By Ruth Conniff
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It's a sore point for progressives that President Obama and the national Democratic Party turned a blind eye to Wisconsin during the massive protests against Governor Scott Walker in 2011, did not do much to help during the failed effort to recall the governor in 2012, and even now, during Walker's campaign for re-election, are biding their time waiting to see what the polls show before they get too involved.
Although Wisconsin went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and elected Tammy Baldwin--one of the most progressive members of the U.S. Senate--that same year, Democrats and many liberal pundits began writing off Wisconsin even as the battle here reached historic proportions, galvanizing citizens and making news around the world. Wisconsin suffered through an egregious round of redistricting by the Republicans who control the state legislature, has a Supreme Court that has been captured by big money, and is led by a Governor with major support from the Koch Brothers and other rightwing billionaires. Strategically, from a national perspective, it is not a safe bet. All the more reason for citizens here to feel what it happening is particularly important.
The organized forces of the right have been busy dismantling the Wisconsin's progressive tradition, its public employee unions, its model environmental protections, its open-meetings laws, and funding for its great university system, technical colleges, and public schools. Citizens are fighting in scattershot, grassroots campaigns against all of these assaults.
If ordinary people are going to overcome the organized forces of greed, they are going to need to work together to develop a smart, winning strategy.
With that in mind, last year a group of progressive activists decided they needed help getting organized.
"We thought the perfect person to talk to would be George Lakoff," says Scott Wittkopf, chair of the Forward Institute, a public policy think tank. Lakoff, author of the best-selling books Don’t Think of an Elephant!; The Political Mind; and Whose Freedom? is the nation's leading expert on linguistic "framing" in politics and on how the left can recapture the rhetorical high ground, by speaking in the emotionally resonant language of values.
Wittkopf's group, along with a handful of other environmental, labor, and civil rights organizations, including the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the Milwaukee Interfaith Coalition, teachers unions in Madison and Milwaukee, and United Wisconsin (the group that led the recall drive against Governor Walker) contacted Lakoff and began a series of trainings under his tutelage.
This weekend Lakoff, a distinguished professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, will deliver a series of public lectures, including a keynote address to the Wisconsin Grassroots Festival in Mazomanie on Saturday, March 22
"I’ve followed Wisconsin politics for many, many years, beginning in my teen years when a friend of my brother’s worked with Gaylord Nelson," Lakoff said in a phone interview from his home in California. "I was really inspired by the protest movement at the statehouse. I wrote a piece about it and apparently it was printed out and posted on the statehouse wall, which won my heart."
"So when I was approached by Scott about what could be done in Wisconsin, I said here is what the Republicans have done, It is very smart. . . .When Republicans went to college and studied business, they took a course in marketing and found out how people really think."
Pointing to all of the battles in Wisconsin, from education to voting rights to the expansion of lobbyist influence and campaign finance reform, Wittkopf says, "you have all these really core democratic issues at stake. As progressives we make this fatal mistake that each group does its own messaging . . . creating silos."
With Lakoff, the grassroots activists developed the "Wisconsin Progressive Freedom Campaign," to connect all of those issues. At two early meetings, Lakoff joined the activists on a in a video conference to talk about how they could unite around a progressive definition of freedom.
So far the activists have conducted four trainings in Western Wisconsin, the Fox Cities, Milwaukee, and Madison, building on this core notion of a definition of freedom that is not about the conservative idea of freedom, which Wittkopf describes as self-centered and serving the interests of business, but a more expansive notion of human freedom, that comes out of America's progressive roots--extending access to democracy for as many people as possible.
"We have had some little successes," says Wittkopf, who attributes "values-based messaging" to popular campaigns to pass school spending referenda in Appleton, despite a well-financed ad campaign by Americans for Prosperity, as well as organizing against sand mining and against school privatization at the state level.
Lakoff would like to see Wisconsin progressives raise enough money to set up a speakers bureau for ordinary citizens throughout the state, conduct more trainings, and solidify a single framing structure.
