Robert Kraig leads a protest outside the Appleton office of U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble on July 30, 2012 (Courtesy of Robert Kraig)

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Rewriting the Progressive Playbook

To counter the resurgent Right, Wisconsin progressives are thinking big

BY Joel Bleifuss

Wisconsin, that one-time bastion of progressivism, is now a policy laboratory of the American Right.

Since 2011, Republicans have used their lock on the governorship and the legislature to pass right-to-work legislation, gut environmental protections and dumb down a once-vaunted education system. In 2015, the state’s GOP-dominated Supreme Court squelched a criminal inquiry into the scheme that made this possible—specifically, how at least $9.1 million in dark money from the Wisconsin Club for Growth corrupted the recall elections of six GOP state senators in 2011 and Gov. Scott Walker in 2012.

The untold millions the Koch brothers and friends funneled into Wisconsin is only part of the story. Badger state Republicans have also outsmarted their Democratic opponents.

Wisconsin progressives—and indeed, their counterparts nationwide—suffer from a “strategy gap,” says Robert Kraig.

I heard about Kraig from a friend in Madison who says that if Wisconsin is to again take up the progressive mantel, it will be thanks to the savvy of this 52-year-old organizer and writer who, prior to joining the advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin in 2009, was the political director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Wisconsin State Council.

“The public has a sense that we don’t have a vision and have nothing to offer them,” says Kraig. He cites Wisconsin’s 2014 gubernatorial race, in which the Dems’ challenger to Walker, former Trek Bike executive Mary Burke, proffered “a conservative-lite economic agenda with a handful of moderately progressive positions mixed in.” This message failed to resonate in the state’s rural counties that remain in the thrall of the Great Recession. Kraig says:

I sat in on focus groups after the election where swing voters from Northeastern and Central Wisconsin said they saw no difference between Walker’s and Burke’s economic policies. They assumed there was nothing that could really be done and that being business-friendly by lowering taxes could not hurt. The idea that state leaders could fundamentally change the economy and open opportunity did not even occur to them, even when prodded by the interviewer. But it’s not only focus groups. In our anti-poverty work, I’ve talked to some progressive church leaders and members who don’t think any big changes are possible and who revert to small things like low-level direct assistance to the poor. Getting even progressively inclined people out of this rut is a major challenge.

Kraig, who holds a Ph.D. in communication arts from the University of Wisconsin, says progressives need to get their act together. When writing the dissertation that would become his 2004 book, Woodrow Wilson and the Lost World of the Oratorical Statesman, Kraig realized that Wilson, despite his flaws, understood one vital fact: “The only force that can overcome the large vested interests that are rigging our system against average people is the power of public opinion.”

To counter the resurgent Right and its corporate backers, Kraig is leading an effort “to create realistic 10-year communication strategies … to shift the debate in our state and build support for fundamental change.” He lays out these plans on the Progress Points Message Blog, which debuted in April 2015.

His strategic thinking is informed by a social science theory known as the “three faces of power,” which he delineates this way:

  • “Face 1” has to do with near-term outcomes, such as electoral campaigns and immediate issue campaigns, particularly defensive ones.
  • “Face 2” involves capacity and infrastructure building.
  • “Face 3” focuses on the public’s worldview and how one goes about changing conventional wisdom.

According to Kraig, the organizing tactics pioneered by Saul Alinsky and now widely employed by progressive organizers build the second face to achieve first-face outcomes. The third face, however, is ignored.

“We need to operate in all three faces of power at once,” says Kraig. “This means choosing issues with public traction and the potential for short-term progress now (face 1) that we can use both to build greater capacity and power (face 2) and to shift the public’s worldview in the medium- and long-term (face 3). Many groups say they are working on issues and policies that build toward the long term, but they have not thought it through from a long-term perspective.”

As an example of a short-sighted reform, he offers the current proposals to allow students to refinance their college loans or have their debts forgiven. Though helpful in the short run, such a reform does nothing to make a college education affordable. Nor does it begin to shift public attitudes in a way that leads to the necessary structural changes, such as greater public investment in higher education and reform of the university-industrial complex.

Kraig writes on the Progress Points Message Blog that progressives need to change their narrative about how the economy works. He cites the work of communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio, who has observed that both conservatives and progressives rely on nature metaphors to explain what is happening in the economy. “The problem for progressives is that these natural processes de-people our narratives about the economy,” he writes. “A storm or a disease lacks human agency, meaning there are not people that caused it (villains) or people who can solve the problem (heroes).”

Force-of-nature tropes undercut the progressive perspective that economic problems are man-made and thus can respond to human intervention. A better metaphor is that of a moving vehicle. If it is not expertly driven, it will cause you to end up in a ditch—or dead. To wit, Kraig suggests, “We could say that Scott Walker has driven the economy into the ground by taking money out of the pockets of consumers and delivering it to large multinational corporations and the wealthy.”

The idea that progressives must up their rhetorical game is not new. UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff found fame back in 2004 with Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Lakoff created a cottage industry of political messaging, but, according to Kraig, he failed to articulate how such “framing” can be institutionalized. “The political establishment embraced Lakoff, and then when his concepts didn’t transform anything, they lost interest,” says Kraig. “These messages could build the public opinion we need if they are connected to serious long-term strategies to achieve bold and fundamental reform.”

Kraig and his allies, including representatives from the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, met in Milwaukee on Dec. 15, 2015, to begin work on a 10-year plan to reverse income inequality and eradicate poverty in Wisconsin. One of the goals discussed was to cut the child poverty rate in half (from 18 percent to 9 percent) in a way that in turn reduces race-based economic disparities by half. (Currently an African-American child is four times as likely to live in poverty as a white child.) Also being discussed are 10-year plans to eradicate hunger; raise the state’s minimum wage; create alternative unions for low-wage workers; establish a public jobs program; and abolish the current caste system in order to foster social mobility.

“Once we come to an agreement on precisely what outcomes we want to achieve,” says Kraig, “we will use the three-faces-of-power theory to decide what is achievable and then reverse-engineer a strategy—particularly a communications strategy—to get there.”

For example, if progressives are to justify substantially raising the minimum wage, they need a common sense way of talking about it that both builds strong emotional support from the progressive base and pulls the middle in their direction.

“That could be a frame built around the easily understood idea that when people have more money in their pockets to afford the basics, it helps the local economy and creates more jobs,” says Kraig, citing research on this issue by the Topos Partnership, a progressive communications firm. “This common-sense Keynesian-ism would replace the current conventional wisdom that what corporate America wants is good for the economy. This simple frame—supported by powerful social narratives and metaphors, and compellingly expressed and repeated over and over in interlocking issue campaigns—would help shift the cultural common sense about the economy.”

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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