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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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A new approach for Democrats
The left can retake government with compromise and civility
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I was standing in the back of the room at the Majestic Theatre. It was an exciting moment in the recall election. Just days before the vote, Tom Barrett and Russ Feingold were appearing together before a jazzed crowd. Feingold gave a fiery speech and so, to the astonishment of so many people who underestimated him, did Tom Barrett.

I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, the forces of truth and justice might have a chance after all.

But as I think back about it, two things were amiss. The first was that fiery speech by Feingold. It was energetic, but most of it was about his lawyerly opinion that high crimes and misdemeanors were not a prerequisite for a recall.

I guess Russ had seen some polling because it turned out that that was a big issue for voters. Exit polls showed that 60% of voters didn't think recalls should be used in cases of disagreement on the issues.

The other thing that sticks with me is the chant. During the introductions someone started the awkward chant, "The people. United. Will never be defeated!"

Now, truth is, I've never felt comfortable chanting anything. It's one reason among many that I don't go to church. But "The people. United. Will never be defeated" always gave me an eerie feeling.

It has a militant, 1890s sort of ring to it. And anyway, it turned out to be wrong. The people were as united as they were going to be, and they sure did get defeated.

I have the same problem with the word "solidarity." Nobody I like uses that word in casual conversation. It too sounds anachronistic.

This isn't just being picky. In politics language matters, and the language of the left doesn't resonate with the broad middle that we have to convince if we are going to win some elections.

What we need to do is get out of our neighborhoods. Go to a grocery store in, I don't know, DeForest, say. And listen to how people talk at the checkout line. Then talk like that.

I can pretty much guarantee you that no one in line at the checkout in DeForest will use the word "solidarity," and nobody will mention how invincible the people will be if only they were united.

And it's not only our language that needs changing. Too many independent voters view the Democrats, my party, as nothing more than a collection of special interests. AFSCME. The teachers union. The trial lawyers. Never mind that the Republicans are just a collection of special interests with even less in common with them. Big corporations. Wall Street. Extreme social conservatives. For some reason, the Democrats get stuck with the special-interest label more than the other guys.

What's needed is a third way. Here's what it might look like:

  • It would be independently financed, so it wouldn't be beholden to any big special interest at all. As a result it would get overspent by a tsunami. But I think the left almost always overplays the role of money in politics. It sure does matter, but it's not definitive. If you can tap in on the sentiments of where most voters are at, all the money in the world isn't going to beat you.
  • It would speak the language of the middle class, the language of compromise and civility. Militant rhetoric just scares the bejesus out of people. They want to know that public officials will try to work things out in their interests. They don't care whose ideology wins and loses.
  • It would look for common ground. Most people realize taxes are necessary, but they don't want to see their money wasted. Okay, let's not waste money. Everybody wants their kids to get a great education. So let's start with the idea that education can be improved but that teachers need to be properly rewarded for the important role they play in society. Most people want more gun control, but they don't want to take away people's guns. So let's start there.

A movement, ideally within the Democratic Party, that is more reasonable than ideological and moderate in its temperament and language has a chance to retake state government sooner than you might think.

If you are a true-believer lefty, you should want this moderate third way because right now we are getting our backsides handed to us on a platter. We should have a little faith that, in the last analysis, our ideas will stand up better if we create a political environment of reasoned debate. In a scorched-earth fight we only get burned.


Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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