Wisconsin | Lost & found: a hegemonic progressive narrative

Every once in a long while something comes along that inspires progressives all across the country – all at once – and that has the power to reach beyond the boundaries of our progressive circles, to break out of the cognitive boxes we’ve been placed in, and to associate fresh meanings with old labels, such as: organized labor, unions, workers’ rights, collective bargaining.

These once powerful terms and labels have been systematically slandered (negatively branded) for decades – so that too much of the public has become inoculated against them – but in Wisconsin there’s an opening to make these concepts powerful again to a new generation.

Chris Bowers spells it out at Daily Kos today:

Recent surveys from Pew and Clarus (PDF) do not give unions, in the abstract, very high marks from the public. The Clarus poll is particularly brutal. However, when the abstraction is removed and the people fighting for unions are your neighbors, your friends and your children’s teachers, then people tend to side with the union.

This point is demonstrated by the first non-partisan poll to ask Wisconsin residents what they thought of Governor Scott Walker’s controversial plan for public sector unions. According to the poll, a majority of Wisconsin residents don’t like it…

I wonder how we’ll see this moment when we look back on it five years from now.  Perhaps it will dissipate as other openings have.  But maybe not.  There’s a lot of potential here.  When we positively and popularly rebrand the core concepts and vehicles of progressive power, we accomplish many things at once.  We suddenly have a compelling solidarity-based narrative.  Such a narrative (and cognitive frame) is always available to the usual suspects, but it is rare in recent decades for it to take on a hegemonic quality in society.  Such a narrative is precisely what the Democratic Party has been so lacking these past three decades – and it is the very narrative that had awarded the party the hegemony it had enjoyed for four decades before (from FDR nearly until Reagan).  

It is a narrative that potently exposes the contradictions of a conservative coalition that is comprised of fractions that do not really make sense together.  As Tom Tomorrow tweeted today:

Just so I’m clear on this: Tea Party is siding decisively with government in its battle against middle class Americans?

Sure, the cognitive dissonance will be lost on the hard core, but social change isn’t about persuading the hardest opposition.  It’s about isolating them.  The banner of economic populism belongs to organized labor and organized civil society – not to the concoction of the so-called Tea Party.  Popular uprisings like we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Ohio – and who knows where next – take that banner back for us to wave loudly, proudly, and powerfully.  So powerfully that some Democratic politicians finally find their words and their spine, as Wisconsin has so clearly illustrated.

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