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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Demo Optics, Messaging Enhance Wisconsin Protests

It’s likely that we are going to see a lot more Madison-like protest demonstrations at state capitols across the U.S. Regardless of the outcome in Wisconsin, it’s fortunate that Madison is taking the lead among state capitols and providing a template for future protests in other states. Few, if any state capitols, have a more creative and energetic progressive community to show the way.
In terms of protest optics, I would give the Madison demonstrators high marks for signage that covers every angle. It might be good, however, to have more signs propagating variations on the Walker = Polarizer meme. The latest PPP poll, which I flagged yesterday, indicates that union families are now much more disposed toward dumping Governor Walker next election (2014), but there has been very little change in his image among non-union respondents. Make Walker the new poster boy for divisive, polarizing politicians at every opportunity. Same for his egocentric refusal to compromise. Ever the ambitious narcissist, Walker looks in the mirror and sees himself as Reagan 2.0, not a reasonable conservative who is willing to compromise to secure the best outcome for his constituents — which should be highlighted by the protesters.
The Madison demonstrators are making effective use of the American flag, and could even display a few more in the crowds. There’s a reason MLK always marched under the American flag. He knew his adversaries would try to portray him as somehow un-American. And when the opportunity was presented, King would leverage expressions like “the sacred heritage of our nation” to support his protests. Unlike the right wing, Progressives are often reluctant to tap the power of patriotic symbols and verbal expressions. But America is now awash in a rancid wave of neo-McCarthyism, in which every progressive reform is slimed by right-wingers as “Socialism.” The flag conveys a resonant visual impression that “We’re doing this because we’re good Americans,” and the more flags in this particular situation, the better.
Some spokespersons for the Madison protests have raised concerns about Walker’s attack as a an assault on the first amendment. While the first amendment does not explicitly reference the right of unions to organize, it comes close enough, as some constitutional scholars believe. Here’s the entire text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The 1st amendment card could be played more effectively with a little more message discipline among spokespersons. Call out Governor Walker for trying to undermine workers’ constitutional rights. Make him waste time and energy defending himself with trifling terminology arguments that most people won’t relate to. Look, for example, at the traction the NRA has gotten out of a broadly interpreted 2nd amendment, despite the fact that the founders were talking about flintlocks, not high-capacity ammo clips. Walker’s initiative to crush workers’ rights to union representation is un-American, and it should be plainly said.
MLK also used prayer creatively. In tense situations, surrounded by armed adversaries, King would sometimes call his marchers to drop down on one knee and say a prayer for justice and a peaceful outcome. A third generation preacher, King and his followers were sincere in appealing for God’s help. But he also understood the power of humility in winning support from fence-sitters and in neutralizing potential adversaries. Prayer serves protesters well.
Lastly, leaders and spokespersons for the protest should always make a point of appealing for reconciliation in public statements, as did King, so that Wisconsin citizens can live together in a new spirit of cooperation and goodwill, in stark contrast to the chaos created by Walker’s stoking the fires of anger and resentment. It’s all about sharing a more inspiring vision of hope and opportunity for all, an invitation to real community most citizens will support.

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