

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Wisconsin Midterm Aftermath

Madison      After a grueling day as a weather warrior, I made it to Madison in time to talk with a diverse group pulled together by the University of Wisconsin – Havens Center.  As always, the dialogue was educational at least for me.

There was quite a bit of excitement coupled with some exhaustion in the wake of the midterms, especially the defeat of Governor Scott Walker, who had moved a state once heralded as the paragon of progressivism to its antithesis. His attacks on workers and the poor were cataclysmic and in a bygone time had been so widely heralded by the right that he was seen as a credible Republican presidential candidate until he joined the long list of presumptive candidates overwhelmed by Trump in the 2016 primaries.

In Madison particularly, the effort seems to have been phenomenally successfully.  Coupled with same day registration 92.5% of those eligible to vote, did so.  These are the kinds of numbers we associated with voting percentages in the old Soviet bloc, not in medium sized cities of America or anywhere else.

One issue that kept coming up was gerrymandering.  In the state legislative house districts, almost 1.3 million voters statewide had voted Democrat, but they only garnered a little more than one-third of the actual seats.  Thirty-five to be exact, where only a bit over 1.1 million Republican votes were sufficient to win two-thirds of the seats or 64 in total!   It’s hard to argue that there isn’t a problem there.

Equally interesting to me were some of the other questions about ACORN, organizing, social change and more.  A standard question anywhere near a campus these days has to do with the growth of the DSA, Democratic Socialists of America.  They have a vibrant youth chapter in Madison that was particularly active and effective in the midterms, and several of their lead organizers were in the room.  In some ways, this is unsurprising.  A recent survey report indicated that among millennial men, 40% identify as socialists or democratic socialists, as do 20% of millennial women.  Those are serious numbers.

There was a unique question about leadership styles.  The leadership question focused on the value of charisma and whether or not where that existed within an organization it posed a danger to accountability and other voices.  It’s funny.  Reading about Michael B. Jordan, the hot as fire contemporary movie actor, we expect to see charisma discussed as part of market commodification.  A generation ago in the days of Camelot and elsewhere it was virtually a political prerequisite.  Interestingly, in an organizational context, perhaps in the aftermath of Occupy and arguments for less hierarchical structures, charisma is being viewed with less of a welcome mat and with more warning signals.

Another interesting question looked at the pros and cons of centralization.  That one was easier to answer within an organizational context.  As long as resources are scarce, social change and organizing are contentious, and achieving scale is critical, it is really impossible to avoid a relatively high degree of centralization.  The same answer might have been sufficient on the question of sustainability.  Without some centralization and effective delegation and commitment, sustaining the organization as well as the organizers is nearly impossible.

People are doing important work in Wisconsin.  They realize this is now a key battleground, and they are suiting up for the fight.  Thank goodness!

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