"You learn how to respond to conservatives, and not just to respond but to go on the offensive and get the message out in every possible way," he says. "That takes organization and will." "You never speak to conservatives using conservative language," he adds. "'The issue is jobs'—No. Freedom is an issue. Freedom from wage slavery is an example. To get that we need good paying union jobs, where you get paid fairly, and you are treated like a human being, where you get not “benefits” but health care that is part of your salary. That’s good for everybody—it’s good not to have employees that are sick, its good to have a population that is healthy . . . this is not rocket science. Everything I say is what you already know. My job is to tell you what you already know but are not saying." Wittkopf is energized by Lakoff's work in Wisconsin. "We have never had collaborative messaging before," he says. "That's where the conservatives are really beating us up." "Wisconsin is the laboratory" Wittkopf adds--for progressive politics starting a century ago, and for the rightwing takeover of civil society, which gained traction with Scott Walker's attack on public employee unions, voter I.D., the privatization of public schools, and the rest of the attacks on basic democratic freedoms. "That's why Lakoff took an interest in Wisconsin," says Wittkopf. "We are at the center of it." Plus, Wittkopf adds, "Any scientist will tell you that it is a life goal to see your work put into practice. Lakoff's work has not generally been put into practice by a lot of progressives or Democrats." That's another area where Wisconsin could lead the way, as a laboratory for resurgent progressive politics. —Ruth Conniff George Lakoff's public schedule for this weekend includes: Saturday, March 22 8:30-4:14 pm--Wisconsin Grassroots Festival at Mazomanie High School Sunday, March 23 2:30-4:30 pm--Lecture workshop at the Pyle Center 702 Langdon Street, Madison, Wisconsin Monday, March 24 7:00-9:00 pm--Lecture hosted by the Havens Center at the Memorial Union, University of Wisconsin-Madison Here is a complete schedule of George Lakoff's public events: George Lakoff Public Schedule in Madison Saturday, March 22 Wisconsin Grassroots Festival at Mazomanie High School (8:30–4:15) – Register at http://www.wisconsingrassroots.net/2014_festival - Professor Lakoff to lead two breakout sessions and give opening keynote remarks at the event. Grassroots dinner with George Lakoff at The Feed Mill restaurant in Mazomanie (5:30 – 6:00pm approximate start time) http://oldfeedmill.com/. **Reservations required through the Wisconsin Grassroots Network ($30/person, capacity is approximately 70) http://www.wisconsingrassroots.net/ Sunday, March 23 Lecture workshop, “Reframing and Reclaiming the Three ‘E’s – Economics, Education, Environment”: 2:30 – 4:30pm – Pyle Center, Vandenberg Auditorium (Rm. 121), 702 Langdon St., Madison WI (http://conferencing.uwex.edu/). Registration: http://forwardinstitutewi.org/george-lakoff-seminars-registration/ Intimate dinner reception/fundraiser with George Lakoff : 7:00pm at The Heritage Tavern, 131 E. Mifflin St, Madison and special guests WI State Reps Melissa Agard Sargent and Terese Berceau. http://www.heritagetavern.com/. $150 per person includes food and house red or white wine (cash bar available). Net proceeds used to pay Professor Lakoff’s travel expenses. Advance reservations and full payment required to secure a spot for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Reservation form at: http://forwardinstitutewi.org/george-lakoff-madison-dinner-reception-reservation-form/. Monday, March 24 Lecture workshop on organizing and communications based on framing the message. 9:30am – 11:30am - Pyle Center, Room 225, 702 Langdon St., Madison WI (http://conferencing.uwex.edu/). Session registration available at http://forwardinstitutewi.org/george-lakoff-seminars-registration/ “Neural Politics: Cognitive and Material Power” (7:00 – 9:00pm) – Lecture hosted by The Havens Center (http://www.havenscenter.org/) at the UW – Madison Memorial Union, see TITU for room number. George Lakoff’s visit is made possible by Forward Institute, Partner Organizations of the Wisconsin Progressive Freedom Campaign, and The Havens Center. Information Contact: Scott Wittkopf (608)628-8535 firstname.lastname@example.org