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!